Vittoria Colonna to Contarini and the Commission of Cardinals, 1536

Translated by Charles Serignat OFM Cap

Original text can be found on CapDox: 11. Vittoria Colonna to Contarini and the Commission of Cardinals, 1536 transcribed[1] by Paul Hanbridge OFM Cap.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

(Introduction translated by Gary Devery OFM Cap from Cargnoni Costanzo (ed.), I Frati Cappuccini, II. n. 2020-2031, pages 214-215, Edizioni Frate Indovino).

For Vincenzo Lunello († 1549) it appeared to be the most favourable time to reunite the Capuchins and the reformers under the same General as the Observants. Paul III seemed convinced and disposed towards it. Nevertheless, towards May of 1536, he gathered together a commission of six cardinals, three for each position, to examine the question and present to him their conclusions. One of these, certainly suggested by the marchioness [Vittoria Colonna], was Contarini. She sent him a long letter, a lively apology of the Capuchin reform, but also destined for the whole commission of cardinals. It is without doubt the masterpiece of Colonna’s “Capuchin” letters, where “the feminine ignorance and excessive boldness” are expressed with great effectiveness and literary skill.

The accusations made against the Capuchins are listed, examined and dismantled one after the other. There are six: the Capuchins are Lutherans because they preach the freedom of the spirit; they have placed themselves under obedience to the local bishops; they lack approval by the Holy See; they do not obey the general minister; they receive religious from other orders; they wear a habit strangely different to that usually worn by the other Franciscans.

The answer of V. Colonna has been well synthesised by Fr Cuthbert, who writes:

If to preach the liberty of the spirit be heresy, she wrote, then was St. Francis himself an heresiarch, for it was he who taught his disciples to observe the holy Gospel which repeatedly tells us that it is “the spirit which quickeneth,” etc. But one has only to look to these friars’ lives to observe their humility and obedience, their poverty and charity and their ungrudging labours, in order to know them. As to their subjection to the bishops, is not this ordinance in accord with the mind of St. Francis who in his own day would have his friars observe it? And is it not well known how in every city and diocese scandals and dissensions arise daily because the religious do not obey the prelates? Then it is said that the Capuchins have no written approbation from the Holy See. Have they not the bull of Clement VII and other letters, including the recent letter of the present Pontiff confirming the election of the present Vicar General? But beside these they have the miraculous writings of their own fervent deeds and the bull of the wounds of Christ and the brief of the Stigmata of St. Francis in their souls, confirmed by the daily benedictions they receive from his present Holiness. They accept, too, all those declarations which oblige them to the strict observance of their Rule, but those which relax the Rule they have renounced and still renounce.

In answering the charge that the Capuchins refuse obedience to the Minister General and that they admit Observants to their congregation to the scandal of the people, Vittoria follows the same line of argument as in her letter to Paul III. But a trace of sarcasm creeps into her reply concerning the change of habit. “Why all this clamour about the wearing of a habit worn by the great saint, when one sees a thousand habits that are without decency and a thousand varieties of habits worn by religious?” Why then, she asks, should the Capuchins exchange the obedience in which they have lived for ten years with the greatest perfection, in order to satisfy the ambition of those to whom the Generalate has brought such grave injury? She concludes with an impassioned plea that the cardinal will not destroy the Capuchins: they have suffered much already from the cardinal of Santa Croce (Quiñones) and the Minister General. Let these look to the reformation of their own and leave the Capuchins in peace. Now that the cardinals to whom she writes are better informed they will find no excuse before God if they allow themselves to be swayed by human respect; since Christ was not ashamed to die for us.

The letter concludes with a passionate plea, asking the cardinal not to destroy the Capuchins that have already suffered so much at the hands of the cardinal of Santa Croce (Quiñones) and the general minister.

Vittoria Colonna to Contarini and the Commission of Cardinals, 1536

Most Reverend Lord,

The devotion I have to the glorious Saint Francis, and the spur of conscience, allied to the trust aroused in me by Your Lordship’s kindness, give me the certainty that you will not attribute my writing to presumption, but to devotion, nor to temerity, but to zeal for the truth.

However much I may lose credit on account of feminine ignorance and excessive boldness, so much authority will I gain from reason and Christian interest alone, which is my motive.

I thought, most Reverend Lord, that matters which had been proved by deeds these past ten years would not need to be daily proved by words, because as our Lord Himself says: the works I do bear witness to me. Therefore, I believed that the extreme perfection of the life lived by seven hundred truly mendicant friars, praised by every town in Italy, would not be placed in doubt by anyone, especially not by those who, over five years ago, said that they wanted to wait one more year to see how this holy Reform would develop. Thus they closed the door to any Observant friars who came to them saying that they wanted to reform, so that the latter would be unable to continue. In this way they always let it be understood that, whether the door was open or closed, the Observants would reform. And yet, as we clearly see, they have become ever more relaxed, while the others have constantly grown in structure and spirit, and in the number of perfect and most learned Fathers, so that your Most Reverend Lordships ought by now to be convinced that this is the work of Christ. Nor should their holy Chapters, with a most Reverend Cardinal of the first Order, to say nothing of their other worthy qualities, vouched for by their countless acts of good example and their humble and learned sermons, be seen as reasons to increase their troubles. From this we know that some seek to harass them and lead people to believe that they are divided and sunk in hatred and error, not out of ignorance of the truth but because the truth is painful to them. But in the end the fire will refine this gold, and the wood of their plots and trickery will all be consumed. Many things are said against them which will be resolved before the face of Christ and Saint Francis.

First, it is said that they seem like Lutherans, because they preach freedom of spirit; that they have made themselves subject to earthly rulers; that they lack letters of authority; that they do not obey the General [of the whole Order]; and that they wear a different habit and welcome friars of the Observance.

To the first count, we reply that if St Francis was a heretic, those who imitate him are Lutherans. And if preaching about freedom of spirit more than about vices is called error when one is subject to the ordinance of Holy Church, it would also be wrong to observe the gospel, which says in several places: It is the Spirit that gives life, etc. Besides which, those who say these things openly demonstrate that they have not understood the preaching. If they had, they would start to practise some of it with them; they would understand their humility, obedience, and poverty, their lifestyle, example, customs and charity. They would be so devoted to them that they would weep for having made them journey four hundred miles without any necessity, and making them face tribunals and harassment every day, simply for wanting to observe their poverty in peace.

To the second, that they are subject to rulers, we reply that there could never be a more humble or Christian work than this; or again, it would suffice to say: anyone finding fault with this ordinance is going against the will of Saint Francis, who put this same precept into practice in his day. Therefore, these friars, and the others whose only aim is to return to the poverty enjoined by the Rule and to the simple intention of its author, did not change this article, which had been corrupted by others. Rather they restored it, not privately as in some hole in the corner, but in the public chapter which they recently held, and brought it back to its original observance: by submitting first of all to His Holiness as their head, they wish to remain obedient to prelates, and they do so as to members of such a head. This is a far greater act of humility and devotion than that shown by those who intend and speak otherwise, especially in view of the scandal that ensues and the harm done to souls by these disputes and quarrels going on all day in the cities and dioceses, as I hear from talking to gentlemen who have real experience of these things.

Regarding the letters of authority, we reply that those that have been published over many years in the Order of St Francis, meaning those that are binding and are founded on the observance of the Rule, are all intended for these Fathers, who seek to observe them purely as far as is possible. Besides, they have the authentic copy of the Bull granted to this Congregation by Clement of holy memory, which is not meant to be used to settle details, as many writings of past popes are. Then there are the letters confirmed by the Chapters and by the present Vicar, and other letters, although the miraculous writings they have are the works they perform with burning zeal, as individuals and communally: they have the Bull of the wounds of Christ in their hearts and the writings of the Stigmata of Saint Francis in their minds, confirmed by the countless blessings which they have daily received and still receive from His Holiness. Likewise they accept all those writings that can bind them to the observance of their Rule, while those which relax it in any way at all they have rejected and still reject today.

As to the allegation that they do not obey the General [of the whole Order], we reply that it is obvious, that there is proof, and it is known that the religious Congregation of the Observants is in need of reform. In three of their general Chapters they passed a resolution to reform themselves, and later did not do so and are unable to do so: indeed in their provincial Chapters they have nullified and totally uprooted the first shoots of reform. There is a Bull about this matter from Clement of blessed memory ordering this reform, and two briefs of His Holiness, one requested by them, the other by these others, so that clearly they are in need of reform. And since all the reforms that have been effected among them have been revoked, while this one alone which is not subject to them is growing, it must be separated. As Your Lordships know, those who hate reform in themselves hate it even more in others, because the whiteness of the one clearly highlights even more the darkness of the others, and this is the chief cause of the persecution directed against them. Now, if they cannot put up with it when the others are absent, how will they endure it when they are present? In fact, they pick on them and wear them down in such a way that they are obliged to flee, or else to run with the others, crying out to God alone who in His mercy hears them. And the Most Revd. Santacroce knows how loudly he called for the reform of the religious Order, and I do not know how he can now want to quash, prevent and ruin that work, and one can say that His Lordship provided many an occasion for it, especially knowing that for many years now they have become more and more relaxed. From what can be publicly seen in their habit, their ceremonies and buildings, in their music, in the wills they accept and the supplies they store up, and in the way they own property through legal fictions, it is possible to deduce things which for the sake of decency are passed over in silence. But such things are contrary to all reform, things which, though it would greatly displease them, they themselves would tell to your Most Reverend Lordships for the honour of God and out of zeal for the truth. Besides which, the General whom these men obey is the first (representative) of Saint Francis. If the former obtained a change in their purpose, so as not to be contradicted in their lax lifestyle, so did the latter obtain something else, in order that they could live more strictly, and they obtained it peacefully, not because this General is better than the other one, but because he does not forbid, obstruct or hate them, especially when it is obvious how much the latter holy General has offended them and still does, and that ambition is the cause of great harm to him. These poor Fathers would sooner go wandering in the forests than run the risk of certain ruin. It is well known that it is not for lack of humility that they submit to everyone, but in order not to be prevented or diverted from so holy a purpose. Indeed, I think that every good person, and all the more so His Holiness and Your Most Reverend Lordships, is obliged to favour and defend them, and to forbid everything that to them is suspect and offensive in these matters, so that they may observe what they have promised to God and Saint Francis, in safety and without fear. The dispute appears to be about a desire that they be subject [to the General] directly, and so be ruined, rather than indirectly as they are now, and so remain in existence.

As for their acceptance of friars, which in my view is the origin of this storm, this is a case of wanting to shut the door more firmly than God wishes. Besides, there are many reasons to make me greatly fear that those who do this are displeasing to God, since we must remember those words of the Lord: Woe to you who shut the door of the kingdom of heaven. We all have so many obligations to help, encourage and inspire people to walk in God’s way, and to urge religious to live out their profession, that you ought to go from friar to friar and layman to layman, begging them to reform, Nor can I understand why Saint Francis should fare less favourably than the other Saints in this Court. As your Most Reverend Lordships know, in the Order of Saint Benedict there are about ten reforms, all separate, in fact some wear white in order to be more separate from those in black; and every way of separating themselves is necessary. Saint Augustine and all religious Orders have carried out reforms. So why is it surprising that Saint Francis should have wanted his men to be reformed twice, the first time, in a half-hearted way, and this time perfectly, so that his holy habit and his evangelical Rule could be observed without gloss in our times, and that it has excluded all claim to have a founder or new branches? Although there was a Brother Matteo, who began this reform, a holy man who is alive today and is one of these Fathers, he was wary of ambition and was going around preaching when the Bull of Clement (of holy memory) was published, yet I say that the founder is Saint Francis, and that these men have no other leader, no other light to guide their way.

Do your Most Reverend Lordships know how much Monsignor Santacroce is championing the scandal which he wants to imply has arisen from the reform of these little poor men? It is no longer simply that the more he imagines, the greater he himself appears; rather, it is highly edifying and useful to the entire religious Order of Saint Francis, and to two thirds of the Observant friars. I do not wish to say any more, although I could, despite the persecution these men suffer. In fact, every day they write, earnestly begging you to ask God to let them freely go and reform themselves, and for the love of God they beg you to oppose the persecutions, imploring your help in fraternal charity, because they themselves are forbidden to speak and are obliged to write in secret. In fact the cases of imprisonment, torture and threats are such that it behoves them to appear as the enemies of the Capuchins and of the true observance which they have promised to God. And if your Most Reverend Lordships could see into the hearts of those who know what pain they endured while awaiting an opportunity to go over to this reform (there is not one of them who has not waited ten, twelve or twenty years, in the hope that, once there, they could reform) – you would feel compassion when (the Capuchins) receive them. And if the Most Revd. Protector and the ten governors had chosen a different course, not a word would have been said, especially if they had said: these are our brothers, sons of the same Father, they have greater austerity, God inspires them and gives them the strength to observe such rigidity, which used to be commanded. We do not wish to prevent those who wish from following them; indeed we rejoice to see our Rule lived in its first purity, and we, little by little, will gradually reduce at least the commentaries on the Rule. Everyone would be at peace and content, because among the religious of Saint Francis there would be bonus, melior, optimus. And even if they were unable to bring the others back to what is right, at least no harm should be done to these (Capuchins), because theirs is the more perfect way. To do otherwise would seem to show a lack of will to serve God, to live as a Christian, to observe gospel purity and the seraphic Rule. And let us not call harmful that which is clearly a gain for the Church of God. If those of the Observance come over to this strict form of life, they too, for sure, are coming to Saint Francis. How can this be a loss to God, to His Holiness or to the Order? Either those who go over to the reform are good, or they are sad. If they are good, it is a clear sign that among themselves they are unable to observe their Rule well. If they are sad, they must at heart feel the need to cleanse their observance of these dregs: either they come with a spiritual motive, or they come out of scorn. If out of spiritual motives, it is a serious and mortal sin to prevent them; if out of scorn, the scorn is a most happy occasion, because, as we see, it makes them live so perfectly thereafter. Although some object that it is in order to escape discipline that they accept a life of perpetual penance, and that their desire to be free of office makes them go and forfeit for ever all greatness of office and ambition, the objection is false and scarcely credible. Nor does Saint Francis command that his Rule be sustained with imprisonment, death and torture, but with humility, poverty and charity. Anyone who refuses obedience out of charity has so little love that he will never find his way to where there is nothing but love and charity, especially since they have a thousand ways of escaping it. As we see, each year four thousand or more leave their congregations to join Orders other than the Franciscans. This proves that what grieves them is not the fact that friars leave in search of perfection, but that they themselves cannot claim to be the strictest, as they have done for many years now, which has caused all this commotion. But it is not God’s will that this silver should not now be separated from this gold. Or that for the sake of twenty friars who indulge this fantasy, hundreds should be allowed every day to betray God, their profession, the vows they have taken, in fact everyone, because the majority of the religious are aggrieved. And in nearly all the towns, when they see the letters from one side or the other, they say to the Observants that they will consider the matter, and to the Capuchins that they should go ahead and clothe them. So I cannot see why with human arguments they quash the divine ones, and break the ancient laws with new ones, as well as the holy constitutions of the Church, which allow any religious to opt for a stricter form of life. Also, they nullify the excellent intention of our Lord the Pope, who defended them when he was a Cardinal, and now that he is Pope has to put up with the annoyance they cause him in this matter, and if the door were to be closed once more, it would be the ruination of all the good men. Therefore it is better to decide on the basis of reason, on the side of Christ, of Paul and of the laws, than to improvise on the basis of one’s own judgement.

In the state in which these friars find themselves, it is clear that they are doing wonderfully useful work, and that they are growing in number and perfection. I do not know how your Most Reverend Lordships do not tremble to lay a hand to change the slightest detail of their identity and way of life. These men are not asking for greatness, they have no wish to be rich: solely for the love of Christ’s wounds and the stigmata of their Father do they ask to be left in the peaceful tranquillity of God and the true observance of their Rule. And it is certain that three very great disadvantages arise from this daily harassment: first, it encourages, fosters and feeds those who are lax in the religious state, increases their number and makes them appear envious, proud, ambitious and lacking in charity and reason. Secondly, the bad reputation that has now spread to every town and city of Italy and beyond, of those who are known to object so vehemently to their most excellent way of life, when everyone can see their good works, but not everyone understands the few siren calls that oppose them. Thirdly, because if nothing more were said about it, the former, in order to avoid a fall, would gradually amend their lives, while the latter, in order to remain in existence, would accept very few others and all of them would be fervent, as they have already expressly commanded in their recent Chapter. Therefore, for the love of God and of your office, may your Most Reverend Lordships be pleased to help them. And you should know that one would have to be living among the angels to be able to observe this holy Rule. How then can they be like the burning bush, in the heart of the fire yet without being burned? And if it were not God’s will that it should be observed thus in all simplicity, even that great Saint could not have written it, nor would the good Pope have approved it, nor would it have been reformed so many times. Indeed, when the Pope first approved it, there was some opposition from the Cardinals, and one Cardinal, inspired by God, said: if Your Holiness does not approve this Rule, it would be necessary to deny the gospel of Christ, on which it is based. Now, what an infinite amount of good was done by those words, when we are talking about doubtful matters that then lay in the future. And what infinite good could be done by the words of your Most Reverend Lordships, if you praise this reform which in ten years was born, preserved and has increased. This is the true vocation to which all brothers of Saint Francis are called. These fervent sermons can be useful to the Church of God, so I do not believe that God would permit these unseemly troubles, except so that the light of their example might penetrate more deeply the innermost gaze of your Most Reverend Lordships, and make the others able to accept it themselves, that they might peacefully pray for His Holiness and for your Most Reverend Lordships and not have occasion to go crying and wailing to God and to His Holiness about the wrong that would have been done. Neither should heretics be given any cause for joy, and there are many, as we see from the state of the world today, with all the things we have to attend to. This one matter alone, the backbone of the Christian faith and of service to His Holiness and to the Church, they wish to break or weaken, which is by all means to be avoided, and which I commend to the prudence of your Most Reverend Lordships.

(autogr.) Regarding the habit, the quarrel seems to me out of place and it would be inappropriate to respond; God knows how many improper habits are worn, a thousand varieties of them are allowed to religious Orders founded without a clear purpose; one who wants to look like a Guelf, and another like a Ghibelline, can wear the plumes without being excommunicated, while these others cannot renew the habit of their glorious Father, who appeared so despised and poor in the world’s eyes as to arouse great devotion. Indeed there is no devout friar who under that hood does not endure every sort of hardship, as he thinks about the one who wore it; all they need is a little cell where they can meditate at length on their own business. Not without reason did that great Saint wear it, as others did for sixty years after him, as is clearly demonstrated by the statues, the seal, the relics and the pictures.

Now what reason is there to change the obedience of these men, when they have been living the highest perfection for ten years, to satisfy the ambition of the others, and when we know the harm that has been and is being done to them by the General? What advantage dictated that the law be broken, or rather, what constitution decreed that charity and reason be ignored in their case, out of worldly fear of those who would enter to live a stricter life? And how in conscience can you take away these men’s devotion to the habit on the grounds of the passion of the others? My Most Reverend Lord, the Capuchins are not ruining them, but rather edifying them. The Cardinal Protector and the General have done them great harm, also by spending money to obtain indulgences and favours against them, and should see to it that they remove their excesses and errors, and leave these poor men in peace. And your Lordship, who knows them best, will not be forgiven in the sight of God if human respect prevents you; for no human respect prevented Christ from dying for us.

Your Most Reverend Lordship’s devoted servant the Marchioness of Pescara

(To the Most Revd. Monsignor Contarini. I know very well that I did not need to send it to Your Lordship, but for the love of Christ I pray you have the patience to read it when you are able.)

  1. Carteggio, 110-123 from Archivi Segreti Vaticani, Concilio di Trento, vol. xxxvii, f.170. The Carteggio follows Bartolomeo Fontana, “Documenti vaticani di Vittoria Colonna Marchesa di Pescara per la difesa dei Cappuccini.” Also in IFC II, nn.2020-2031, pp.216-227 reading from the same document, but noting a new pagination in the codex: f.175r-181r, replacing 170r-176r. See also Benedetto d’Alatri, “Vigorosa apologia. Lettera di Vittoria Colonna al Cardinal Contarini” in L’Italia Francescana 22(1947)107-112[: Originally the letter was addressed to the commission of cardinals. The plural form still remains in other parts of the letter.] Costanzo Cargnoni: This letter refers to the Capuchin chapter held in April 1536 and to the pontifical Brief that confirmed it. The letter predates the Bull of Paul III on 25 August the same year which confirmed the recognition of the Capuchins and placed their Vicar under the General of the Conventual Friars who was thus recognised a leader of the whole Order of Saint Francis. At this time a grave danger menaced the Capuchin reform, namely the announcement of an Observant reform. Its general worked to have the pope put the Capuchins and the observants under the same leadership. The Pope left the matter to a commision of cardinals, [to whom this letter of VC is addressed. The commision consisted of Quiñones (Santa Croce), Lorenzo Campeggi and Antonio Pucci] The vicar General of the Capuchins, Bernardino of Asti presented a request to one of the cardinals, Antonio San Severino. This request may be compared with this letter of VC. The text of this request is in Boverius, Annales Minorum Cappuccinorum, an.1536, XVII-XXII. [: The parallels between Vittoria’s letter and the Cedulo in Boverius has suggested to some that VC’s shaped the Capuchin apologia and identity found in the Cedulo. More simply, if the text of Boverius is authentic, could the parallels also suggest that the Capuchins shaped Vittoria’s apologia and idea of their identity?]