Bernardino Ochino: How to recognise a good Christian

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note:

This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.2134-2138. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

2. First sermon [preached in Lucca in 1538: “How to recognise a good Christian]

A learned citizen of Lucca, who was an unidentified follower of Bernardino Ochino, having been impressed with the sermons that he heard in 1538, wrote them down and published five of them in a very rare little booklet without the author’s name and dedicated the collection to Sister Antonia da Villa Basilicata who lived in the Monastery of San Giorgio in Venice.

In the first sermon Ochino sketches the character of the “perfect Christian” who can be recognised not by being baptised, or wearing a religious habit, or participating in ceremonies. Or by what he teaches, that is not just because he has received Baptism, or has become a member of a religious Order, or because he goes to church or is well versed in Christian doctrine, theology or Biblical science, but by “the active fruits of active faith and his active spirit.” The continual repetition of the adjective “active” is impressive. It is intended to designate active conformity to the life of Christ which was also emphasised in the first capuchin Constitutions in 1536. It was intended to be a bulwark “against all the enemies of the vital spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before presenting the text of the first sermon we shall present the original dedication of the entire very rare booklet which is being published here for the first time.


Dedication

To Sister Antonia da Villa Basilica,[1]

My beloved sister in Santo Giorgio.

5629 My most revered Sister, whom the entire monastery and all of the elect venerate, it was because of my desire for your salvation that the merciful Jesus, without whose grace nothing good can be thought, nor can we put it into action, inspired me to collect for you as best I could the sermons of Reverend father Bernardino of Siena, a Capuchin. The sermons were preached in the cathedral in the city of Lucca.[2] They truly contain Christ’s living inner spirit as if it already was present within us. They enflame us with awareness of the authentic, unyielding love of Christ and neighbour, true abnegation of self and of the world with its concupiscence and with total indifference regarding our own works. They inspire us with total, secure and firm confidence in God’s goodness that is a real treasure of great poverty of spirit, which is not recognised by someone who is not enlightened by God. The most merciful Jesus does not want you to be deprived of this.

Therefore accept it with the genuine charity with which is offered. Do not stop with just reading them as do most of the insensitive Christians of our day who do not go beyond ceremonies and exterior works. By the help of God’s grace before and after, may you be led into the service and worship of your immortal spouse joining your hearts together in the true, firm, simple and sincere love of God to whom be praise, honour and glory. Pray also for my salvation. Attribute all the mistakes that you find in them to me since I have not corrected them. I undertook this without the knowledge of the saintly Father in response to the wishes of God’s elect. I made them public so as not to have God’s gift remain hidden.


First Sermon, Lucca 1538

5630 Among the things that are difficult, one which is certainly most difficult is that of recognising a true Christian. Diogenes lit a lamp at midday and carried it around the city among the people looking for a human being. When asked what he was looking for using the lamp at midday, he replied: “I am looking for a human being and I cannot find one.” “You are surrounded by human being, why are your looking for one?” Diogenes said with a smile:[3] “O dear, a human being is a rational animal, and should carry out all his activity using his reason. However, when I go looking for such a one with a lighted lamp, I cannot find even one rational being, all of you who claim to be rational beings, are not so. You do not appear to be rational or to be using reason.”[4] We can also say that it is very difficult to find a good Christian. The subject will be useful and necessary. Listen to me willingly and we shall begin in the name of Jesus.

Our Saviour said: By their fruits you shall know them.[5] You can recognise a good Christ by the fruit he bears, not by his teaching and blind prudence, his dead faith, nor just by the religious habit or by ceremonies or dead works, but by the good fruits of faith and a lively spirit. St Paul indicates this when he says: “The fruits of the spirit are peace, joy, patience, forbearance, mercy, kindness, meekness, faith, modesty, continence, chastity.”[6] These are the fruits brought forth by a true Christian and not teaching and blind prudence, dead faith and dead works. This kind of faith is lounging and apathetic faith.

5631 There are many who are learned and know well Paul’s Epistles, the articles of faith and talk but do nothing.[7] Such as these think that they can be saved by beautiful words and sayings, however they will be damned body and soul. You well know that winter and spring know nothing about trees, yet trees bear fruit in autumn. Likewise, the true Christian is not known just by being baptised and participating in religious ceremonies but with the living fruit of living faith and with life in the spirit. Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven.[8] Do your really want to know very clearly if you are a Christian or not? O my Christian, take a pair of scales and open your heart and place it on the scales and see whether it tilts to the right or to the left. This will indicate whether you have greater love for God or your children, yourself or the world with its concupiscence. If it indicates that you have greater love for God, then you are a perfect Christian who really believes.

However, what shall I say about those who do not have the slightest concern about love of God or love of neighbour which is the essence of being a Christian, and who make wealth, family, love of the world, unbridled desires, love of self and of their own will and comfort their Trinity and their Creator? Faith like that of the Pharisee who to justify himself said “I am not like the rest of men” [9] is not living faith. One should be humble like Christ who said: When you have done all this say: We are unprofitable servants.[10] This means that when you have done all the good work that you could have done as a good Christian say that you are[11] unprofitable servants who are not bearing fruit. If Christ were to divest you of all the gifts that he has freely lavished upon you, what would remain that belonged to you except a multitude of the weaknesses of sin, filth and countless weakness! Thus the perfection of the Christian life does not consist in dead works but in living works of living faith.

Therefore Christ should be what the heart is to the body and the head. All the limbs of the body lay themselves bare to protect the heart and the head. You too ought to lay bare your body and everything that you possess and hold everything under heaven in contempt in order not to offend your heart and your head, that is Christ, your treasure and your spouse.

5632 If only you appreciated the good things that God has done to you and the glory and infinite riches that he has prepared for you in the future life, you would certainly despise these vile, worthless, frail and momentary things in the same way that a pontiff, cardinal or newly appointed prince cheerfully lays aside all that he owns in his regal palace, once he has received much greater and more precious prizes and riches.[12] Thus if you really believed in the great happiness and dignity of the future life, and in the invisible, great and infinite gifts that God has prepared for you, then, you would regard all of these base things as being very vile and dung in order to win Christ,[13] and you would discover life in death, happiness in tears, riches in poverty and you would be a real Christian since St Paul said: For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be made conformable to the image of his Son.[14] We achieve such conformity no just be means of dead faith, but by imitating the life of Christ. The Son of God despised all the things of the world in order to show the Gospel path and Christian perfection that it produces. Living faith, which operates by means of love,[15] is active and not lazy. Like shining silver, it is always excites, arousing the fruits of the spirit and living faith. By these fruits and because of them one can recognise the perfect Christian with certainty. Therefore, it is not only because one has been baptised, or has dead faith, or has attended ceremonies that he can be said to be a perfect Christian. For what did our Saviour say: By their fruits you shall know them.[16] The true Christian can be recognised by living faith and a vital spirit. My Christian, fruits such as these, which you should beg God to grant to you, should assure your heart that you will be happy in this life and in the next.[17]

 

  1. Villa Basilica is the name of a district in the Province of Lucca.
  2. The Cathedral in Lucca is dedicated to S. Martino. Together with the campanile and cathedral offices, it stands on a corner of the Piazza di S. Martino in the heart of medieval Lucca. The Cathedral, which was designed in Gothic architecture inside and outside, has a façade of Romanesque marble of two colours, an asymmetric porch and graceful chapels all around it. Amongst other things one can see an octagonal chapel where the Volto Sacto (Holy Face) is displayed. It contains an ancient cedar-wood crucifix and the famous tomb made by Jacopo della Quercia.
  3. Disero in the text = li dissero.
  4. Diogenes from Sinope was a Greek philosopher of the Cynic school, a disciple of Antisthenes. He was born in Sinop on the Isthmus of Cape Ince Burun in 412 or 404 BC. Tradition depicts him as being an opponent of cultural convention and an advocate of a life of poverty and a simple life-style. His house was a large ceramic jar and he wandered through Athens with a rod in his hand, a knapsack on his shoulder carrying a lantern as Ochino says in the introductory part of his sermon. Father Julien-Eymard has made a comparison between the Capuchin way of life as described by Capuchin Franciscan spiritual writers if the seventeen hundreds and that of the ancient historical philosophers. Cf. Raoul de Sceaux, Le père Julien-Eymard d’ Angers (Charles Chesneau). In CF 43 (1973) 353, 356s.
  5. Cf. Mt 7: 16
  6. Cf Gal 5: 22
  7. Cf. Mt 23: 3
  8. Cf Mt 7: 21
  9. Lk 18: 11
  10. Lk 17: 10
  11. Siate in the text is an ancient form of siete.
  12. This echoes what St Francis said: “We have promises God great things, but God has promised us greater things.” Cf Constit. 1536, n. 150.
  13. Cf Phil 3: 8.
  14. Rom 8: 29
  15. Cf. Gal 5: 6.
  16. Mt 7: 16
  17. This is the usual way Ochino concluded his sermons.