1534 witness to the Capuchin reform in Southern Italy

1534 lament of a humanist for a friend who became a Capuchin friar

Introductions by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translated by Gary Devery OFM Cap

This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by Padre Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol II, pages 302-311; 933-938 (Letter of Giovanni da Modena to Antonio Minturno Sebastiani).

Table of Contents

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Antonio Minturno, son of Antonio Sebastiani, was a prelate and humanist of Traetto. He called himself ‘Minturno’ for love of the ancient name of his place of origin: Minturnae, city of the Aurunci and then of the Romans, near the mouth of Garigliano in the province of Latina.

As with every humanist, he delighted in literature and poetry. Some of his verses of religious inspiration impressed his young friend and confidant, Giambattista Bacchini da Modena. Giambattista was then deeply moved by the passionate and penitential preaching taking place in Messina by Ludovico Cumi da Reggio, one of the initiators of the Capuchin reform in Calabria. Giambattista then decided to leave everything and enter into the new Franciscan reform. His investiture in the Capuchin habit was on the evening of 10 April 1534. The next day, without telling anyone, not even his mother, he crossed the strait of Messina to begin his novitiate in the friary of the Immaculate Conception in Reggio.

The future bishop of Ugento and of Crotone then vented his desolation in some letters, one written to his intimate friend Bacchini on the same day as his departure and some letters to other friends the following day. These letters are an interesting witness of what a radical vocational choice creates in the soul of another and also are a presentation of how the Capuchin reform at its very beginning came to be seen by the learned and lettered.

The humanist, while deeply appreciating the radical vocational choice, writes from his heart to his friend that one can save his soul also in a less dramatic way, following a way less direct and short, but at the same time just as good. He makes a comparison between the Christian life of the secular and that of the cloistered religious, in relation to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The secular can give more alms to the poor; in the cloister one fasts more, it is to be admitted, but in regard to the prayer, he does not see why there needs to be a preference: the one state is of equal value to the other.

Another issue he raises is that of the relationship between the apostolate of preaching and that of writing. The humanist prefers the latter because it benefits the people both in the present as well as in the future. Nevertheless, he does not want to lessen the juvenile enthusiasm of his friend nor does he want to oppose his decision. He wishes that he may persevere in such a harsh choice.

He manifests analogous thinking to the other friends, but with new details that reveal his great suffering at the loss of his friend. By saying how his “Bacchino” has “set out on a rough and thorny path”, he makes a splendid presentation of this “new Order of friars of Saint Francis”, called “Hermits”, drawn from “ the Marches of Ancona and in Calabria”, with some critical reflections that intuit the difficulties being experienced in the early period of the Capuchin reform.

The learned humanist fears that his friend will not be able to support the rigor of that “hard life” and the “harshness of the clothing”, being “delicate of body and raised in comfort”. He charges the Rev. Messer Antonio de l”Anella to comfort the “poor mother” that, far away, is in the dark about all these happenings.

The reader will appreciate the immediacy and spontaneity of this witness, and also his elegant style, as with the humanities, redundant with classical reminiscences.

1. To Messer Giovanni Battista Bacchini after he has become a friar

[Messina, 11 April 1534]

2079 If I thought, my singular friend, that these few badly composed lines could have the power to induce you to abandon him who loves you and will always love you no less than himself, not only would I not have given them to you but also I would have been refraining from writing them at all so that I would not hurt myself with my own weapons. It is such that I do not believe that these verses, low and cold, but the high and burning words of reverend Father friar Ludovico have led you to begin this adventure of your intrepid salvation, that I believe for me is a cruel and bitter passing, for which I cry, nor for which I find consolation, nor do I know when I believe I will be reconciled to it.

May you firmly hold that no one every suffered such pain at the passing of another, not that of a son for his dear parents, nor that of one brother for the other brothers, nor that of one lover for the other lover, as mine is for you. I have said little, so that that death may not give reason for another’s greater sorrow. As a consequence, while in your spirit you are alive, for me, I have to tell you, you are already dead.

It is also true, as the sacred scriptures admonish us, that the one who is busy giving life to the Spirit is killing the flesh. But for me this dying of yours is too hard and grievous. Heartless, how could you leave me alone so that you could follow that way of salvation?

2080 Recall to your mind how I always held you as the best of my friends, almost placing all the others in oblivion, electing you for my only friend, only in you could I rest, you calmed me from the annoyances of which human life is full, in you I found refuge; only with you I communicated my secrets; with you only I shared all my blessings and my struggles. From now on, who will by my support, my consolation and my help? With whom will I reason? With whom will I share my delights and troubles, as they ebb and flow? Was there any other thought of another path between us, by which we were being led together freely by the grace of God, safe towards the homeland of the blessed? Did you not promise me, saying to me many times, you would live your life with me? Well now, who has interrupted that noble way of thinking? Who has rendered vain to me your promise? “God, you say, God; he who knows how to bind and loose, and draw, and impede others, how and when and where He pleases. The Lord had led me here, the Lord who sees and knows what the better way is. It is the Lord I will serve. It is the Lord I am disposed to serve from here on.”

That is how you responded to me this morning without even using a friendly word between us, fearing perhaps that I would use my customary mode of speaking freely with you. I will no longer use it with you. Nor will I use it now, even for the just cause of a man to lament so as to at least pour out the bitterness of my suffering.

2081 But I will respond to what you said: That Christ, true man and true God; that Jesus, Saviour of the world; that Father who can do everything, that Son knows everything; that Holy Spirit who ignites everything with chaste and kind love, that ineffable Trinity, that one God, that Lord that you adore, I also adore. In Him I trust, in Him I stand; we can serve him in different ways, and good was the way we previously thought; shorter is this way, but more difficult, more direct. No one way is false for the one who does not let himself be led astray.

There are three things we read that are most dear to God: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.[1] The first two do better for oneself than for others; for the third one, it does more good to others, rather than contribute to one’s immortality. We mean by almsgiving, every work of mercy, as for fasting, every type of abstinence. That God values more the doing of good to others rather than for oneself, is as clear as day. However, the way I was showing you, which was pleasing to you, was to do be better for yourself rather than for others. How? Are we not ourselves giving a great deal towards good prayer, preaching, admonishing, inducing others along the right path? Certainly yes. The pen is more useful – as it benefits the near and the far, those present and the future – than the tongue, that is not heard by the newborn, those not yet born, nor by those who find themselves far away.

I would also add that our way is more generous in helping the poor with money. Whereas, this way that you have recently begun to follow, advances by way of fasting, as much as it is surpassed by the other in almsgiving. With the prayer, I do not see why one way needs to be contrasted with the other. Nor am I saying this so as to call you back from the path you have already placed yourself on; but to indicate to you that such a way of thinking, under the guidance of the Lord, would have led you to heaven no less directly. Nor do I desire to call you back, even if there was time, rather, I want to spur you on in the course you have commenced, and console you to follow it always with a bold and ardent spirit, with which you have entered into it, having always in mind that ancient saying: “Nothing is more blameworthy to oneself, than to cease from the enterprise begun”, especially when it is just and glorious, as such is yours.

2082 Do not let it be said of you: “Madness led me to it, and shame holds me to it”; rather, it should be said: “God and reason have guided me, and divine grace and my patience will sustain me in it”. You need to be strong, constant and firm in your efforts, difficulties, in all that seems grave in being able to be supported in, and contrary to the disposition of your body; and when the flesh is weak, let your spirit be strong.

Be diligent in observing the things you have promised by your vows, of which obedience is primary, and may you obey not as out of misfortune, but freely, with a peaceful and tranquil heart.[2] But why am I now preaching to you? You are already better informed of these things than I would be able to explain in writing.

I thank you that you encouraged me in spending my time in service to God, even if you believe that I would not have spent it in disservice to Him; in leaving the study of human doctrine to follow that of the divine; even if these do not do well one without the other, and my intention be to hold them together,[3] and not to linger too long, but to walk while there is still light, so that in the end the darkness does not overtake me. Although my path to the divine light is clear, however, it is not such that it should not fear the darkness.[4] Therefore, in placing myself on this path, to which you have spurred me, which I also much desire, there is need for me of divine grace.

Pray to the Lord that he grants that to me, and I hope you will see its gracious works.[5]

At Messina, 11th April 1534

2. To Reverend Messer Antonio de l’Anella

[Messina, 12 April 1534]

2083 If I could be, my Reverend Messer Antonio, that ‘Minturno’ who I usually am, I would have responded to the sonnet and the epigram that you sent me. However, I found myself so disturbed and so overcome by grief, that I am almost beside myself.

To tell the truth, several times the grief tried to attack me deep inside. Never before was it enough to win me from my duty. But now it has come with such force that I have not been able to, nor can I, stop the tears. Rather, the more I apply myself to stopping them, the more they gush forth from my eyes. And no matter how much I believe I have a certain amount of tranquillity in my heart and a dry face, it all changes and crystal-clear drops rain down with an anguished storm of broken and sombre sobs. How can I not cry, nor moan, having lost the dearest pledge of friendship and the sweetest fruit that it could bring to me?

Dead to me and to his friends and to his family is Messer Giambattista Bachini, dead to the world. The friars have taken him, or rather, as he says, the Lord has wanted him for himself and in his service has conducted him. He could have served Him in such a manner which, between us, we spoke of many times. Now, moved by I know not what opinion, he has left me and without making me a part of his new thoughts, and put himself upon a harsh and thorny path.

2084 In the Marches of Ancona and in Calabria there has been born a new Order of friars of Saint Francis or, as they say, the old is renewed; they call themselves Hermits.[6] They are not different from the Observants in anything other, in my opinion, than the outside habit, with a cowl similar to that used by the peasants when it rains, and being attentive that money may not fall into their possession, and they live and serve according to the form of the Rule given by their Patriarch. They live outside the city, but do not cease to go among the people nor to preach, or to do what they can for them. Nor do they use any household necessities or bed, unless they are of the poorest quality, smallest size and very hard. Some go barefoot, which is voluntary.[7]

Bacchino has joined this Order. It suffers me so much to have lost such a good friend; but I also have great compassion for him, for his body, which being delicate and raised in comfort, weak and sickly, I do not know if it will sustain him in such a hard life. But what else can we do but conform ourselves to the will of God, and with that defeat those unpleasant hardships, and to lightly carry that weight, wear gently the yoke, that the infallible Truth says is light and easy?[8]

2085 I send you the example of that letter that he wrote to me when he went to take the habit, and that which I, not without tears, wrote to him.[9] I will send you those verses, of which he writes which led him to leave the world.

Friar Ludovico da Reggio, certainly a man of good and holy life and sound doctrine, is one of these new ‘fraticelli’. It was him who was preaching in this city, he is the one who has despoiled us. He vested him [Bacchino] in that habit on the 10th of this month and on the 11th at 2pm he embarked to pass to Calabria.

I wanted to give you a full briefing, so that you and the other friends over there know; and that you give his poor mother this news, and comfort her as much as it will be possible to do. Tell her, if this though can move her, as it should move the gods, that her Giulio is well and has remained at home in the service of his Excellency.[10]

By orders sent to me by Baccino, I will sell all his stuff that he has left; and the money I receive from it, I will send on to you, adding those things that the gentlemen will give me […].

Stay well, and do not forgive the pen [in its not writing often to me].

From Messina, 12th April 1534

3. To Messer Scipione d’Arezzo

[Messina, 12 April 1534]

2086 […] For me, Bacchino is dead to the world, but in Christ is now alive. It does not pain me that he serves a better Lord, of which I am proud, but that he did not consider it enough to have served Him together with me in an easier way (if I am not wrong) and bearing fruit for God and his beloved people.

Who would have ever thought that Bacchino could abandon Minturno for a ‘fraticello’? The company of a faithful friend, heart and study aligned, for a person unknown to him, even for a better life, more worthy to be loved and followed? May it please the Lord that at the end he does not find himself deceived by his new way of thinking, but to have changed life and friends, to have gained that advantage the Lord promises to his faithful servants.

To the pain I join compassion, which holds me to him; and my fear that he, having a body that is so ill-disposed and weak, even if the spirit is willing, can sustain such a proposed harshness of clothing and way of living. Let us leave aside the importunity, the jealousy, and the discord of the ‘fraticelli’. What does comfort me is the novelty of that Order, that to gain the reputation for holiness and to make the Order venerable and worthy of reverence among the main religious orders, induces the friars, there present, to live peacefully, and, as such, more as to what their profession asks of them; and also because they are few in number.[11]

I hope that if God has called him, that he also gives him the grace to lightly carry the weight and sweetly bear the yoke […].

Stay well.

From Messina 12th April 1534

41. Giovanni da Modena to Antonio Minturno Sebastiani

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Reggio Calabria, 18 April 1534. – He is called Giambattista Bacchini, from Modena, but he finds himself in Messina, a close friend of the humanist Antonio Minturno, when overcome by a religious crisis and stimulated by the preaching of Father Ludovico Cumi da Reggio Calabria, he decides to become a Capuchin and takes the name Brother Giovanni da Modena. From the novitiate in Reggio Calabria, in the hermitage of the Conception, he writes to his friend to console him over the separation and to explain to him the motives for this decision that slowly matured: a wanting to follow Christ crucified and to imitate him in his life of poverty and humility; a greater certainty of saving himself; an eagerness to quickly become an apostle and preacher of the Gospel so as to be an instrument of salvation for others; to take advantage of the benefits of the consecrated life that allows one to continually exercise prayer, fasting and almsgiving. While not directly describing the life of the new Franciscan reform, that in Calabria had only become definitively organised in the last two years, this letter leaves a precious witness of the young fervour of a “vocation” to the Capuchin life at its very origins.

The Letter of Giovanni da Modena to Antonio Minturno Sabastiani

2509 If for you, my most observant friend and patron, as your most graceful and loving letter – given to me by my brother Giulio Cesare- shows, how much pain my departure from vain and worldly solicitudes has brought you, how much greater pain do you think it must have been for me? Therefore, you can only say that you have been deprived of the presence of a poor little man, certainly not worthy to be called a friend by you, but in truth, a true and faithful servant, who never thought of doing anything else other than what you would be grateful for and who willingly put his life at the service of your well-being: which he equally would do henceforth.

While I can well say I am deprived of your presence, I do not say of a friend – because I cannot place myself at that high degree of friendship with you – but of a patron and a most kind Lord, of one who was, to say it with the words of Horace, decus et praesidium meum [my honour and protection].

It is truly that invidious and proud enemy of man, who wants to withdraw me from my good resolution, who has no more powerful weapons to make war with me than to often depict to me your remarkable virtue and humanity, the obligation I have towards you, our laudable resolutions, and the transitory name I dreamed of acquiring in the expectant world; those weapons were of such force that more than once they drew me from my resolution; and this is the reason why I did not dare to reveal to you my thoughts, dubious of what could easily have happened if I did so.

Nor am I now (to tell you the truth) without this battle, however, the enemy, on the other hand, cannot harm me, having all his other weapons smashed an broken; all the same, he does not cease to tempt me with these, which likewise, by divine grace, are already broken; since every time I feel the sting, I look upon that ancient bronze serpent made by the good Moses by order of the supreme Father, so as to liberate the people of Israel from the bite of the venomous snakes.[12]

2510 It is true, my most kind friend, that the resolution, as you said, was holy and good; and that by that way we could have been saved, when followed it could have that desired effect. But how could we have been certain of it? Because, even if man proposes to do some good work, nonetheless, the prime Mover and provider of everything must dispose it; and the common enemy is always ready to ruin every good enterprise; and death, likewise, overcomes us, of which no one knows the day or the hour; of which when it is sent, woe to the one who it does not find vigilant and waiting, because by a dreadful judge he will be judged in whatever state he is found. How difficult it will be for the man continually being primed in the vanity of the world, the one who well ponders and thinks and often reads what the Lord admonishes in the holy Gospel knows it.[13]

O God, who will ever be able to avoid so many snares from the cruel enemy who has taken everything to draw them into being part of his unhappy and unfortunate swarm? I often think to myself about these things, thinking and considering the immaculate life of Him who, so as to liberate us from the eternal death, did not hesitate to generously spill his most precious blood; and being Lord of all, he emptied himself so as to be born and to live so poorly in the world, that he did not even have a poor dwelling where he could close himself in and lodge, let alone a great and rich palace;[14] it seems to me that it is impossible that I could save myself, if I had not fled the vanity of the world and partly followed (for no one can fully follow) the holy footprints of Him, there [with the Capuchins] where lay a way to more easily follow, as this cannot be done, or very little, in the world where no one likes poverty and humility, of which He liked so much to exult in; and after a little while one begins to know and imitate the burning charity of Him who so ardently demonstrated it to us poor mortals; nor does anyone delight in going barefoot for love of Him, who for love of us did this for thirty-three years; and finally, few are those who fully do even one of the [good] works, which He lovingly carried out, giving us an example so as to teach us.

2511 But one could say to me: “What will become of so many creatures he has made and continues to make, who do not follow these footprints that to the world appear so hard? Can they be saved and enter into the Kingdom of heaven?” Certainly so, believing in Him and following, as He has said his holy commandments. But who is the one who does this enough, only partly observing them, or how can one observe them in this fallacious and alluring world? But if everyone in the world is to observe them, as in the reply to the one who asked the Lord, what must he do to obtain eternal life: “Anyone who wants to be perfect – as He added – let him sell all he has in the world, and give it to the poor”;[15] and as he says in another place: “Deny yourself and follow Him”;[16] To which his disciples asked who can be saved, to which he responded that what is impossible for men is not impossible for God, to whom everything is possible.[17]

But what am I doing, preaching that which everyone can read in the sacred pages? Do I think, after two days, to have become a preacher? Yes, that is what I now want, I deeply desire to become one, so that I can give grateful service to the Lord.

2512 I certainly did not want to respond to any particular matter in your letter; but as I went forward it happened that the pen wrote without me noticing it, I want to finish here. However, is it not to be that I don’t give a brief response to where you say one reads there are three things very dear to God: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, attributing the first two to religious, and the other one to seculars; and saying that this one is much more important and pleasing to our supreme Father, in that it benefits our neighbour, and the others are less pleasing, since they only do good to those who employ them.

I would like to say here, if you would allow me, something that we could agree upon. However, enough for now to say just this: for the one who considers it well, he would know that authentic religious continually do all three works together, and even much more the third one than the other two. In as much as the good they do, they do a good part of it for others, because they never cease in all their good works to pray to the Lord for others: while the almsgiving is a true work of mercy, how much more and how much more worthy is that done for the soul of the body. Moreover, it is good for both the soul and the body together and cannot be taken away from either.

2513 Let us leave aside the benefit that comes to the seculars from the good example of the authentic religious of following in the holy footsteps of the Lord and in serving him, and the great gift that they have made to Him of their own freedom and will, of which they expect that great reward he has promised to them when Peter asked him: “Lord, we have left everything (intending their own will and freedom, in that they did not have many things, in that they were poor fishermen); what will be given us?”[18] However, that almsgiving that you speak of, benefits only the neighbour’s body and can be taken away, which, nonetheless, is a great thing when done out of requested charity. But few are they who use riches as God has given it to them to be used. Nor do they believe that someone has been made rich by high and supreme providence so as to be utilised for the poor. It seems to them that if they can accumulate goods, which the wise of this world call good luck, then they should do it; but as our Chrysostom says, you should desire to become a poor man for the benefit of the rich, since there is little good in being rich, the rich man can be saved by way of the almsgiving, of which it is to be seen if one does as it is asked of him to do; and we can similarly understand in regard to the goods of the soul, of which the work of mercy is far greater than anything else.

You say that what comes from the pen is more useful, as it can benefit both those nearby and far away, the present and the future, than the tongue, as those not already born do not hear it nor does it arrive to those who are far away. I confess this and affirm it to be so, when the work that one does with the pen is directed towards the salvation of souls; but when it is done for another end, all that is reputed to be vain and emptiness, it is of little benefit; and it seems to me that these such works are those against which the Lord threatens and admonishes, saying that such works as these have already received their reward in this world.[19]

2514 But of this I have said enough, and humbly request your forgiveness if the pen has presumptuously run ahead and said those things that are less than worthy to be written to you. I want to thank you very much for those good and loving admonitions you have given to me; I will try to observe them and hope that with the grace of the Lord, which is never lacking to his servants, can assist me to follow and to finish the course I have commenced.

I want, my dearest friend, that for now you do not grieve for me, nor to say that you are wanting of me, not being already dead, but having given myself to the service of Him by means of his divine grace, I can be of greater benefit to you, which in the world I have not done in my entire life. While, if I could, there is the desire to see you with my bodily eyes, I will always see you with the eyes of my mind, I am begging you to at least console me with your letters, and to pray to the Lord that he gives me the strength to carry out the enterprise I have begun, as I equally will do for your health.

From the place of Saint Mary of the Consolation, of the city of Reggio, 1534.

Most willingly and promptly praying to God for your lordship, the least of the servants of the Lord,

Brother Giovanni da Modena[20]

  1. Cf. Tb 12:8.
  2. Minturno esteemed religious life but was not convinced that someone need choose a way so “desperate” as that of the Capuchins. I another letter written in the same days (12 April 1534) to a Giambattista Martelli da Traetto, he expresses it such: “Baccino has left me wanting to be a beghard “fraticelli”. However, since his intention is good, I forgive him” (Lettere cit., f. 65v).
  3. Like a good classical humanist.
  4. Allusion to Jn 12:35.
  5. Antonio Minturno actually became bishop of Ugento on 27th January 1559 and bishop of Crotone on 13th July 1565. He took part in the Council of Trent and promoted the opening in Naples of the first college of the Jesuits. He wrote in Latin and in the vulgar verses and prose, of which one was ‘Arte poetica (c. 1563) according to Aristotle, interpreted in the spirit of the counter-reformation. He died at Crotone in 1574.
  6. The notice is exact. The first Capuchins defined themselves as “friars minor of the eremitcal life”.
  7. It is one of the best descriptions of the Capuchin reform at its origin seen from the perspective of an outsider.
  8. Cf. Mt 11:30.
  9. The letter that Vacchini, having become Br Giovanni da Modena, wrote from the novitiate of Reggio on 18 April 1534 is a reply to Minturno, edited here, and place further forward in section III, doc. 29, in the first part of the section intitled: Vita-spiritualità. The humanist later wrote a long letter – tract where he explains in depth the concepts of Christian spirituality, demonstrating that there is no opportunity for a division between the secular state and religious life, because spiritual love and the life of grace in Jesus Christ unite all the faithful.
  10. Giulio Cesare was the brother of Giambattista Bacchini and provided service to a noble count, perhaps the Viceroy of Sicily, as Giambattista had previously done for a number of years in the office of secretary. This notice can be read in a letter of Minturno of 25 April 1531.
  11. This allows us to understand how the first small groups of Calabrese Capuchins were battling to defend their reform, with all the difficulties of the relationships with the Observants, as narrated by the early chroniclers.
  12. That is, to look toward and invoke Christ crucified, alluding to Nm 21:4-9.
  13. Probably an allusion, per es., to Mt 24:42-51; 25:1-13; or to Lk 12; 16:13; 18:24-30 ecc.
  14. In these and other sentences, as well as the resonance of the intense spiritual meditations that were maturing in the young Bacchini in his vocation to the Capuchin life, one can also perceive suggestions that resonate ante litteram of sentences of the first Capuchin Constitutions. Cf. Cost. 1536, n. 69 or 25-27 ecc.
  15. Cf. Mt 19:21.
  16. Cf. Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23.
  17. Cf. Mk 10:26-27.
  18. Cf. Mt 19:27; Mk 10:28; Lk 18:28.
  19. Cf. Mt 6:2,5.
  20. There are not precise biographical details about this religious.