Introduction to assistance to the sick, dying and condemned (1589-1646)








A work of

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

From I Frati Cappuccini, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia 1991, III/2 pp 3411-3448.

Table of Contents


Providing assistance to those in distress, the sick, the dying and to those condemned to death is a very important characteristic of the “culture” of mercy and compassion that was typical of the historical and spiritual image of the Capuchins. It was also a manifestation of their assessment of the mystery of death as part of the personal and social life of mankind.

All of the friars, whether they were lay brothers or priests and preachers took part in this work that was obligatory according to the Franciscan Rule. In fact, St Francis had dedicated an entire chapter of the Regola non bollata to the “sick friars”, a matter that had been mentioned in brief in the Rule [Regola bollata]. He recommended that “If any of the brothers fall ill, wherever he may be, the other brothers should not leave him behind unless one of the brothers, or several of them, if that be necessary, are assigned to serve him as they would wish to be served themselves.”[1] After emphasising maternal love among the brothers, the Regola bollata repeats the injunction that “if one of them falls sick the other brothers should serve him as they would wish to be served themselves.”[2]

For Francis the love of the sick should be genuine and sincere: “Blessed be the servant who would love his brother as much when he is sick and cannot repay him as he would when he is well and can repay him.”[3] Something that happened to the Poverello himself became an inspiration for the early Capuchins to follow. In fact, Francis of Assisi said in his Testament when he was looking back over his life of penance as a religious who was consecrated to God, and as a founder, and applying this to his disciples, that the first steps that he had taken on this journey of faith took him among lepers, and he let God lead him among them and show mercy to them.[4] He advised the brothers, out of love for Christ, that wherever they found them they should show care for lepers and go to their homes.[5]

From the very beginning the Capuchins adopted the ministry of mercy, within the cloister for the sick brothers, and then in creating a veritable charitable organisation for caring for the sick,[6] outside the friary among the people, either in their homes, in hospitals or in leprosaria.[7] It can be stated with certainty that their primary apostolic activity, after preaching, was the care of those struck by the plague and those who were incurable. P. Tacchi Ventur said “the first venture leading up to the founding of Orders which adopted care of the sick as their main work was made by the Capuchins at the beginning of their holy reform.”[8] The example that the Poverello had set and which was followed by Matteo da Bascio and Lodovico da Fossombrone in 1528 became law in the early Constitutions of 1536.[9] It developed into being the activity that was characteristic of the Capuchin friars during the plague in Europe during the sixteenth century. For the present we shall pass over service to those suffering from the plague as it will be treated in a special chapter of our collection of findings.[10]

Here, by means of comprehensive documentation that is not well-known, we shall deal with what was done in this ministry to assist and comfort those who were seriously ill, those who were dying and in their last agony and those who had been condemned to death. As we shall see, the “system” was simple but effective. It involved using words of encouragement and hope and in offering up prayers. The Capuchins turned out to be very competent and some wrote works on how to help those who were suffering. There are works that were composed in the second half of the sixteenth century, and even more important works that date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We will use the oldest of these works. We want to review and recover this special literature in the certainty of rediscovering at least part of the apostolic ardour and the sweetness of the physical and spiritual compassion that characterised the Capuchins in those days.[11]

We have chosen some texts that were printed between 1589 and 1646. Many writings that are longer and more detailed appeared in the second half of the seventeenth century and the next century, but they do not add anything to the portrait of the method of the pastoral care of the sick, the dying and those condemned to death. The examination of the first printed works on this subject is more than enough to show the significance and value of such literature. In order to proceed with order and to divide the material in a better way, we shall begin with the literature that deals with those who are dying and in their last agony and then go on to consider the ministry of comforting and assisting those condemned to death.


We shall place this aspect of the Capuchin apostolate within the context of the history of the first ten years of the reform taking the facts from both the historians and statements in the sermons of the early preachers.

1. Some of the facts that emerge from the historical accounts and early Capuchin preachers

Even a quick glance through the writings of the historians reveals the concept that at the time of death a dramatic struggle takes place between good and evil, during which the devil tries to promote his “final temptations” with dangerous persistence and where the splendour of a virtuous life shines very clearly. Death becomes the clearest mirror of life revealing the hidden holiness of life and the judgement that comes before the final judgement. Something takes place within the room which those standing around cannot see. It is seen only by the one who is dying. Supernatural beings invade the room and stand before the patient. The Most Holy Trinity, the Virgin, the heavenly choirs and the saints are on one side. Satan and his monstrous demons are on the other side. God tests his faithful servant and assists him in the final struggle. The person who is dying sees his whole life with terrifying clarity and is tempted in many ways, especially by despair or by vain glory. The image is the traditional image that is associated with medieval spirituality.[12]

The request to have a “faithful friend” in attendance at the close of life was insisted upon in the Artes moriendi which appeared during the second half of the sixteenth century and which continued to be used over the next two hundred years. The “faithful friend” was supposed to restrain himself from giving the dying person any hope of the possibility of being cured so that the advantages of passing over could be appreciated and both would be convinced that salus hominis in fine consistit (a person’s salvation was achieved when he died). A happy death was part of an honest life and it was a joyful event, whereas the death of a sinner was by definition something that was sad. The rites performed were inclusive. The Church had a place to play at the time of death. However, anxiety about being saved remained and this was one of the consequences that came from Protestant spirituality. The solemnities associated with dying took on a dramatic character and were filled with a kind of emotion that had not been there in the preceding centuries. The role of the dying person was emphasised in the ceremonies surrounding his death. He was at the centre of the action, he took precedence by accepting it willingly.[13]

It is useful to compare the accounts of the deaths of friars in the ancient Capuchin chronicles. There we discover an environment of prayer,[14] “contrition”, devotion, repentance and confession, struggle against the devil, peacefulness, despair, temptation, challenge, anxiety and fear followed by tranquillity, caution, joy, visions, prayer, smiling, love and contemplation.[15] The catchphrase that the person who is dying “has received all of the very holy Sacraments” is repeated continually. It described the situation of a person who was seriously ill and near death and therefore close to either being saved or being lost and the efforts of the friar who was assisting him being concerned to help him with tender care by accompanying his passing by supporting him primarily with spiritual and sacramental resources. This approach not only reflects what was traditional in the late Middle Ages, but also, indirectly, the disturbance caused by the Protestant reform and the pastoral response of giving priority to the salus animarum.

We can also look at what the early Capuchin preachers often had to say about death and offering assistance to the dying. In a passage in his Dialoghi, Bernardino Ochino painted this picture. “In his absence Christ wanted sweet words to be said to those who were ill and those who were dying. Like Christ, we also find ourselves on the cross, along with those being put to death and in between two thieves, that is those who are good and those who are evil. Many times, relatives are standing around like real thieves waiting for the pickings and not caring about the soul of the one who is dying.”[16] Because of this he requested those who took part in the Forty Hours Devotions to assume responsibility for providing assistance to “poor sick people”.[17] Elsewhere he speaks about death as being the hour of truth and social equality.[18] Along with other resources that preserve the grace of Easter, he advises people to “bring to mind the memory of death.”[19] He gave the example of a person who was dying and was in despair … “about what he had done” but “was saved because he had lively faith.”[20]

In his sermons Girolamo de Pistoia also spoke about death, about the sick person who repented, about the difficulty of being converted “on the gallows.”[21] Giacinto da Casale suggested meditating on death and cultivating an image of the last hours before death.[22] He recommended “becoming familiar with what usually happened during such a dangerous voyage.” We might have given many more examples.

2. The first Capuchin writings on the topic of this apostolate

1) The “Avvertimenti’ by Gregorio da Napoli

The few facts that we find in early Capuchin chronicles, in texts of sermons and spiritual books,[23] receive a more systematic and coherent treatment in some of the works that specifically deal with assistance to the sick, the dying and those in their last agony.

The first, in chronological order, was written by Gregorio da Napoli (doc. 1). It is not an original treatise. The author himself admits that that it was taken from the Doctrina moriendi by the theologian and humanist Josse Clicthove (+ 1543) and printed for the first time in Paris in 1520.

a) A random collection taken from the “Doctrina moriendi” by J. Clicthove

This work was written to combat certain wide-ranging misguided beliefs that maintained that it was a sign of weakness to send for the priest too early in the illness because this provoked fear, when it was enough to call him at the last moment. This theologian argued against this, quoting texts from “experts” in the traditional way. He also made use of non-Christian sources while completely avoiding medieval authors. He took the statement that death was not a thing to be afraid of from St John Capistrano, St Ambrose and Cicero. He said that the norm for living a good life consisted in living a virtuous life in the fear of God and in the observance of the commandments. The second and longer part of this work was dedicated to the temptations of the devil that tormented the person who was dying. They were dangerous but could be avoided or rendered harmless by living a holy life and he proposed the best way to repulse them. As A. Tenenti said, what is interesting in the writing of Clicthove is “the reaffirmation of the meaning of the art of dying which up to that time had considered life as being filled with the anxiety of the last agony and physical deterioration, with the aim of creating a sense of sterility around these experiences to make us see the vanity of earthly existence. Instead of this, Clicthove emphasised moral fortitude and the continuous and daily practice of Christian faith […]. The basic principle in his Doctrina moriendi is belief that the continual practice of virtue and gradual familiarity with having to pass over will mean victory for the faithful soul when it overcomes the final battle. This is nothing more than tranquille et placide moriendum (dying peacefully and calmly)”.[24]

Making free use of the way the story had been set out in this work, Gregorio da Napoli presented the topic in a profoundly changed situation. In fact, in the final years of the sixteenth century a new way of providing assistance to the sick had developed because of the founding of congregations that were specifically designed to provide this service. This influenced other fraternities. In addition to being concerned about the salvation of souls, they exercised greater compassion for those in their last agony. To give just one example from many possible examples: Arcangelo Caprona da Palermo (+ 1577), who was a Capuchin, founded a confraternity in the city of Trapani to care for those who were dying in the hospital and obliged the members to pray for them after they had died.[25] Some ten years later, in 1626, Giacinto da Casale created the archconfraternity of the Passion of the Lord in Naples to support for poor people who were dying and those in their last agony throughout the entire world by means of “special groups”.[26] We could mention many other similar confraternities.

Gregorio da Napoli envisioned that “when the friars were called to visit a person who was sick they would briefly mention some points that were taken from Sacred Scripture and, by using suitable words, would dwell on these points to console and promote the salvation of the person who was sick” (n. 6989). It was like providing a commentary on Scripture that would form the basis of thoughts in the sick person or the one going through his last agony and free him from all anxiety and prepare him for his “passing”.

b) Some of the most important themes

First of all, it was important to make those who were wealthy, those “who were officials of the ministry of justice”, “barons”, “public officials”, “prelates”, those who were “masters in charge of vassals” acknowledge their obligation to make restitution of what they had stolen. This was something that was very important to Gregorio da Napoli and something that he often repeated that came from a notion of social justice that was uncommon in those days. This was meant to prepare the one who was dying “to face God at the time of his personal judgement at the moment of his death” (n. 7000).

Another point that was stressed was in regard to certain superstitious expectations of those who instead of relying on the word of God, placed their faith in “certain false claims that were being made in some prayers which promised the dying person to win gold and then gave him nothing. They said that whoever prayed the prayer before the Crucifix, or addressed it to the Virgin Mary, or to some nominated Saint would not suffer a sudden death. This is a diabolical trick” (n. 7001). Instead, as the holy Fathers say, we should not be afraid of death, even though the time is uncertain and we have to be prepared.

To prepare for death with prayer, a virtuous life and thoughts of welcome will make it pleasant even if it is sudden. Otherwise, death will be frightening. The author provided some evidence on this subject taken from the personal experiences of his brothers, who, while attending to sick lay people, had seen devils in the form of “black pigs with their mouths open” or “ugly black Ethiopians” who were writing down their life of sins in “very horrible writing”. Gregorio da Napoli says that “from experiences like these I learnt more about myself from trustworthy friars” (n. 7005). Consequently, it is necessary that the sick person makes his confession as soon as possible, without waiting until the last moment, when there is a danger that he might become unconscious and no longer be able “to go to confession”.

This concern about receiving the Sacraments as soon as possible was also recommended in the canonical practice of the day. In February 1566 Pius V reminded doctors once again of the obligation of those who were ill to go to confession. Innocent III had already done this. The Pontiff laid down that in addition to being disgraced, those who did not do this could have the title of doctor removed and have to pay a fine. In 1581 Gregory XIII said the same thing forbidding doctors to practice medicine if the person who was ill had not been to confession after three days and he told the sick person to have himself attended to by doctors who were infidels (n. 7008).[27]

When the sick person had put his soul right by going to confession, he ought to be exhorted to make his will in a way that provides for what was just. Here Gregorio da Napoli deals with the many temptations that can trouble a person at the hour of death because “the ancient enemy is much more attentive at the moment of death than during the whole of a person’s life” (n. 7010).

c) The temptations of the person who is dying

The first “dangerous temptation” is to make the sick person experience “sadness and melancholy,” especially if he is in “the bloom of childhood or youth”. Therefore, it is necessary to use various arguments to persuade the patient to experience just the opposite by presenting him with the example of the holy martyrs. The next “cunning trick” of the devil is to make the person feel impatient about the physical sufferings that lead up to death. The patient ought to arm himself with patience following the example of the holy martyrs and Job. The third temptation consists in a “secret sadness and melancholy” about the possessions and physical pleasures that the sick person is leaving behind him. He should not be upset because the Divine Benefactor is about to return to him the garment that he lent him, that is his body, and the possessions that he had just so he use them for his work. He ought to arm himself with virtue rather than the external things that he has to leave behind.

The fourth temptation is more dangerous and contrary to the faith because it gives rise to doubts by the use of “sophisticated arguments”. The “valiant and strong Christian” should not struggle with these insidious arguments concerning “the hidden mysteries of religion”, but publicly profess his faith by reciting the short form of the Credo. In this we see a reaction to Protestant spirituality that raised doubts about predestination and foreknowledge, that caused disturbing spiritual anxiety with regard to eternal salvation. However, whoever “lives the faith with simplicity” will not be bothered by such things but will only be concerned with what he held dear during his lifetime. Here is a valuable pastoral note. “When you are with the dying never talk about wealth, beauty, knowledge, honours, children or relatives in order not to give the devil, who is there, the chance to torment the person who is dying with any of those things. Talk only about God’s mercy and about dying in God’s grace.” (n. 7024)

The fourth temptation is that of despair. This should be combatted “by the consideration of the infinite magnificence of God’s mercy, which is a vast unbounded ocean […] an immense fountain of the sweetest water.” Gregorio da Napoli exclaims: “I beg of you to jump into this spring and wash the person who is being persecuted to make him experience despair by dogs from hell.” (n. 7926).

If these temptations against the faith and God’s mercy fail, the devil will have recourse to another temptation to attack the person who is dying by bringing up “the strong wind of pride”, by drawing the person into trusting in his own good works. It will not take much to counteract this if the person arms himself with the fear of God, the thought of the judgement to come cum vix iustus sit securus. (when the saints shall need comfort).

Other temptations include “the dread of dying” and “the terror and fear of eternal judgement”. Right reasoning responds to this that death is a universal rule that applies to everyone. It is a time of social equality. While we ought to fear God’s judgement, we also need to do this in a way that we “judge ourselves day by day and examine our conscience and pass judgement on ourselves.” The devil may also try to shock the dying person by showing him either spiritually or visibly “the horrid sufferings of hell” in order by means of despair to block out the joy of “the heavenly city”, full of light and splendour that would bring the dying person back into experiencing trust and hope.

After all of these shameful things the devil, by way of a final attack, may take on “the image of the most ugly and terrifying apparitions that have horrible faces” that resemble the typical expectations of popular religious opinions. Here it is enough to make the sign of the cross with faith and to bless yourself with holy water and humbly turn to God and say the “devout office” of the Passion of the Lord and “to completely” entrust yourself to the glorious Virgin Mary and your Guardian Angel. Do not be afraid because Christ prayed for everyone on the cross. In this prayerful environment with the Litany of the Saints and the prayers of the Church the person gives up his spirit. The final thing is the recitation of the Hail Mary seven times in honour of the seven joys of Mary, on behalf of the person who has died.

Given the freedom with which he used chosen parts of the Doctrina moriendi by Clicthove the work by Gregorio da Napoli paints a peaceful picture of death that was evident in the death of saint Felice da Cantalice and at the same time was in accord with the particular environment that prevailed in the Christian sensitivity of the Council of Trent, without giving in to the macabre traditional model of the artes moriendi.

2) A chapter from the ceremonial by Zaccaria Baverio

Visits to the homes of the sick who lived outside the walls of the friary was provided for by “guidelines” that incorporated the Franciscan charism. The guidelines were contained in a chapter in the ceremonial composed by Zaccaria Boverio (doc. 3), that summarised and codified the charitable work that the Order had been doing for a long time. It presented this apostolate with an organised structure as it reached out beyond the friary and went into the world in spontaneous evangelical charity. This apostolate was presented, in fact, as the perfect observance of Christ’s command, and as imitation of what went on at the beginning of the Franciscan Order when St Francis, acting as founder, sent his disciples “to serve the lepers every day.” The only difference now was that this service was not being offered “every day” as the choice of a way of life, but as a prompt response to what the sick people themselves requested according to the different circumstances that prevailed here and there.

Unintentionally, this feature is evident in the choices that were already made within the Capuchin reform, when, in the early years, the Capuchin friars, “in order to observe the Testament of St Francis,” “went into hospitals to serve the lepers, as is clearly seen in Rome, Naples, Genoa and other places. This was especially true in the hospital of San Giacomo in Rome, which provided for those who were incurable. This hospital had been almost abandoned. However, once the Capuchins arrived it was reputed to be the best hospital in Italy at the time.” Bernardino da Colpetrazzo speaks of this with great enthusiasm and slight exaggeration.[28] Very saintly priests and lay brothers took part in rendering this service including Fr Francesco Tittelmans, Br Martino Fiammingo, Br Egidio da Sant’Angelo in Vado, Fr Ludovico di Stroncone, Br Francesco da Macerata and many more.[29]

However, as the Order increased unexpectedly and rapidly in numbers, people such as Bernardino d’Asti, Francesco da Jesi and Giovanni da Fano “together with many other very enlightened and holy men” chose another course of action “because they observed that many friars were losing the spirit” and “that assigning these friars to serve the sick would ruin them because it was not an occupation that suited everyone.” This brought about an increase in doing other things and “so that they would not be wasting time they ought to occupy themselves in holy prayer and sacred study and avoid the damage cause by being idle.”[30] Service to the sick still remained a personal choice that was governed by obedience to the superiors. Thus, the Order always remained open to sick people living outside the Order without becoming an organisation of “those who worked in hospitals”. Without saying as much, Boverio hints at this early decision as being decisive for the subsequent direction that the Order adopted.

Alluding to the example of St Francis, Boverio goes through the writings of the Fathers of the Church to find precise general norms for this charitable apostolate which is both a corporal and spiritual works of mercy. He deals with it in a chapter of his ceremonial, where he portrays the friar as “one who offers consolation” and places emphasis on certain typical traits that are attributed to this pastoral activity. Prayer is the first requirement for this work and it should begin before leaving the door of the friary. Before the friar speaks to the sick person he should speak to Christ about the sick person. While he is walking to the sick person’s home or going towards the hospital, he ought to “consider some passage from Sacred Scripture or the Fathers” that is suitable for consoling the sick person. By saying this he implies that care of the sick is not just something that happens by chance but something that requires serious preparation.

In the sick person’s room, he goes through the customary actions prescribed by the liturgy: giving the Biblical peace greeting and the sprinkling with holy water. Then he approaches the bed and begins “a sweet conversation” with the sick person, ascertaining whether the patient is still able to speak and aware of the gravity of his illness. With gentle words he should then immediately direct the patient towards the reception of the Sacraments, firstly confession, then the reception of the Eucharist and then the anointing. Obviously, the conversation should not be long and importunate, but gentle, providing consolation and serenity, moving the patient towards complete abandonment to the will of God and making the best of the last actions of his life, especially if there is still need for restitution which has not yet been carried out.

In this situation the Capuchin is seriously obliged not to make the same foolish mistake, that was so common at the time, of gaining economic benefits for himself or for the community by suggesting, even indirectly, that something like his might be put into the will. There is no excuse for doing this, for any reason whatever. It would be destroying one of the main characteristics of the Capuchin reform. Boverio’s tract is obviously very short but also concrete and realistic.

3. Two studies on pastoral activity that are more methodical and better developed

We wish to consider two other studies that deal with this subject. They do so in a more systematic manner and are quite similar to each other, even though one was written fifteen years after the other at the height of the seventeenth century. In fact, in this century saw a great increase in this kind of literature that continued to appear in the century that followed. During the Counter Reformation, discussion on the subject of death had found fertile ground especially in Spain and in Italy where it appeared as a noteworthy spiritual and social event. It was dealt with by preachers. The content was often repetitious yet still interesting, sometimes odd and provoking, as the preachers emphasised various aspects of the topic using everyday expressions according to their personal feelings.

The first study is an istituzione al ben morire, by Giovanni Albinelli da Sestola (+ 1646) that was published in Innsbruck in 1632 (doc. 4). The second study is Pietoso et abondante soccorso per l’anime tribolate, afflitte et agonizanti, by Giuseppe da Cammarata, that was printed in Messina in 1646 (dec. 5). As we shall see, in these two writings this ministry of love is approached from a predominantly devotional and contemplative point of view which is indicative of a particular approach, the Capuchin “technique,” in the way the apostolate was carried out among those who were suffering.

1) “Instruction on a happy death” by Giovanni da Sestola

Giovanni da Sestola wrote his ars moriendi in Austria in the years 1630-1631 when the plague was raging. He stated this himself when he was dedicating the ‘work” to the Archduchess of Austria, Claudia de Medici, saying that he had begun to write “on the road at the time when quite a number of the fathers and brothers who belonged to my beloved maternal congregation of Capuchins were involved in the houses for lepers where many of them gloriously lost their lives out of love for their neighbour.” He wanted to at least give himself “to the sick people who were dying because he was neither worthy nor capable of caring for those stricken by the plague at that wretched time” (n. 7099). Thus, he was, as a “faithful friend”, able to offer the sick and the dying not the medicine of “bitter pills and beverages”, but the support of “wise advice, prudent admonitions, something to remember about what they loved and valuable consolation.”[31] He says that he wanted to write down “briefly what many wise men had come to know from long experience and had written about at length in their works.”[32] The titles of this contemporary literature are not mentioned, but subtle references are made to scholastic theologians, the Fathers and medieval writers.

a) The value of “consolation” and the spirit of prayer

This rather lengthy volume begins with outlining the talents that are required to perform this apostolate. The minister should be a prudent and discrete person who is very pious, a man of profound prayer, with his mind and heart firmly set on this, one who is committed to daily prayer for the sick. Indeed, “he ought to pray before leaving home, while on his way and when he arrives at the home of the sick person, raising his mind for short periods of time by the use of ejaculations so as to renew his resolve to promote the salvation of that soul,” (n. 7103), because he is dealing with summa rerum. This is at the heart of pastoral activity. It is more important than preaching or other apostolic ministries. To be cooperating in the salvation of souls who are at the point of death is the most divine of divine realities. This thought with slight adaptations, has been taken from the Celeste gerarchia by the Pseudo Dionisius, an essay which was often quoted in works such as this.

He should also become accustomed to thinking about and meditating on “the thoughts contained in Scripture, the examples, the words, the meaning of what he is going to say and do,” adapting himself to the various levels in society, and the various dispositions and temperaments of the different sick people, “His words should be short and simple, which, while they enlighten the intellect, should move the heart even more.” (n. 7105). This expression contains the essential nucleus of this kind of pastoral activity. It demonstrates the experience of a preacher who is accustomed to preparing his sermons thoughtfully, but it also shows the underlying spiritual perspective contained in the early Constitutions that set out a programme for the practice of mental prayer.[33] This indicates how the practice of contemplation stimulated a very special aspect of the ministry of evangelisation.

b) How to assist the sick person

Naturally, first of all it will be necessary to become familiar with the actual situation of the sick person and the circumstances of his private life. This would allow the minister to proceed with “unassertive freedom”, and to use very suitable words which “are sweet and gentle but not artificial” so that “the person will discover the Lord and not be repulsed by threats.” Because the soul is more important than the body he ought to deal firstly with the “state of soul and the salvation of the sick person” and direct him, indeed strongly urge him, to begin to consider confession, a general confession if possible, by the use of arguments taken from Sacred Scripture, without frightening him too much. It is advisable that after greeting the sick person, that he places his hands on him in prayer and follows this with a few brief words about the infinite goodness of God and about the next life, to fill the person with hope and confidence.

When the minister is a priest, he should help him to fulfill his responsibilities when he is making his Will by observing justice and civil rights. However, as Boverio had already emphasised, he should take care to persuade him “not to provide for the priest’s personal needs, nor to make bequests to his monastery, so that the priest may not be judged to being following his own interests. Most of all he should suggest works of more wide-ranging charity that will provide appropriate assistance for his neighbours and help the souls in Purgatory.” To facilitate this, Boverio submits a list of people who are in need which provides a picture of the social poverty of that time: “He should exhort him in a special way to help poor outcasts, poor slaves, poor virgins, who have no husbands to support them, orphans, those in prison, poor people who are not well, monasteries that live by begging, and the convents of nuns, as well as other works of mercy. Finally, he could consider the executors of the Will, and how they should be people who are merciful and charitable and whom he can trust.”[34] He should also induce feelings of faith, hope and charity, urging him on to have contrition by keeping the sick person in a state of mind between fear and hope. Although the sick person has been instructed in the faith, he should briefly explain the main articles of faith, “beginning with saying a little of the Credo and, when this has been done, he should highlight each of the main articles in simple language, using easy, clear paraphrases and he should do the same with all the other mysteries of the faith.”[35]

In this mini-catechesis it is interesting to see how Giovanni da Sestola makes use of his experience of mental prayer and contemplation. In fact, he proposes “various procedures,” including prayer, personal appeals to God, oblation and self-offering, thanksgiving, and references to the pains of hell and Purgatory, in order to motivate the sick person to hope for heavenly glory and overcome all temptation either to despair or to presumption. To do this he drew on his experience as a preacher and a man of prayer to develop a new assortment of devout thoughts and suitable prayers. Indeed, it is important to lead the sick person to performing acts of virtue especially love of God “because this is the objective and the best of all the gifts and an apt frame of mind in someone who is peacefully passing over to the other world” (n. 7119) Here too Giovanni da Sestola is suggesting using a kind of prayer method, especially that of meditation “as a means of considering the matter”, then to move on to affective prayer that are backed up with examples taken from a wide range of sources such as the Prato fiorito by Valerio da Venezia, and the Discepolo by Herold, and the Speculum exemplorum.

c) The importance of examples and how they are to be used

Citing examples was one of Giovanni da Sestola’s favourite strategies as it was also of the contemporary and older artes morendi. Examples served as a hands-on way of demonstrating the authenticity of what was being taught and, thus, conveyed more than just theoretical doctrine. They “were a very strong way of moving and preparing souls” with the prospect of also “enflaming the will.” This is why, inspired by practical considerations, Albinelli added a collection of exempla, that he took from various sources to his Instruzzione. He carefully identified them as having been taken from the Historia lausica by Palladio, the Vitae Patrum, the Scala paradisi by Giovanni Climaco, the Magum speculum exemplorum, the Speculum historiale by Vincenzo di Beauvais, the Speculum morale that is attributed to the same Vincent, the Flores exemplorum sive catechismus historialis by Antonio d’Averoult, the Vitae fratrum Praedicatorum by Gerardo de Frachet, the Croniche dei frati minori, the Bonum universale de apibus by Tommaso da Cantimpré, the Liber de viris illustribus of the Cistercian Order and other similar collections.[36]

These examples would not be as effective today, but they were important at the time. When we read them today, we come to understand what were the actual concerns that surrounded traditional “pastoral work with those who were suffering” and what were the values attributed to this work. In fact, of the twenty five examples that have been cited, six deal with being sorry in order to obtain God’s forgiveness and to gain salvation even in the worst cases, five illustrate how the thought of death promotes conversion, five depict cases of damnation because of not doing penance or omitting to go to confession or making a bad confession, three insist on the need for the one who is suffering to be patient, two show the importance of caring for those who are ill because this is pleasing to God. Other examples show the need to do penance, the terrifying pains of Purgatory and how religious obedience is the best way to be saved.

We note how everything is directed towards the salvation of souls. This pastoral strategy aims at creating sincere contrition and genuine conversion in the sick person at the end of his life. It fosters the reception of sacramental confession, the spirit of penance and prayer, trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness and abandonment to the will of God.

The basic point is the emphasis on contrition. “He should persuade him to have greater sorrow”. “A religious should put all his effort into this when he wants the person to die well”. “From time to time he should urge him to be sorry and to repent of his sins and to practice the three theological virtues.” [37] In another place he puts it more clearly: “Above all he should see to it that the sorrow of the sick person is based on charity and complete love for God and not just caused by fear.” Elsewhere he says: “To motivate the sick to have greater charity he could urge him to say acts of contrition.”[38]

The whole volume is full of exempla. In addition to those that were cited above there are another fifty-seven that illustrate what is being treated. However, the overall picture is exactly what we have described. They depict the importance of the presence of God (5 examples), the necessity for confession (4), and the discretionary celebration of the other Sacraments (4), the pains of hell (1), the pains of Purgatory (2), fear of God’s judgement (1), the glory of Paradise (3), temptation against faith (2), the need for prayer that will often bring about a cure (3), trust in the mercy of God (4), the joy of dying (3), efficacy of giving alms (4) and the use of holy water (3). There are also other exempla concerning damnation (5) and spiritual love (2) and so on.

Naturally ahead of all of these examples taken from cases he preferred to use examples taken from the Bible and the Gospel. Normally the sources are the ones already cited or, occasionally, events that were part of his personal experience that involve persons that he knew, especially fellow friars such as Lorenzo da Brindisi, from whom he took a wonderful example of his interior life.[39]

Examples are continually emphasised as being of fundamental importance for the friars who are providing assistance and have said the prayers. “It would be beneficial if the priest or the one who is providing assistance, once he has said the prayers, would give some beautiful examples featuring people or saints who have loved God” (n. 7126). They could be “examples of those who have cast off the world”. “The priest could give some examples of those who were patient during their troubles such as Job, Tobias, Joseph, David, the most holy Virgin, many martyrs and virgins and Jesus Christ himself who endured many difficulties with patience. He might also refer to the patience of philosophers and many others”. “The priest could add other devout prayers when he is familiar with what is needed and necessary. He might even relate a devout and beautiful example concerning sinners who had converted to the Lord and who by means of sincere sorrow and by going to confession had saved themselves. It would also be good for him to read the life of a saint while displaying from time to time the image of the Crucified and allowing the sick person to kiss the wounds, especially the wound in the side. If there is time and he judges it to be expedient, he could read or relate the following example or the glory of Paradise. Recalling the glory of the homeland of the just and eternal beatitude will be of great consolation to the sick person”.[40]

These suggestions are like a recurrent refrain. However, the examples should be used in a very precise way. Gregorio da Sestola gives the following advice. “The priest or minister should use these examples in an appropriate manner, selecting one or two, that he thinks are suitable. He should be careful that they are not too artificial or drawn-out. He should be aware that each one of them has been placed there in order to be something that provides greater help to the one who is assigned to assisting those who are sick and dying to have a happy death. Something that is more helpful might be found in devotional books or in other works and I also recommend them. I request everyone to read them frequently because this is very useful”.[41] Thus the examples are meant to reinforce the spiritual advice given to the sick person which is aimed at convincing him of the authenticity and value of eternal salvation.

d) Concerning prayers, devotions and the use of sacramentals

The abundance of material should not trick us into to thinking that the priest and the person who is dying have to engage in an endless conversation that is not related to what is real. Giovanni da Sestola’s Instruzzione is simply a collection of many, different situations that the author had experienced which he was proposing may be used with discretion. He often insists on being recollected and on silence in the presence of the sick person.[42]

When he attempts to provide a better explanation “of the recollection of certain events” he makes a distinction between those sick people who are able to meditate and those who are not used to meditating. For the last kind of people, he suggests showing them “from time to time an image of the Crucified or of the most holy Virgin” when they are suffering and have them kiss the cross saying “sweetly” some spiritual “words” that are equivalent to acts of faith, of contrition, of hope, that ask for forgiveness, profess love, self-sacrifice and submission to God.

Here too, as in the work by Gregorio da Napoli, he lays great stress on indulgences, on the sacramentals, external signs of inner devotion and pious devotional practices. “Let him go ahead by sprinkling holy water on the sick person, on the place and on the bed, and tell the sick person to say from his heart, if not with his lips, Iesus, Maria, because these are words that are a threat to the demons and of great spiritual consolation, and let him arrange for the sick person to have a medal or blessed beads that convey a plenary indulgence in articulo mortis, if he says Iesus from his heart” (n. 7135).

The use of holy water was considered to be an effective means of chasing demons away and clearing the place where the person was dying. Everything was part of this: the sick person, the room, the bed, the priest and those who were helping (cf. n. 7137) There was a strong awareness of an evil presence around the deathbed of the person who was dying. This could be dispersed both by frequently gazing on an image of the Crucified and the Virgin and by sending close relatives away who might interrupt the ‘heavenly spiritual” thoughts of the patient and only invoke “human considerations”. The evil presence could also be held at bay by praying and creating a prayerful situation by the recitation of psalms and other devout prayers, such as blessing the sick person with a blessed candle that was alight “because this was very beneficial and mysterious” (n. 7139).

e) Different types of sick people

Amongst the “different suggestions” that Giovanni da Sestola made to those who were assisting the dying was the need to identify the various types of people who were dying: those who were excessively afraid of dying, because they were too attached to things, and those who were overanxious about their faults, those who lacked patience, those who had temptations against the faith, those who were experiencing doubts about their salvation and “had become lethargic” or frantic or depressed. For each case he proposes a suitable remedy that is based on experience. One should never conceal from the sick person the danger involved in dying, but help him by prayer, giving examples and making use of the word of God. If they are impatient, comfort them and encourage them by using the traditional method of “gentle” persuasion, giving examples and, most of all, by the use of prayer. “He ought to proceed by means of praying together with the sick person to whom he might say: “My brother, say these prayers with great affection”.[43]

If they are unconscious but have not gone to confession, wake them and look for some sign of them being conscious and advise them that they are in danger if they do not go to confession and then help them to celebrate a short form of the sacrament. If the sick person is obliged to make restitution, for example because he has been a public official who erred in moneylending, Giovanni da Sestola, relying on his personal experience, suggests that “it would be much better for him to make restitution himself without relying on his heirs because they often forget to do so.”[44] Using words of gentle irony he is describing the customary behaviour of people who instinctively go back to human ways of acting, and to “the way doctors work”. When things become desperate, they remember the existence of God and they have recourse to him. He thundered about this dishonest behaviour from the pulpit, saying: “it is a great abuse”.[45] On the other hand he recognised an example of perfect confidence in God in a Capuchin friar that he knew, but did not name, and said that he ought to be imitated:

I remember a preacher that belonged to my religious order, who was a person of great integrity and simplicity, whom I knew. While he was alive, this great priest achieved much fruit for souls. He used to say that when God operated through him things progressed not by means of what he taught or because of his oratorical style, but because of the trust and confidence he had in God. When he came to die, he said to the fathers and brothers who were in attendance on him, one of whom was myself: ‘My fathers, because I never trusted myself but trusted in God, when I was involved in saving others, and even now when in God’s mercy I have come to the end of the present mortal life, and have to deal with the salvation of my own life, I have no trust in myself, not do I wish to rely on myself, but I trust in Jesus Christ, in his blood, his death and his passion’. He said these words: In Domino confide, quomodo dicitis aminae meae: Transmigra in montem sicut passer (Get away from here to the mountain like a sparrow). He also said: In te, Domine, speravi: spero et sperabo, non confundar in aeternum. (In you, O Lord, have I hoped, now hope and will hope, let me never be condemned). Thus, because he had lived a good and virtuous life, with great confidence in God, he had a happy death. [46]

f) Pastoral assistance to the family and friends of the one who is dying

Even though the priest is paying great attention to the person who is sick and dying, he should not forget the other people. This is a very important part of pastoral work. “While the sick person is resting, he could make some helpful, spiritual comments to the other people, speaking to one or the other in order to help all of those who are present, being careful to speak to them with discretion, humility as is appropriate to the situation.” The person who is going through his last agony and who eventually dies is considered in the tradition of the artes motiendi as a mirror of human life because of which the priest “should exhort those who are present to take a careful look into that great mirror and pray for that soul and to perform other works of charity such as giving alms, saying the office, having Masses said, making sacrifices and gaining indulgences.” [47] He also suggests that there be “a devout, friendly and earnest brief discussion” that suggests great charity towards the souls in Purgatory by the performance of voluntary corporal works of mercy. “He should urge and motivate every Christian to undertake some discomfort by fasting a little, suffering, practising mortification and performing an act of penance and doing likewise for the souls in Purgatory, as well as enduring out of love the pains, the calamities and whatever else causes disturbance in this life”,[48] since “it is only by chance that what happens would never cause pain or be detrimental but always bring riches.”[49]

The encounter with death inspires the priest who is providing consolation to remind those present of the exercise of the presence of God that makes life advance smoothly and death a holy event. “Whoever lives in the presence of God gains constancy of heart, experiences happiness and spiritual consolation, vigilance and fervour of spirit, peace and serenity of conscience, the perfection of all of the virtues and ultimately union with God which is the greatest good that one can have in this life and which means glory in the next life.”[50]

g) The use of the method of affective prayer

In this context the method of affective prayer becomes effective. It derives its inspiration from mental prayer and contemplation and becomes predominant in the apostolic strategy of caring for those who are dying. The sick person is assisted to place himself in the presence of God, to meditate using ejaculatory prayer that extend across various types of expression. Even at the deathbed, the Capuchin friar should not surrender the role teaching prayer while he is praying. In fact, he shows the “different methods” of producing ejaculations which each individual then has to practice “as God inspires him.” This is how the soul forms an idea of how to praise the wonders of God. This is the way that the soul prepares itself to go to God. It is the most effective way because it involves the emotions, fosters desire and implores God by using the exclamation “oh” to express a feeling of admiration. It adopts a process of invocation to express a request for an ardent desire for God. It produces the same atmosphere as if God were speaking to the soul. It expands trust and the hope of gaining heavenly joy in the heart.

It is this aspect of prayer that receives the most attention. Every “document” is full of it with the text containing many outlines of prayer. We have counted forty-nine of these to which the third part of the volume could be added since “it is a collection of spiritual exercises and devout prayers”, a true arsenal of prayers. Most of all it provides a method of meditating on the pater noster in “seven brief but loving ways”, which uses the method of being recollected, experiencing love, and praying for the souls in Purgatory. These are pages that explain more clearly than many tracts the meaning of affective prayer in the way it is understood in Franciscan and Capuchin spirituality.[51]

2) The “Pietoso e abbondante soccorso” by Giuseppe Taberna da Cammanata

We find the same pastoral strategy in the work by Giuseppe da Cammanata which overflows with an atmosphere of spiritual unction (doc. 5). In fact, in these Capuchin tracts we should not look for something that is new, but for the spirituality of love. The title of the book: Pietosa e abbondante soccorsa per l’anime tribolate, afflitte e agonizzanti, implies that charity ought to extend to everyone who is in distress including “the most important form of assistance” which is that which is shown towards the dying and displays a preference for “a poor person who has been abandoned”. “I tell you, that you ought to go more willingly to those who are poor than to those who are wealthy” (n. 7161).

The title that he assigns to the person who is assisting the dying is interesting. He calls him “the one who is stirring up memories”. He is the person who should make the person who is dying remember what is involved in a happy death. The way to do this is summarised in fifteen pieces of “advice” that are set out in the style of a book of regulations and have been drawn from experience and are very concrete. Their substance can be summed up in this sentence: “By the use of devout and effective words, he should try to lead the person to be sorry and repent of the sins that he has committed and to the love of God. Let this be his objective and if this achieves some good, it is enough” (n. 7164). Here too he suggests the same safeguards: the use of sweet words, the issuing of spiritual challenges, thinking about “the opinions of the Fathers, the examples that they give and their affective responses”, sprinkling holy water frequently and looking at images of the Madonna and of the saints.

To create order in this depiction, Giuseppe da Cammarata breaks the material into three parts that he calls “states” that correspond to three “stages” in suffering. The first applies to those who are in trouble in a general way without necessarily being sick. The remedy is to make the person see that suffering is a grace sent by God and a preparation for great glory and lack of it would be “a bad sign”. The second “stage” involves the sick person who needs to be encouraged to be sorry for his sins, to receive the Sacrament of God’s mercy, to say acts of contrition accompanied by the resolution that Bernardino Ochino proposed in his Dialoghi and which Zaccaria Boverio included in his ceremonial.[52]

The third “stage” of affliction takes place at the end of life when the sick person if going through his final agony. Then “the priest who is stirring up memories” should help the patient “in a humble low voice” to utter the names of Jesus and of Mary, and gaze on the Crucifix and kiss it, whisper an “ejaculation” or some “other devout words.” This part of the work is similar to the third part of the Istruzzione by Giovanni da Sestola. It is a collection of affectionate prayers to the Crucifix, and the names of Jesus and Mary. There is a list of ejaculations to be used during the last agony. We have mentioned some of the pages containing these loving aspirations which serve as an indirect open window on the spirituality of the author who died in the odour of sanctity. They also reveal the Capuchin “seraphic school” of prayer.

Giuseppe da Cammara also shows concern for “the relations and friends of the dead person”. He grasps this pastoral opportunity to evangelise the faithful. At the end of the work, he adds a chapter that is dedicated to this subject in which he develops a series of thoughts as well as moral and spiritual considerations taken from the Bible, the saintly Fathers and the history of the human race.

The last forays sound like someone battering on a door. They are repetitious, spontaneous and unexpected and pierce like a penetrating sword. “There is no remedy for death for both the wise and the foolish die, the strong and the weak, the noble and the lowly, the rich and the poor, princes and kings, Cardinals and the Supreme Pontiff” (n. 7227).

3) Some observations about two Capuchin authors from the late seventeenth century

Other Capuchins have left admirable tracts concerning those who are dying. Although they deserve a detailed analysis they do not come within the chronological scope of our research. Nevertheless, we wish to mention two of them: Gregorio Valenzano da Marsals (+ 1669) and Clemente Simonelli da Giugliamo (+ 1681).

The first of these, who came from the Province of Palermo, published a work in Messina in 1650. It was entitled Soccorso di moribondi and it dealt with providing assistance for those in their last agony and those who were condemned to death. He subsequently revised the entire work making it more extensive and published it again in Palermo in 1658 with the title: Soccorso di moribondi et agonizzanti. It was made up of five tracts: the first on “the battle of those in their last agony”; the second on “a simple method for helping those who were at the end of life to have a happy death”; the third on how “to console and help those living in the justice system who were condemned to death so they could have a happy death”; the fourth on “the four last things and how the person who wants to die a happy death must live uprightly”; the fifth treats “sacramental confession with a short list of questions that will facilitate a general confession of one’s life over many years.”[53]

The other author came from the Province of Naples and has left a work that extends to two volumes. It is entitled: Guida de’moribondi divisa in 3 parti, in Soggetti praedicabili, in Soliloqui e in Avvertimenti morali secondo il bisogno di ciascuno infermo dal principio della malatia fino alla spirare dell’anima. It was published in Naples in 1662. What is interesting about this collection is the author’s vast experience in the exercise of this ministry for thirty years. He states this in the “Preface” which he addressed to “the charitable reader.” He wrote:

By means of the mercy of God and the will of my superiors, I was assigned to the very valuable ministry of helping the sick to experience a happy death. When I had done this on six occasions, not only in the Infirmary of the Immaculate Conception in Naples, which catered for all such people in that Province, but also in all the hospitals that were administered by the Religious Orders I discovered that what those who had been our teachers wrote in theory concerning diabolical temptations that occurred at the hour of death was more than true in reality.

When he now found that he was too old to continue this work among those who were sick, he wanted to continue the work in another way and pass on to others what he had experienced by setting it down in writing:

Since by reading various books that dealt with the subject of providing consolation to those who were sick, and by passing on the experience I had gained from attending to many sick people of all states, religious, lay people, knights, common people, the educated, the uneducated, the wealthy, the poor, the old and the young, the married, the single, and others, I discovered many things that were useful and necessary both for the sick and for those who were helping them to experience a happy death. When I realised that owing to my age and situation, I had become unable to help them by speaking to them personally, I did not want to relinquish the opportunity of doing all of this so I published something and thus obeying the precept of the Holy Spirit had set down in the Book of Ecclesiasticus chapter seven: ‘Be not wanting in comforting them that weep, and walk with them that mourn. Be not slow to visit the sick: for by these things you shall be comforted in love’. That means in God’s love.

In his pastoral activity he also showed that he treasured and was well-informed with respect to the vast contemporary literature on this aspect of the apostolate. In fact, in what follows on from the preface, he explains what prompted the way he wrote and how much he worked on it. In all of this he showed a practical approach that was also simple, coherent, moderate and passionate, qualities that were characteristic of the apostolate of the Capuchin friars. He wrote:

The method is unassuming, simple and aimed at people, both because when one is dealing with death, which is a bitter potion, it cannot be diluted with honey, and also when one wishes to convey the whole truth it should not be presented in rhetorical images. Because I am aiming at helping my neighbour, both those who are sick and those who are healthy, and this can be achieved by the usual talks with which the pastors of souls address the people, or the leaders of confraternities that have been set up in a praiseworthy manner throughout Christianity for this purpose, or by personal meditation, being aware of the need of the sick and their situation, I considered it expedient to divide my work into three parts, and they are topics for sermons, conversations and short pieces of advice to be given to the sick person according to his circumstances.

As far as I could, in all three of the parts, I tried to be brief so that if what I was saying pleased those who were healthy, might it not be more necessary for it to be consoling and instructive for someone what was ill instead of annoying him? Indeed, the one who was born blessed with charity, St Filippo Neri, reminded all priests and all of the faithful that they should help in bringing about a happy death. Long speeches do nothing for someone who is dying. A few words might be helpful as long as they are kept brief. Prayers are more effective in influencing someone.

Though I have put much effort into reading, I feel like someone who has stolen ideas that have been taken from the most recent modern writers of this century. Forgive me for making this comparison, but my poor mind is like all the medicines that are prescribed for those who are sick in that they are made from simple components. Although I might be famous for transcribing and copying (in order to help my neighbour), think of how happy it makes me, when by shedding all of my sweat and blood, I indirectly collaborate in giving glory to God and in bringing salvation to some soul.

This personal testimony clearly expresses how the apostolate for those who were suffering was conducted by the Capuchin friars during the first hundred years of their history.


We must add the apostolate involving those who were condemned to death and enduring their last agony as it was a special type of pastoral activity. The Capuchins distinguished themselves in this field both by directly providing service and also by providing their own written tracts. There was a growth in numbers of the tracts on the Ars morendi that were aimed at promoting a happy death as well as the need to treat the complex problem of how to quickly prepare a person to face a sudden, shameful death in a Christian manner. In this field religious and philosophical issues were combined with psychological problems.

There is a substantial amount of pious literature on this subject.[54] Between 1600 and 1800 many works were published in printed editions. In Italy historical research into this area is only just beginning.[55] Some of the printed works were composed by Capuchins.

1. Mattia da Salὸ and Giovanni da Sestola

It seems that the first one, in the order of time, to undertake this difficult work was Mattia Bellintani da Salὸ. He worked alone and outshone others because of his ability to reflect on matters, summarise what happened and appraise the psychological and spiritual properties of what he observed. In his time, he was rightly considered to be one of the accomplished “diplomats” in religious and ecclesiastical politics. His writings are brief and well-organised. His work, Utili ricordi e rimedi per quelli che dalla giustitia sono alla morte condannati, was republished many times and was much appreciated in the ‘libraries” of the confraternities of S. Giovanni Decollato in Milan and Rome, as well as in the confraternity of S. Maria della Morte in Bologna and in various other places.[56]

The oldest edition that we know of appeared in Salὸ in 1614, that is, after his death.[57] The increase of those who became part of the justice system during the sixteenth and at the beginning of the seventeenth centuries must have aroused apostolic anxiety in Bellintani regarding the pastoral problem of providing assistance to the poor people who had been condemned and made him think about a solution. He must have also been influenced by the example of Girolamo Finucci da Pistoia who had taught him theology in Naples in 1559 and 1560. Padre Girolamo often exercised this charitable ministry, and in Rome he was considered to be one of the more “expert” authorities on this kind of work. Among other things he became famous for the help that he gave to Pietro Carnesecchi, the former Protonotary Apostolic, who was found guilty of heresy by Pius V in Rome on 1st October 1567.[58] Thus, it is possible that the master influenced the disciple even if we do not have any proof, keeping in mind that this man was the inspiration behind Bellintani’s preaching and promoting the practice of the forty hours devotion. However, by reading what he wrote about priests who provided “counselling” we come to understand rather easily that his “memories” and “remedies” are something that he invented, or that resulted not from what he read, but were the fruit of meditation and personal experience. When we look at other Capuchin sources on the same topic, that appeared later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we find that they are a continuation or repetition of the ideas and pastoral sources that he used which is a sign of their mutual dependence.

The second Italian author, in the order of time, who treated the same topic is Padre Gioanni da Sestola in the “second part” of his Instruttione al ben morire. This includes three chapters or Documenti, as he calls them, utili e necessary per confortare quelli che sono condannati dalla giustizia alla morte e disporgli al dolore dalli peccati, et a morire in grazia di Dio.

We note the difference between the two texts immediately in that Bellintani places greater stress on gradually implanting thoughts in the one who has been condemned so that he may accept death with all its shame and disgrace, detach himself from love for the body and entrust himself to the divine mercy and open his heart to the hope of eternal salvation. The best way to achieve this is to have him focus on the example of Christ Crucified, the saints, to consider the last things, to pray, to fill himself with “eternal maxims” and to celebrate the Sacraments of pardon and the eucharistic love with faith, being convinced that the pain of death when accepted as being compensation for sin procures redemption.

Almost the entire book is a handbook for what the “counsellor” should say. It swings between philosophical considerations and those that are more strictly religious, clearly joining these to what was said in the Ars morendi but focusing them on the needs of the one being assisted with the objective of having him, in a very short space of time, concentrate on facing death with a Christian attitude. There is a need of being armed adequately and convincingly against possible objections and foreseeable responses on the part of the one who has been condemned, especially when the person is bound by material and emotional preoccupations concerning his own wellbeing and that of his family because he lacks faith and resignation.

There are only a few points where Bellintani’s presentation descends from the sequence of logical thought to practical considerations concerning the disposition of the one who is condemned, and if he is obstinate, to advising the counsellor what he should do up to the moment of execution. He arranges his thoughts as someone who wants to clearly show the nature of the act and where it is leading. He points out the “remedies” in an orderly way making a distinction between ordinary procedures and special ways of proceeding. He is very concerned that the “counsellor” should be well prepared by being conscious of the fact that the grace of God will do the rest.

Because of this he paints a picture of the priest as the minister “who undertakes this task” as someone who has undergone specific remote and proximate preparation suggesting that he make himself familiar with what he has already written in the Prattica dell’orazione mentale. It is important and interesting to be aware of this. Just as mental prayer turns out well when backed up by honest preparation, there is a greater probability of success in this delicate and difficult charitable ministry in proportion to the spiritual and education preparation of the “counsellor.” He must first of all be convinced of the value of this ministry and embrace it “with warmth”. Next, he should be single minded. A “divine work” such as this should be undertaken with “a pure eye”. that is, out of pure love for God and neighbour since “love is a good teacher.” Then it is necessary to make a good confession and to receive communion, so as “to be filled with the Holy Spirit who moves the tongue in this divine activity.” Finally, he should not trust himself, but completely entrust himself to God and place himself, like a docile instrument, in his hands (n. 7088).

On the other hand, the pages that Giovanni da Sestola wrote enter immediately, advancing step by step, into the various phases of the activity of the “counsellor” going from the beginning until after the execution. The content of the conversation is treated briefly and it outlines a few examples. It is an account of the last moments in the life of someone who has been condemned to death after he has undergone a spiritual preparation, which could be dramatic in the case of someone who is obstinate. When the “counsellor” has exhausted all his arguments he goes back over the strong points, that Bellintani had already mentions, challenging the one who has been condemned and threating to leave him.[59] Since experience taught that it was possible that someone who had been sentenced might be “incorrigible”, the authorities in the Confraternities of S. Giovanni Decollato and of S. Maria della Morte foresaw this and suggested appropriate solutions. In Giovanni da Sestola’s writings there appeared once again a certain similarity with the style of the Battuti that was taken from what the Capuchins were preaching about penance. He suggested that the “counsellor” might also make mention of “scourging” as an act of personal penance and that it be joined with prayer to soften the heart of the one who was guilty (cf. n. 7156).

In any case he should, without using too many words, encourage the one who was condemned to foster good thoughts in his mind and in his will and by his friendly and thoughtful presence lead him to avoid all that might disturb him or distract him from having spiritual thoughts. To achieve this, it might be helpful to have a “picture” or hand-held holy image that the counsellor could hold up in front of the one who was condemned. Neither Mattia da Salὸ nor Giovanni da Sestola mention this even thought it had been in use for a long time when attending to those who were condemned.

2. Carlo Verri da Cremona

For some years Father Carlo da Cremona, who was a Capuchin and who was chaplain to the Confraternity of S. Giovanni Decollato which met at the Casa Rotte in Milan,[60] spoke about this subject while describing the sad procession of those who were condemned, whom he called “brothers in death” and “those who administered justice”, that is the executioners, and those who worked in the place of execution.

When he comes out of confinement […] the priest who is the “counsellor” will be close to the patient, holding an image of the Crucified up to his face, exhorting him to gaze on the image of Our Lord, thinking of how Our Saviour came out of Pilate’s palace with the cross on his shoulder moving towards Mount Calvary to die for our sins. My dear brother, fix your gaze on the image of Christ Our Lord and consider how, although he was very innocent, he took the cross onto his shoulder to make satisfaction to divine justice for our sins […]. Your cross is to patiently endure the death which as assigned to you through temporal justice to make satisfaction and obtain forgiveness for your sins.[61]

Remembering the Passion was and is still the medicine that is the prescribed medicine and the basic rule in all of the artes moriendi and also in guidelines for “comforting” those condemned to death. Harking back to the Capuchin constitutions, Verri wrote how the priest who was the counsellor should “console the one who was condemned as he was being led to the place of execution in a way that was gentle and affable in an effort to implant blessed Jesus in his heart”,[62] by the use of “words that were simple, plain, serious, evocative and full of charity, leaving aside the expressions, concepts and speculations and so forth that have their place in preaching, because nothing obstructs inner regret more than intellectual exhaustion which causes aridity of heart and prevents the soul from producing acts of virtue. It has often been obvious that addressing the condemned person with unfamiliar words exposed the condemned person to losing of the spirit of compunction and devotion that he had acquired.”[63]

This “contemplative” climate should be properly created and maintained so as to assist the work of the Capuchin who is the “counsellor”. It is a work that is extremely religious, thoughtful and inspired by fraternal charity and love for the church. A zealous “counsellor.” no matter what Order he comes from, should strive to do it in this way. However, a Capuchin, because of his special sensitivity, compassion and empathy, affection for people, simplicity and kindness should be better equipped for this ministry because of his respect for people, his bodily suffering, anxiety of conscience and because he is more eager to accept it. By sharing his commitment to “reform” and devotion, his love of Christ Crucified and of souls, he is able to demonstrate in this specialised ministry the genuine Gospel virtues of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Invoking these reasons, Mattia da Salὸ brings his book to a conclusion by encouraging those who are afraid to take on this ministry of mercy:

Anyone who has not experienced this work of mercy so far, should take courage and ask for the help of the Lord so that when he does begin to do it the Lord may give him the spirit to provide all the help that he can to the souls of those who are condemned and to guide them back to being sorry for their sins and to love God out of love.

This too is an apostolate that “overflows with love”.

  1. Cf. Rnb 10 (FF n. 34).
  2. Cf. Rb 6 (FF n. 11).
  3. Adm 25.
  4. Test 1-2.
  5. CF. MP 44.
  6. It is enough to mention the extensive amount of literature produced by the Capuchins that dealt with medical matters as well as spiritual and pastoral topics or even the famous infirmaries at the friaries in Palermo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Venice and so on. The evidence that was gathered in the study by Benito Combasson, in spite of its apologetic approach, is important (cf. vol I n. 1169) as it describes what was the practice in the Order when it first began to flourish. Certainly, in the early days the friars did not have all of the facilities to care for the sick, and because of this, in the more serious cases, in exercising great concern, they preferred to send the sick to better-equipped hospitals and because of this some people accused them of not being charitable. However, they did this out of greater charity as Bernardino da Colpetrazzo says: Their charity was so great that, when someone fell sick, they exerted themselves to show him every kindness possible. When at times it became clear that they did not have the advantage of having a doctor or someone else who could provide the care that was needed in places that were far from the city, they took the sick person to a fraternity or to some safe place and provided him with the best care to cure him. However, their enemies took the opportunity to spread calumny saying: “This is not charity. When one of them falls sick they take him to a hospital and do not show any other kind of charity towards him.” (MHOC IV, 186s).
  7. It is very interesting to see how the early Capuchins infiltrated into the main cities in Italy, Rome, Naples, Genoa and elsewhere offering to serve the sick, particularly the incurable, in various hospitals according to the spirit of mysticism that characterised the Oratory of Divine Love, by means of which the brothers should try to achieve personal inner perfection while at the same time practicing works of charity towards their neighbour, especially compassion for those who were suffering. They undertook every kind of service in these hospitals: nursing the sick and administering the Sacraments. There is precious evidence of this in the archives of S. Giacomo degli Incurabili, which was noted for the first time by E. d’Alençon. This consists of three examples in the Motu proprio which the Custodians of the hospital wanted Pope Paul III to issue. This was probably in the years 1535/1540. The introductory words provide a splendid testimony to charity of the friars: “Motu proprio etc. Cum sicut accrpimus. Licet hactenus nonnulli fratres Ordinis sancti Francisci deObservantia, Capuciati non cupati, per vicarium generalem dicit Ordinis, seu alios superiors pro tempore existentes deputati, venerabili Archihospitali Sancti Jacobi incurabilium in augusta almae Urbis, pie et laudabiliter inservientes, non solum infirmis in eodem hospitali degentibus spiritualia sacramenta pro tempore et occurentibus necessitatibus ministrare, sed etiam eisdem infirmis personalia servitia et obsequie impendere, ac panis et vini, ac reliquorum victualium, necnon vestimentorum et aliorum utensilium ad usum eorum infirmorum et eiusdem hospitalis ministrorum habere et tenere, non minus charitative quam fideliter consuerverunt […]” Cf. E. Alençon De primordibus,87s; with regard to this charitable activity cf. C. Urbanelli, Storia dei cappuccino della Marche I/1, 272s; I/2, 560-567 (= Assistenza agli infirmi e cacerati).
  8. Cf. P. Tacchi Venturi, Storia della Compagnia di Gesú in Italia, I/1, Roma 1931, 411.
  9. Cf. Const. 1536, n. 89 (n. 280).
  10. See the fourth part of this section, nn. 7228-7601.
  11. See an early review of this literature in Melchior a Pobladora. Historia generalis, II/2, 126-130.
  12. Cf. Il dolore e la morte nella spiritualità dei secoli XII-XIII, Todi, 1967; M. Vovelle, Le mort et l’Occident de 1300 à nos jours, Paris 1983, 27-175.
  13. Cf. A. Tenenti, Il senso della morte e l’amore della vita nel Rinasceimento (Francia e Italia), 1978, 62-120.
  14. “At the time of death when the person is experiencing the final temptations from the devil, prayer is as necessary as it ever was.” (MHOC III, 469s.)
  15. Here are a few significant passages but it would make the chapter too long to go any further. “When he saw that it was the end of his life, he made himself ready by means of genuine contrition and made what was a general confession as he received all of the most holy sacraments, and passed over to his Creator.” (MHOC III, 508). “He said little or nothing during the whole of his illness, but when he had received the Sacraments, and when he was totally absorbed in God, he focused his mind as much as he could on contemplating his beloved Jesus Christ.” (ibid., 492s). “He had a great battle with the devil” (ibid., 414). Another friar had to fight strongly with the devil “for some days and nights” (ibid., 392). “He passed on to the Lord in a holy manner” (VI, 132). “He summoned all his friars and asked their forgiveness for the trouble that he ever caused them, and embracing them tenderly he blessed them. Then taking up a piece of paper on which the crucifix was painted, he said very earnestly: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum, and he breathed his last” (ibid., 195). “When he had received all of the Sacraments, he threw himself on the ground so as to pass away there with great humility and approach his Creator more fittingly. However, the Guardian of the place restrained him and thus, on his bed, his saintly soul passed from misery here to a blessed life” (ibid., 208). The chronicler often speaks about a “happy passing”, a “pious transition” and about “the happy death of certain friars,” and so on.
  16. Cf., above n. 4072.
  17. “To send four or six brothers to take care at night of the poor sick people in the main hospital …, keeping watch through the night with Jesus Christ. Not only at night but during the day they need the presence and consolation of your kindness as they are in the hands of paid staff who attend to them without love and do not see that they are suffering both physically and spiritually. Oh, how much good would be achieved. In the first place, this would benefit yourself because you would get to know yourself and how useless it is to toil over what does not pertain to God. It would benefit them in affording them comfort and gentle love in their anxiety and sadness. This would lead to a lengthy discussion that would uncover the many, good advantages that come from doing this work. The experience would make this very clear since words cannot describe it” (cf. above nn. 6551, 6553, 6554).
  18. When the drama which had gone on for four or five hours was finished and fever had broken out then came the hour of death and the performance was over, and as we came naked from our mother’s womb we return there naked, and all are equal with regard to worldly possessions, wealth, nobility of rank, and everything else, and there is no difference between those who are wealthy and those who are poor, between those who possess power and those who are powerless, between the servant and the master” (cf. above n. 3659).
  19. With respect to another remedy: the memory of death, Memorare novissima tua et in aeternum non peccabis. It would be very useful for you to frequently bring death to mind, and to see somebody die behaving like that, going through this agony, having glazed eyes, gasping with his mouth, it will be of great benefit to you and you can say: “Brother, I have yet to go through this passing over, and I do not know when this will happen, whether tonight or tomorrow, and I shall have to leave everything behind except what I have done, and I shall have to render a very strict account for that before the tribunal of the just judge” (cf. above n. 3789).
  20. Cf., above n. 3667
  21. Cf., above nn. 5879-5883,
  22. Cf., above nn. 6461-6467.
  23. It would require further research to situate the concept of death in the Capuchin “way of thinking”. There are already many examples of this in the collection of spiritual writings contained in section one of the present volume.
  24. A. Tenenti, Il senso della morte cit., 102-104.
  25. Cf. Lexicon cap., 119s.
  26. Cf., Apollinare di Valenza, Bibl. Cap. Prov. Neap., 4, n. 2; Melchior de Pobladora, Historia generalis O.F.M. Cap. II/2, 127.
  27. Cf. note 91 in n. 7008.
  28. Cf., MHOC, IV, 195. “Concerning the service to the hospitals for the incurables that was rendered by the early Capuchin “hermits” cf. Cassiano da Langasco, Gli ospedali degli incurabili, Genova 1938, 180-182.
  29. Cf., MHOC III, 140, 173, 264-266, 306, 405, 438s.
  30. Cf., MHOC IV, 198; see also vol II, n. 2738.
  31. Cf., Instruttione al ben morire, Inspruck 1632, 4
  32. Ibid., 3.
  33. Cf., Const. 1536, n. 42, 1-3 (n. 217).
  34. Cf., Instruttione al ben morire cit.
  35. Ibid., 33
  36. With regard to this literature cf. G. Cacclatore, La literature degli “exempla”, in S. Alfonso M. de Liguori, Opere ascetiche: O. Gregorio – G. Cacciatore – D. Capone, Introduzione generale, Roma 1960, 239-283, see also F. C. Tubach, Index Exemplorum, A Handbook of Medieval Religious Tales, Helsinky, 1969; C. Brémond, J. Le Goff and J. C. Schmitt, L’ “Exemplum”, Turnhout 1982; Rhétorique et historire, L’exemplum et la modèle de comportement dans le discours antique et medieval, Rome 1980.
  37. Cf., Instruttione al ben morire cit. 48, 51.
  38. Ibid., 29, 95.
  39. “With regard to Father Lorenzo da Brindisi who was the General of my religious Order of Capuchins, and a priest of great merit and holiness of life, they say that God had gifted him with so much patience that he had his heart fixed on God and sweetly conversed with him while he was speaking to people, but that he did so even while he was asleep and that he was heard to utter with his tongue the sweet names of Jesus and Mary while sleeping saying Jesus Maria, and sometimes Deus videt, God is watching. While I was living in the fraternity in Parma and was assigned to looking after the great servant of God during one of his bouts of sickness during which even though his body was afflicted and suffered seriously, his mind and heart were lifted up to God along whose path he was treading and thus he found relief from his pain” (Instruttione al ben morire, cit., 246).
  40. Ibid., 134, 141, 80.
  41. Ibid., 411s.
  42. Cf., nn. 7130, 7131, 7133 etc.
  43. Cf., Istruttione al bene morire cit.
  44. Ibid., 170.
  45. Ibid., 197s.
  46. Ibid., 211s.
  47. Ibid., 234.
  48. Ibid., 293.
  49. Ibid., 296.
  50. Ibid., 243.
  51. Cf., Ibid., 415-522.
  52. Cf, vol. I, nn. 1807-1811; and above, nn. 4099-4111.
  53. This work is very rare. A copy can be found in library of the Capuchins in Floriana (Malta) another in the friary library in Catelvetrano (Palermo).
  54. C. A. Macchiavelli compiled a list of such books up to 1700, Catologo delli autori e delle materie spettanti alla Conforteria, Bologna 1729. G. Bartuffaldi did the same, Catalogo de’libri d’libri e degli autori che hanno scritto intorno al caritatevole ministero del confortare i condennati alla morte, in id., Direttorio de’confortatori, Bologna 1729; there is also a Doctoral Dissertation at the University of Bologna, which unfortunately has not been published, written by Silvia Zoli, Condannati a Morte e “confortatorri”. L’attività della conforteria a Bologna agli inizi dell’età moderna, in which she lists, compares and analyses many printed publications from the middle the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century.
  55. Up to the present time a few studies have appeared which deal with lay confraternitiesthat worked with those who were condemned to death in the Middle Ages and the modern era, worked in hospitals and gave help to those in prison. There has also been some research on the link between these confraternities and the Fragellant Movement. One noteworthy work in this field is the study by Mario Fanti, La Confraternita di S. Maria della Morte e la Conforteria dei condannati in Bologna nei secoli XIV e XV, in Quaderni del Centro di Ricerca di Studio sul Movimento dei Disciplinati,20 (1978), 3-191. The most qualified scholar is Vincenzo Paglia who has produced two volumes which, although they focus on Rome, treat the historical and cultural problems associated with “sudden” death. Cf., V. Paglia, “La Pietà dei Carcerati: Titi della paura e mentalità religiosa a Roma nell’età moderna, Roma 1982.
  56. With respect to the various editions cf., Ilarino da Milano, Biblioteca dei Frati Cappuccini di Lombardia (1535-1900), Firenze 1937, 229-231, 241s, 258s. See also M. Fanti, Le Confraternita cit. 56.
  57. So far, the edition that was published in Bologna in 1610 has not been found. It was mentioned by G. Sbaraglia in his Supple mentum et castugatio ad Scripttores trium Ordinem S. Francisci, III, Romae 1921, 235b.
  58. Cf., O. Ortolani, Pietro Carnesecchi, Firenze 1963, 161-165.
  59. When we observe a case that took place in Rome in 1697, we can see that this method was used to “convert” someone who was condemned to death but was obstinate. This was a certain Giacomo Franzoni. Nobody, neither the members of the Confraternity of the Augustinians nor a priest, was able to change him for the better. The one who had been condemned did not want to accept, experience or adopt anything of a religious nature. A contemporary account says that while the condemned person was going to the place of execution: “the Capuchin priest finally impatiently burst out saying; “Take the Crucifix away from him, do not offer him any more comfort because the wretch does not deserve it.” The executioner said that he had never seen anything like this in all the time he had been doing this work which was since his childhood, and he said: “Let us put him to death. For him to die once is not enough, he should die a thousand deaths because of his obstinance.” These threats brought about a change of heart: “The patient must have thought things over because of these words. He turned back to go to confession. On going to confession the penance he received was to say Jesus and Mary as he when up the steps”, Cf. V. Paglia, La morte confortata, cit., 92s.
  60. There were other Capuchins who were also chaplains to this Confraternity, such as Francesco Antonio da Gallarae (+ 1730) and Antonio Affaitati da Albogasio (+ 1721). Both of these wrote tracts concerning assistance to those who were condemned to death. The former had his published in Milan in 1728, L’Assistente in practica, overo dottrine, regole e practice per assistere i condannati per disporre li moribondi e per vivere da cristiano; the second in 1719; the other wrote in 1719: Il caritativo assistente in practica. Metodo per confortare ed aiutare I condannati a morte ad un felice passaggio. Puὸ servire per assistere a qualunque morubondo e anche per chiunque desidera fare buona e santa morte. Cf. Illario da Milan, Biblioteca cit., 64, n. 381; 114, n. 604.
  61. Cf. F. Carlo Verri da Cremona, Ricordi per essercitare il carritativo officio d’aiutare a christianamente morire questi meschini che sono dalla giustizia condannati a morte, Milano 1727, 180.
  62. Ibid.,183.
  63. Ibid.,127.