Letter of Vittoria Colonna to Paul III 29 February 1536

Translated by Charles Serignat OFM Cap

“Ten years have passed since this holy Congregation began with the aim of living the very Rule of Saint Francis austerely, while meeting at every turn with all possible human opposition, caused by a few who have taken it into their heads to destroy it. So much has it grown in fervour, number and order that the miracle is plain to see and cannot be denied, yet they go around trying to prove it was done on the Sabbath.

“The Most Revd. General of the Religious Order known as the Observants, as well as the other friars, do not deny in the letters they publish that they are in need of reform, and that they wish it, and they have been promising and postponing it for a long time. So we have these two propositions: the exemplary life and observance of these reformed friars, and the need of the others to be reformed. Both are facts, clear, palpable and certain, which are ignored only by those who do not wish to see them. How, then, is it possible that there is talk of placing these friars, with their long experience of so rigorous a life, under obedience to those who themselves admit that they are unable to live it? The shepherd must outshine his sheep in understanding, virtue, spirit and holiness, must lead by example, always leading them closer to God. Therefore, every sheep of this flock, in terms of merit, perfection of life and strictness in observing the Rule, would be superior to its shepherds; ten years of hardships, persevered in thanks to God’s great grace, would at once be lost; and obedience, enjoined for the observance of the Rule, would be the cause of its relaxation. And to make it even clearer, I say this:

“The Rule was not made for obedience, but obedience was made for the Rule; therefore, if they are walking in God’s way, observing the Rule to its fullest extent, and obeying the most excellent Pontiff Paul, I do not know what new obediences they need, other than to recognise the General of the Conventuals, not because he is better than the other one, but because he leaves them in peace, to their own observance; he does not persecute them or act as their enemy, vilifying the good they do and going about turning people against them. And because the said General of the Conventuals recognises the General of the Observants, they become the latter’s subjects indirectly, if not directly. And so their intention is not that they do not wish to be subject to him, but that they be able to preserve their austere life and true observance, and as we have seen from experience, that alone is preserved, which is not in their hands, while all the other things they began have been relaxed. And they themselves say that it is almost impossible to reform thirty thousand of them or more. So I do not know why they are so unhappy about these few who clearly show that they are able to reform. To seek this goal with such anxiety and haste is both an offense to God and a reproach to themselves, implying that they are doing it not out of zeal but because they have lost face – and lost alms – seeing that this is the true life of St Francis which can be lived at any time.

“Saint Francis calls the Minister, sometimes minister, sometimes custos. The perfection of the seraphic and evangelical Rule is not to be found in words or language, but it does matter greatly that they should truly be ministers and should follow Christ’s example, ministering spirit and life. And if he were to make these remain in the other obedience, which is evidently more relaxed, the Minister would be going against his office, because he would be damping their spirit and removing from them the root of the true Rule.

“To say: ‘We want them to recognise the General, but he should not prevent them from living their life’, would be a case of real ambition and dishonesty, and no service of God. It would bring them danger, doubt and trouble, and would change nothing, except in appearance. And they would be wandering through the forests, as they did, just as St Francis prophesied, rather than imitating him. I will say no more about that.

“Let those reform themselves, let them wait, while Christ is in the desert; let them observe Him there, and not hinder those who are intent on imitating Him; let them be aware that Lent is coming, and that they must wait for so great a religious Order to feed the flock of Christ. Let them begin to abandon, I will not say things that should not be mentioned, because there is no Capuchin who would not give his life for the honour of Religion, but I mean those things that are clearly against the Rule. Let them practise a little real austerity, poverty and humility of life, as Saint Francis commands; let them give up all that ostentation, all those sumptuous buildings, elaborate chants and superfluous things. Oh that we could only see a little spiritual fervour among those who govern them; would that they were true shepherds, entering through the door of charity, not the window of ambition; as true brothers, let them be sure guides of the souls entrusted to their care; let them not think impossible things that they see are possible, which Francis performed even more austerely and were continued for forty years thereafter. Let them show by their deeds that they are led by the most ardent zeal, and once they are reformed and show good will to them they will obey them, would obey even the humblest man in all the world, if only they might live like them. All the more so because these men have the best, most sincere, holy and evangelical obedience and a marvellous order, as everyone can see. And let them even send commissaries to those places, and they will find them to be like the first companions of Saint Francis, observing the Rule to the full. And when the others and their friaries are like that, then they will be able to say Let there be one flock and one shepherd; and the holy Minister (will then be able to say) that which comes before the gospel: I am the good shepherd; because as things are, with a different flock, there cannot be one single Minister. This is why Saint Francis wanted his Rule to be observed: this is the important thing, and every time it became too relaxed, he raised up new reforms. And because this is the most perfect and the one most similar to the beginnings, and because the world is more degenerate, this is why it meets with more opposition and difficulties than all the others, and it is really offensive to the whole of Christendom to see the amount of trouble being caused to them by all those who are clearly fighting against them. Holy and peaceful they may be in their observance of the Rule, yet the warfare mounted against them is fierce and unrelenting. The fact is that Your Holiness, the Most Reverend Cardinals, all princes and their Protector are obliged to give them help and support, because they are the only light in our darkness, the only ones who in this dissolute world observe the evangelical and divine doctrine of Christ and Saint Francis. Moreover, anyone who leaves aside human respect and worldly pleasures and looks to God alone can see that His grace is in them, and that the opposition arises from thoughts that are neither honest nor sincere. Their deception has reached such a pitch that they think nothing of vilifying the glorious saint, saying that he never made a habit, but took some common cloth, as if the Rule made no mention of a distinct habit, or as if there were none to be seen, preserved as relics, or in seals and paintings and in a thousand other ways. But since the habit does not mean a man is on the right road, I will leave such irrelevances aside, and simply ask God to inspire them to reform, so that their words will then have some foundation.

Furthermore, even without the many reasons I have put forward, there are others which they use, namely, they have the Bull of Clement, the Briefs and permissions of the popes, and above all the knowledge of the most excellent Pope Paul, who defended them while a Cardinal, and I believe God raised him up for that reason, and now that he is Pope he is a lover of truth. But he is so considerate that the opposition prevails against his holy intention, and there are Cardinals who chew it to pieces and one is reluctant to contradict another in the consistory in the presence of many Cardinals who are hardly heard and scarcely understood. But God will inspire the good ones to understand the matter clearly.

“Now we come to the prohibition against those friars who want to come to this reform, because it causes scandal. So then, everyone should stop doing good because it causes scandal to those who do not? Sons should no longer be allowed to leave their parents and enter religion, because it is a cause of scandal to their families? Shall they no longer be allowed to pass from the Order of Saint Benedict, of Saint Dominic and the others, to the Order of Francis, because it scandalises those others? In that case, let all the laws collapse, let the words of Paul and of so many saints no longer count, urging us to tend towards perfection and to choose the surer way. And the Rule of Saint Francis is one such, indeed it is of Christ, and one would have to live among the angels to observe it to the full. And those others want to prevent people from pursuing perfection, forgetting that You are holy among the holy ones, etc. Indeed, it is the duty of those who are good to remove all impediments to the holy way of life of this reform, which, far from giving scandal to true observants, builds them up. In fact it is certain that this prohibition, these letters with their binding clauses and strictness, are displeasing to most of the religious and only make trouble for the 8 or 10 persons in charge, who want to be believed because of their authority. And it is clear how little those others are motivated by the lifestyle of the reform, since in the three months that the door has been open, scarcely 20 have come over. There is not so much fervour of spirit these days that many find such austerity to their liking; therefore, to close the door would be to do a great disservice to God, because it would close off the possibility of a better life to 3,000 souls, who all believe that they could come over, and if they were prevented, they would not know whether they had to give account of it to God. To leave the door open, as well as avoiding the great danger of offending the divine will and upholding every good law and custom, would make it clear that no harm at all is being done, because what is accepted here, with all the precautions and considerations in the world, is the falsity of the accusations made against them, as Your Holiness has seen in a number of letters.

“I shall leave aside the fact that the Observants broke away from the Conventuals, which did not meet with such great opposition, and that the break was perfectly achieved; and that many years ago they would all have been Conventuals, but the snow, amidst so much mud, cannot long remain white.

“I shall leave aside that it would be unreasonable to forbid them. I shall leave aside the human affairs regarding the information given to His Majesty and many others, who are then scandalised because they take it as fact. I shall leave aside that they (the Capuchins), in their humility, do not dare to speak the truth, while the others audaciously and falsely attack them. I shall leave aside the fact that the former ask for nothing, except to be left in the peace of Christ, and to have the freedom of the gospel to receive and to observe Whoever comes to me I shall not turn away. The latter ask for prohibitions, binding clauses, impediments and excommunications, to such an extent that it seems like a contest between the law of Moses and the grace of Christ, between charity and ambition, humility and rank. And truly I am not aggrieved by these, who have every right to say: Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?, but I am saddened by the others, who are blind men, though bathed in so bright a light, who have so often envied Christ’s servants on earth. Every day we say: how happy the shepherds, how blessed the Magi, how fortunate was Joseph of Arimathea, how glorious were Magdalene and Martha; and then we have the clear and vibrant example of Christ on earth, and the observance of His gospel life, and yet those others persecute them. And daily we see this poor Congregation bowing its head and saying: Why do you strike me? For the love of God, let there be no more clouds to overshadow the bright light and saintly goodness of the Pontiff, for it would sooner bring pain to those who love him, and scandal to the whole of Christendom if such a thing should happen.

“Ah me, how do they not tremble, those who are against him? How is it they can sleep and not fear God’s justice? How can the worm of conscience not gnaw away at them and make them desist? What are they giving back to God for all the graces He gives them? What account will they give to Him, that they could not resist ruining the work of reforming thousands, knowing that Christ would come back to earth again to save a single soul!

“I do not know what drives this business, unless it be temptation. So many unknown friars, so many unfruitful religious Orders whose names are not even known, so many brothers of Saint John, so many of Saint Francis who leave the Observants every day to become secular priests, confessors, abbots, bishops and cardinals, and no-one takes offence, no scandal is given and no-one cares, except in this case, because it is the best of all. The cause of Christ and His servants has always provoked astonishment and confounded human respect, and Christ Himself says I did not come to bring peace. Must they then leave the austere and excellent way of life, the divine reform, for fear of giving scandal to those who govern?

“Oh, with what conviction could I not show that this attack is not being carried out with the agreement of the Observants, and how many monasteries attest that they were in favour, and how many on the other hand regret that they are not. Rather, it is the prohibition that causes endless scandal. Let them leave the door open for a year’s trial, having often tried to do the opposite, and they will see that scandal never comes from what is good. In fact, out of it will come true reform in them, and the best kind of confirmation in these others, and then their talk will be more to the point.

“Of course, at the moment not one of their reasons can be admitted: they say they cannot punish those friars who cross from there to here. Well, other religious have never been able to punish their friars, who are allowed to cross over to Saint Francis, which is a stricter way. Would to God He would inspire them with zeal to punish and reform, because then they would be busy with something else, instead of ruining the reformed friars!

“May God in His goodness preserve the good will in those who are good, and grant it to those who are without it. Worldly matters always appear to be good on the surface, but do not resist the hammer-blows. So it is with visions: they are delightful at first, the false ones more so than the real. Therefore, for the love of God, let them not stop to engage with them; let them savour, understand and reflect upon this truth, which I am sure will enter into their heart.

“And because I understand they are now saying something new, namely that they are all reformed, that they see clearly and have no need for reform, and that they regret what they said in their letters what the General told me and in a thousand places, I say: may God make saints of them all, I say they are all saints. With the true information I have about all their monasteries in the kingdom and in Campagna, I see clearly that they are in need of reform, and everyone knows it. But say what they may, they will not deny, or rather they cannot deny, that the life of the Capuchins is austere and stricter, and anyone who fails to see it is blind, and that in itself is reason enough for them to deny obedience for the reasons given above, and is palpable evidence that it would be the greatest error to agree and thus to close the door to anyone wishing to embrace the stricter way”.