Egidio of Viterbo’s Address to the Fifth Lateran Council, May 3, 1512

(Source: John C. Olin, Catholic Reform from Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent 1495-1563), Fordham University Press, New York, 1990, pp. 47-60.)

There is no one here, I believe, who does not wonder, when there are so many men in the city who are famed indeed for their ability to speak with dignity and eloquence, why I, who can in no way be compared with these brilliant men, should be the one to appear before us and should dare to speak on so important a matter and in so great an assembly that the world has none more esteemed or more sacred. I might indeed say that something has intervened, and for this reason I have been preferred over the others, not because of any excellence but because of earlier times and activities. And so for this reason I seem to have been invited as the first to cast a spear in this conflict and to begin the Holy Lateran Council.

For about twenty years ago, as much as I was able and my meager strength allowed, I explained the Gospels to the people, made known the predictions of the prophets, expounded to nearly all of Italy John’s Apocalypse concerning the destiny of the Church, and repeatedly asserted that those who were then listening would see great agitation and destruction in the Church and would one day behold its correction.[1] Now it has seemed proper that he who had said these things would happen bears witness that they have happened, and he who had so often cried out ”My eyes will see salutary times” now at last cries out “My eyes have seen the salutary and holy beginning of the awaited renewal.” If only you be present, Renewer of the world, Child of a divine Father, Preserver and Savior of mortal men, you may grant to me the power to speak, to my address the power to persuade, to the Fathers the power to celebrate, not with words but with deeds, a true, holy, and full Council, to root out vice, to arouse virtue, to catch the foxes who in this season swarm to destroy the holy vineyard, and finally to call fallen religion back to its old purity, its ancient brilliance, its original splendor, and its own sources. Thus I shall say of a Council both how useful it is for the Church at all times and how necessary it is for our times, with the preface that I would not dare alter the prophetic writings, but would make use of the words and speeches in their entirety, as they are accustomed to be read, not only because men must be changed by religion, not religion by men, but because the language of truth is straightforward. And from the beginning this division came to mind: some things are divine, others celestial, others human.

Divine things certainly do not need correction because they are not subject to motion or change. But celestial and human things, being subject to movement, long for renewal. For when the moon has come into position with the sun and when the sun has descended from the summer solstice to the winter solstice to the great loss, as it were, of men, the loss is completely restored. Nature’s law demands that the loss of light be made up for and that whatever was taken away on the wane be restored to men on the ascent. If the paths of the stars in the heavens, even though constant, eternal, and everlasting, nevertheless return and are restored, what then does this third division of things do, since they are changing, transitory, and mortal? Indeed, either they inevitably perish in a quick destruction, or they are restored in a continual renewal. For what food is for bodies that they may live, and procreation for species that they may be perpetuated, correction, cultivation, instruction serve as the occasion demands for human souls. And as no living things can long survive without nourishment from food, so man’s soul and the Church cannot perform well without the attention of Councils. If you should take rain from the meadows, streams from the gardens, tilling from the fields, pruning from the vines, and nourishment from living beings, these would soon dry up and grow wild, and the latter would cease living and die. Such was the case after the time of Constantine when, though much splendor and embellishment were added to religion, the austerity of morals and living was greatly weakened.

As often as the holding of Councils was delayed, we saw the divine Bride forsaken by her Spouse and that message of the Gospel accomplished which was recited yesterday: “A little while and you shall not see me.” We saw Christ sleeping in a small boat, we saw the force of the winds, the fury of the heretics, raging against the bright sails of truth. We saw evil’s desperate recklessness battering the laws, authority, and majesty of the Church. We saw wicked greed, the cursed thirsting for gold and possessions. We saw, I say, violence, pillage, adultery, incest in short, the scourge of every crime so confound all that is sacred and profane, and so attack the holy bark, that this bark has been almost swamped by the waves of sin and nearly engulfed and destroyed.

Once again at the prompting of that Spirit to whom public prayers have this day been decreed, the Fathers have had recourse to a Council. As quickly as possible they have corrected and settled all matters. They have exercised their command over the winds and storms, and as though carried to the safest of ports they have compelled might to yield to reason, injustice to justice, vice to virtue, storms and waves to serenity and tranquillity. And they have sung a hymn to the Holy Spirit, to the God of fishermen, of the sea, and of waters: “Deep waters cannot quench love,” and “The winter is past, the rains are over and gone. . .. Arise, my beloved” [Cant. 8:7, 2:11-13]. For the Bride lies still, as the leaves of the trees in winter, but with the effort of Councils does she arise and grow strong, as the trees bring forth their leaves in the springtime when the sun returns. With the rays of the returning sun the favoring west wind blows, and the young trees bloom forth in their richness; so with the light of Councils and the Holy Spirit the winds blow and the dead eyes of the Church come to life again and receive the light. And here the other part of the prophecy is fulfilled: ”Again a little while and you shall see me.” Therefore, she wishes nothing for herself except that the Holy Spirit’s light which is extinguished without Councils, like a new fire struck from flint, be again kindled and recovered in the Councils. Paul, the glory of the Apostles, when he declared the source of salvation, said: “Without faith we cannot please God.” But without Councils, faith cannot stand firm. Without Councils, therefore, we cannot be saved.

In order to prove from experience what we assert as true by reason, we must consider that there are three fundamental articles of belief from which flows the Church’s entire faith. The first is the unity of the divine nature. The second is the most blessed Trinity of parent, child, and love in the same nature. The third is the conception of the divine Child in the womb of the Virgin. On these, as on the highest peaks and most sacred mountains, the remaining nine parts of faith and all piety are founded. “His foundation upon the holy mountains [the Lord loves].” Truly, unity is called the mountain of God because God’s essence and nature consist precisely in unity. And in order that we may reflect upon the fact that this unity is not solitary and sterile, but rather endowed with the richest abundance, fertile mountain is added. And when indeed the Word is given body in the Virgin, the prophet describes the mountain as coagulated.[2]

Thus threefold is this vineyard situated on the mountaintops, a vineyard which prophecies have said would be and the Gospels have revealed is here. But now the vineyard had perished, for, as David testified, a wild beast from the woods had ravaged it, that is, the ferment of philosophy had laid it waste. First Arius, who shattered the doctrine of unity, tried to tear down the mountain. Next came Sabellius, who confused the Persons [of the Trinity]. The third was Photius, who overthrew the Virgin Birth with impure recklessness. Like three most base giants, seduced by the desire for glory and the longing for change, they dared to move the mountains from their place, so that they might open a way to attack and pull down heaven. And now their prayers were answered, for with arms the princes ordered accepted what these men by philosophy were persuading. Philosophy was pressing us with its arguments; arms with standards gathered attacked. The former by deceit, the latter by force, were trying to overthrow the faith. Philosophy tried to overturn what was believed; force strove to destroy those who believed. The first raged against pious souls; the second, against living bodies. What was the divine Bride, now on the very brink of destruction, to do in order to escape? Whose trust, whose strength, whose aid could she beseech? The tempest was raging, the boat was sinking. In short, so as not to delay on many points, no way to flee, no way to escape, was found save only the Council of Nicaea when God appeared to Silvester, who sat at the helm, a man already suffering shipwreck, and said: “O you of little faith, why have you doubted?” And immediately by divine power he restored the mountains of faith and destroyed the rash monsters. Whereby the Bride, having been rescued, learned from experience that when she saw any misfortune threatening her she had no defense more effective than a Council, where alone no waters extinguish the fire of charity in the Church and the Holy Spirit makes a resting-place in our souls, even as, according to the testimony of Moses, the only Conqueror of the waves and Ruler of the storms is borne across the waters.

What I have just said about faith, which indeed would not exist without the establishment of a Council, I wish applied to temperance, justice, wisdom, and the other virtues. Certainly we all desire idleness rather than hard work, leisure rather than activity, pleasure rather than deprivation. But whenever we take notice of what is done at Councils, so that an evaluation may be made, the question of morals and living be investigated, and the wicked discovered, judged, and punished, while, on the other hand, the upright are attracted, encouraged, and praised, unbelievable incentives to cultivate virtue are inspired, with the result that men take courage, decide on the better course of action, undertake to give up vice and pursue virtue, and strive after nothing that is not honorable and lofty. It is this which has been the distinguishing characteristic of a Council, from which shone forth, as though from the Trojan horse, the brightest lights of so many minds. This approval of virtue, this condemnation of vice brought forth the Basils, Chrysostoms, Damascenes in Greece, the Jeromes, Ambroses, Augustines, Gregorys in Italy. And what books, writings, and memorials, what a wealth of learning, instruction, and divine wisdom have they not gathered into the Christian treasury?

Since time does not permit, I pass over what should hardly be passed over, namely, the question of those in charge of the churches and the shepherds of the people on whom certainly rest the entire Christian faith and salvation. For just as this lower world is ruled by the movement and light of heaven, so the Christian peoples are governed by rulers as though by heavenly shepherds, who, if they are to be good, must teach others while shining themselves with the light of learning, and must lead the way by their own actions, practicing the pious deeds they preach. These are the two things that Christ, the Prince of shepherds, taught when He ordered them to carry burning lamps in order to teach clearly and to gird themselves in order to live piously [Luke 12:35]. At the same time He Himself did this in an extraordinary way, being the Light of the world and the Wisdom of the Divine Father, and He was called the Holy of Holies because He excelled all upright men in the holiness of His Life. And because of this He said “I am the Good Shepherd.” The evangelist who writes that He began first to act, then to teach [Acts 1:1], testifies what He said on both these points. And indeed those twelve leaders who were established as princes over the entire earth were inspired and perfected by the power of the Spirit, and so comprehended the meaning of heaven that they merited the name of heaven, as the very well known prophecy proclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” By this we are warned that we should honor the fame of those leaders who imitated and followed the light of heaven by their wisdom and its order by their sanctity. History records how much attention therefore Councils have given to this matter, which is by far the most important of all. For those who join a holy rule of life to distinguished learning are sought out from every part of the earth by the Council’s Fathers and are raised up and adorned with the highest praise of those selecting them, with the fruits of the churches, and with the favor, the joy, and the applause of the people.

What should I say about that most serious and most dangerous matter of all, which everyone in our days deplores? I mean the wrongs inflicted by princes, the insolence of armies, the threats of armed force. For what can be heard or thought of that is more pitiable than that the queen of heaven and earth, the Church, is forced to be a slave to might, to surrender, or to shudder before the weapons of plunderers? This pestilence today spreads so far, rises to such a height, and gathers so much strength that all the authority of the Church and its freedom conferred by God seem overturned, struck to the ground, and completely destroyed. Therefore, beware, O Julius II, Supreme Pontiff, beware lest you believe that any man has ever conceived a better or more beneficial plan than you have conceived at the prompting of the Holy Spirit in convening a Council, whose decrees certainly no kings, no princes can despise; nor can they disregard its commands or disparage its authority. For if there are some who by chance have dared to esteem lightly the pope alone, defenseless by himself, they have become accustomed to fear and respect him when he is provided, by the authority of a Council, with the support and devotion of princes and nations.

If we recall the accomplishments of Councils, we realize that there is nothing more effective, greater, or more powerful than these. It was at a Council that Gregory X designated Rudolph Emperor in opposition to John of Spain and Alphonso of Lusitania, at a Council that Martin IV took measures against Pedro of Aragon, at a Council that Boniface VIII decreed against King Philip. It was at a Council that once Gregory and then Eugenius, within the memory of the Fathers, joined the Greek church to the Latin.[3] It was at a Council that both Innocent IV and Gregory IX took action against the Emperor Frederick. Indeed in this very temple, the foremost of all, ever accustomed to conquer enemies and never to be conquered, it was only at a Council that Innocent II cast down his adversaries, that Alexander III triumphed over [the antipope] Victor and his allies, that Innocent III removed Otto from the Empire, and that Martin V routed the hostile forces of the tyrants. And lest I enumerate every case, whatever measure is worthy of praise, whatever deed is worthy of glory in the Church since the time of Melchiades, either in holding off an enemy or in reconciling a state, in each instance it has had its origin in Councils and therefore should be associated with them.

For what else is a holy Council if not an object of fear for the evil, a hope for the upright, a rejection of errors, a seed-bed and revival of virtues, whereby the deceit of the devil is conquered, the allurements of the senses removed, reason restored to its lost citadel, and justice returned from heaven to earth? Indeed God returns to men. For if He has said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I come to them and am in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:20], with what greater joy does He join that gathering where not only two or three have come, but so many leaders of the Church? If John calls the shepherds of the churches angels, what is there that so great an assembly of angels cannot seek by its petitions or obtain by its prayers from God [Rev. 1-3]? Here Eve is called back from exile; here the head of the serpent is crushed by the heel of a more holy maiden. Abraham is led forth from the land of the Chaldeans; Agar the slave-girl submits to her mistress. A covenant with God is again made, and a spiritual circumcision is introduced. Here the father of patriarchs makes firm a ladder and opens an entrance into heaven, and he wrestles with God and receives a name by seeing God. Here the people, as though oppressed by famine in the wilderness, obtain aid from God, receive the bread of heaven and of the angels, and feast at a delectable heavenly banquet. Here, although the hearts of men have turned to stone, as it were, struck by the rod of Moses, they pour forth streams of water. Here the treasure hidden in a field is dug up, the pearl is bought, the lamps are lighted, the seed is sown in good soil, the grain of mustard seed grows up into a tree, and the wild olive is grafted onto the bountiful olive tree. Oh, those blessed times that have brought forth Councils! How foolish are the times that have not recognized their importance! How unhappy those that have not allowed them!

Since we have spoken summarily of the past benefits from Councils, let us now, as briefly as possible, touch upon those from our Council. Therefore I call upon you, Julius II, Supreme Pontiff, and Almighty God calls upon you, that God who has wished you to act as His vicar on earth, who long ago chose you alone from so great a senate, who has sustained you as bridegroom of His Church into the ninth year, who has given you a good mind for planning and a great facility for acting (to none of your predecessors has He ever given so much) so that you might drive away robbers, clear the highways, put an end to insurrections, and raise the most magnificent temple of the Lord ever seen by man, and so that you might do what no one before has been able to do, make the arms of the Church fearful to great kings that you might extend your rule and recover Rimini, Faenza, Ravenna, and many other places. Even though the enemy can seize these, he cannot prevent you as pope from accomplishing all this. For the excellence of great princes must be appraised not on the basis of chance or accident, but from plans and actions. Now two things remained for you to do, that you convene a Council and that you declare war on the common enemy of Christians. And what from the beginning you always intended, pledged, and proposed, may you now perform for God, for the Christian flock, and for your own piety and fidelity. Indeed, you should know that you have given great hope to all good men, inasmuch as you who had been forced to postpone these matters by the injustice of the wars and evil times could not be induced to neglect or renounce them by threats, force, or defeat. Indeed, your soul had been strengthened by that perseverance so that these waves, as numerous as they are, could not extinguish your strong love. And so God also who, besides all these immortal favors which I have mentioned to stir your soul, called you back to life in those earlier years at Bologna and then at Rome, when it was thought even within your own palace that you were dead, and preserved you to accomplish these great deeds, so that God Himself by the most evident miracle might restore life to a pope that had expired and the pope by a holy Council might restore life to the Church that had expired, and so that the Church, together with a reviving pope, might restore morals to life, this God, I say, entreats and orders you to consider these two things in your heart, to give attention to them, and to accomplish them. And just as He commands the prophet, “He commands you to tear down, root up, and destroy errors, luxury, and vice, and to build, establish, and plant moderation, virtue, and holiness [Jer. 1:10].

Many things, but especially the loss of the army, should prompt us to perform these deeds, for indeed I think that it was an act of divine Providence that relying on arms alien to the Church we suffered defeat, so that returning to our own arms we might become victors.[4] But our weapons, to use the words of the Apostle, are piety, devotion, honesty, prayers, offerings, the shield of faith, and the arms of light [Eph. 6:13-17; Rom. 13:12]. If we return to these with the aid of the Council, just as with arms that were not ours we were inferior to an enemy, so with our own weapons we shall be superior to every enemy. Call to mind, I beg, the war that Moses waged against King Amalec [Ex. 17]. You will see that God’s chosen people when trusting in the sword were always conquered, but when they offered prayers they were always victorious. Joshua led the army into battle; Aaron with Hur and Moses climbed the mountain. The former with their bodies armed engaged the enemy; the latter with hearts made clean prayed to God. Those strove with swords; these with prayers. Those fought with iron; these, with piety. We see both kinds of arms of the military and of religion but with God instructing us let us now learn which are ours. As long as Moses raised his hands, He says, our army gained the mastery, but when he put his hands down the army wavered. And lest we suspect that this happened by chance, at the end of this account it is written that the hand of God and the war is against Amalec, that is, against the enemy of the Church from generation to generation. Certainly by these words God warns that both the generation and the Church of Moses and of Christ is conquered by military arms, but conquers by zealous piety, and that by striving with weapons it is overcome, but by doing what is holy it overcomes.

In the beginning relying on its own arms the Church gained Africa, took possession of Europe, occupied Asia. Not by war, not by the sword, but by the deeds of religion and the reputation for sanctity the Church carried the Christian banners throughout the entire world. But when the Bride, who at that time everywhere was called, brought forth, and greatly desired in her golden robes, exchanged the golden cloak of the burning spirit for the iron weapons of a mad Ajax, she lost the power born of the blood of the twelve Apostles, she abandoned Asia and Jerusalem, she was forced to relinquish Africa and Egypt, and she saw a good part of Europe together with the Byzantine Empire and Greece taken from her. It is the voice of God telling us that when Moses’ hands grow weary and prayers and offerings cease Joshua is conquered and Amalec triumphs. So we see that when religion exchanges offerings for the sword in virtually the whole world the Church is struck, cast forth, and rejected to the immense profit of Mohammed, who, unless the sword is put down and we return again into the bosom of piety at the altars and the shrines of God, will grow stronger day by day, will subjugate all to his power, and as the wicked avenger of our impiety will take possession of the entire world.

I see, yes, I see that, unless by this Council or by some other means we place a limit on our morals, unless we force our greedy desire for human things, the source of evils, to yield to the love of divine things, it is all over with Christendom, all over with religion, even all over with those very resources which our fathers acquired by their greater service of God, but which we are about to lose because of our neglect. For from extreme poverty these resources became most abundant in such a way that they seem not so long after about to perish, and unless we sound the signal for retreat, unless we have regard for our interests, this most rich fillet,[5] which had served to decorate the heads of the priests, will be found hardly to cover them. Hear the divine voices everywhere sounding, everywhere demanding a Council, peace, that holy enterprise [against the Moslems]. When has our life been more effeminate? When has ambition been more unrestrained, greed more burning? When has the license to sin been more shameless? When has temerity in speaking, in arguing, in writing against piety been more common or more unafraid? When has there been among the people not only a greater neglect but a greater contempt for the sacred, for the sacraments, for the keys [of forgiveness of sins], and for the holy commandments? When have our religion and faith been more open to the derision even of the lowest classes? When, O sorrow, has there been a more disastrous split in the Church? When have war been more dangerous, the enemy more powerful, armies more cruel? When have the signs, portents, and prodigies both of a threatening heaven and of a terrified earth appeared more numerous or more horrible? When (alas, tears hold me back) have the slaughter and destruction been bloodier than at Brescia or at Ravenna? When, I say, did any day among accursed days dawn with more grief or calamity than that most holy day of the Resurrection?[6]

If we are not without feeling, what, pray, are all these things but words sent from heaven? For, as Proclus says, the words of God are deeds, and the prophecies declare ”He spoke and they were created” [Ps. 148:5]. In the sacred writings of the Jews, in the ten declarations contained in Genesis,[7] we read that the whole world was created. Therefore, what we are witnessing are words, the words of God warning and instructing you to hold a Council, to reform the Church, to end war between men, to restore peace to your Bride assailed on every side, to avert the sword threatening the throat of the city and of Italy, and to curb our unbridled living which afflicts the heart of the Church with very great wounds.

For it is of no importance how much land we own, but rather how just, how holy, how eager for divine things we are, so that finally after so many evils, so many hardships, and so many calamities, you may hear Christ our Lord making known to Peter and to posterity that the Council is the one and only remedy for all evils, the sole port for the ship in distress, the single means of strengthening the commonweal. He says: “Thou, Peter, being once converted, confirm thy brethren” [Luke 22:32]. Do you hear, Peter? Do you hear, Paul? Do you hear, O most holy heads, protectors and defenders of the city of Rome? Do you hear into what a mass of evils the Church founded in your blood has been led? Do you see the wretched battle line on both sides? Do you see the slaughter? Do you see the destruction? Do you see the battlefield buried under piles of the slain? Do you see that in this year the earth has drunk more gore than water, less rain than blood? Do you see that as much Christian strength lay in the grave as would be enough to wage war against the enemy of the faith and that nothing but ruin and destruction remain for us? Bring us aid, help us, succor us, as you plucked the Church from the jaws of the Jews and the tyrants, raise it up now as it falls under the weight of its own disasters.

The people pray, men, women, every age, both sexes, the entire world. The Fathers ask, the Senate entreats, finally the pope himself as a suppliant implores you to preserve him, the Church, the city of Rome, these temples, these altars, these your own principal shrines, and to make strong the Lateran Council, proclaimed today in your presence by the Supreme Pontiff Julius II (may it be auspicious, happy, and favorable for us, for your Church, and for all of Christendom), that it may accomplish under the power of the Holy Spirit the surest salvation of the world. We beg you to see to it that the Christian princes are brought to peace and the arms of our kings turned against Mohammed, the public enemy of Christ, and not only that the fire of charity of the Church is not extinguished by these waves and storms, but that by the merits of the saving Cross and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which are jointly commemorated today, it is cleansed from every stain it has received and is restored to its ancient splendor and purity.

  1. The time as well as the character of’ Egidio’s prophetic preaching coincide with Savonarola’s. See Savonarola’s Renovation sermon of January 13, 1495, in CR, chap. 1.
  2. The above references are to Ps. 86(87):1-2 (“His foundation . . .”), Is. 5:1 (for fertile mountain), and Ps. 67(68):16, in the Vulgate version (for the mountains as coagulated, that is, mons coagulatus). In the paragraph that follows in the text David’s testimony and prayer concerning the vineyard refer to Ps. 79(80), the same psalm quoted in the papal bull Exsurge, Domine, condemning Luther in June 1520.Excerpt From: test. “test.” Apple Books.
  3. I.e., Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and Eugenius IV at the Council of Florence in 1439. Egidio actually says Gregorius alter, but it was the same Gregory X mentioned above who sought to reunite the Greeks.
  4. Egidio refers, of course, to the defeat of the Spanish-papal forces by the French at Ravenna on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1512. See Pastor, VI 398-406.
  5. The term fillet is used by extension (and in a classical sense) to signify the wealth and possessions of the Church.
  6. The battle of Ravenna, a most sanguinary one, took place on the Easter Sunday preceding Egidio’s address by just three weeks.
  7. I.e., the ten parts beginning “God said” in Gen. 1.