Bernardino Ochino: Love your neighbour as yourself

Second Sermon at Luca, 1538

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. 2138-2146. 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 O.F.M. Cap.

Ochino develops the subject of love of neighbour against the background of the understanding of social life in the city of Lucca where disruptions are taking place due to a revolt involving the poor rising up against the oligarchy of the rich and the nobility.


Second sermon. Love your neighbour as yourself. [1]

5633 As experience shows us there are different kinds of friendships. Some are based on earthly pleasures and are transitory,[2] such as those between young people; others are based on something dishonest or nasty, and they are evil; others are based on something that is sincere and take place among virtuous people. Today I wish to speak to you specifically about what to do in order to love your neighbour. This is something that is both useful and necessary. Listen to me, delightful audience, and let us begin in the name of Jesus.[3]

In all sicknesses it is most important to eliminate the cause, therefore one neither removes the scab nor takes it away completely by using ointment. What would the expert learned doctor do? He would prescribe and apply remedies to the root of the infection to take away what has caused the condition and when this has been removed the scab will fall away immediately[4]. This certainly applies to the perfecting of the Christian life that does not only consist in ceremonies, the religious habit, confession and communion.[5] As any good Christian would know, such works are undoubtedly very good when accompanied by charity. However, it is better to get rid of the cause that is separating, or could separate you, from the love of God and your neighbour. The cause is self-love. Therefore, it is required and necessary for you to break from all of this, cast it away from you and strip yourself of all self-love and embellish yourself with love of God and neighbour and thus begin to establish self-control. How could it be possible for a person who does not have self-control to know how to control or govern his family, the republic, his subjects or his flock? How could a person who inflicts evil on himself, bring about good for others? If you are bent over and caught by the sun your shadow will certainly be curved and bent. If you do not straighten yourself your shadow will remain curved. If you do not control yourself first, you will not love, or ever edify your neighbour.[6]

5634 Oh pastors of souls, priests, leaders, fathers and mothers listen! Oh judges, doctors and magistrates become active and take control of your own self in the first place! Because just as it is from the prime mover that both the forces of nature and the other heavenly powers derive their existence, so too all other virtues derive their origin and source from love of God and neighbour. Therefore though your have not known God in the crib, on the cross, in his glory, but you can see his poor little ones as creatures of God redeemed by his precious blood and as being your brothers, whether they are filthy, clothed in rags, sick and putrid, then by giving them part of your substance with a happy expression and enflamed heart, you have become a benefactor of both the poor little ones and also of Jesus Christ.

If Christ your Redeemer, your maker and creator were to appear in his own likeness to invite you to a meal, to drink and to dress up would it not be very rude, cruel and ungrateful for you to refuse something that you would never deny a friend in the flesh by refusing what is his to give and not yours? Oh, my Christian, do you not believe Christ? Are you not supposed to be a Christian? Do you not believe in the Gospel when it quotes the words of Christ who said: Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me? [7] Beneath that shabby clothing, that filth, that weakness and stench there resides sweet Jesus Christ. Indeed, your carnal eyes see the weakness and dwell on the misery of the poor little one, but the eyes of your Christian intellect see the mystical Christ in all his majesty under a veil in that poor little person.[8]

5635 More than this, when your neighbour has inflicted multiple injuries on you, whether great or small, either with respect to your property or your person, ah my Christian, if you are a genuine Christian, if you have a grain of faith, offer God a present[9] not only of what has happened but also by promising Jesus to make him a present of all the injuries and unpleasant things that will come your way throughout your entire life. If you seek revenge you trample underfoot and ridicule the blood of Jesus Christ, as if you were saying that Christ did not shed his blood for this injury and that he could not and would not forgive it and so you dared to take revenge concerning it.

What can I say about such wicked and false Christians who have plenty of everything and yet very easily allow the poor to die of hunger quicker than their dogs or mules? During the famine[10] I remember seeing countless numbers of those who had died from hunger. I saw many poor little people, who could hardly speak, suffering from hunger. Nonetheless they were on the streets and at Church doors where wealthy Prelates and lay people who were loaded with goods were passing by. Unlike the poor they wore rings, were covered in gold, wore silk garments, but nevertheless did not even want to look at the poor even though their churches and homes were very opulent and overly decorated with cloth of gold and silver and contained many shoes. They wanted to cover their places with paintings of Christ more quickly than to help the mystical Christ living in the poor little ones. Such people are certainly not Christians, but hypocrites and false Christians. I also recall having read that the saints in the primitive Church used chalices made of wood, and stripped down others and sold them, including the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament was kept, in order to help the poor, knowing what had been written: Go and learn what this means, I want love not sacrifice.[11] Therefore, Christians learn that mercy pleases me more than sacrifice. A hundred words with which I challenge you!

5636 As you love yourself. Our Saviour said you should love your neighbour as you love yourself.[12] He did not say: You should love your neighbour as much as you know that Peter, or Paul, or the other Apostles do, but as you love yourself. Because if he had said: You should love[13] him as much as Paul does, you might have excused yourself before God by saying that you were unable to say or to know how much Peter or Paul loved their neighbour.

Now, my Christian, consider the way in which you love yourself, how you provide for your[14] needs, how much compassion you have for yourself and of how you wish that what you needed had been done for you. Then pause carefully and consider what you have done and are doing. Then think about your neighbour, and about whether you are a genuine Christian or not, or if you believe in your brother in the flesh much more than you believe in Christ, your Saviour who said: In everything do to others what you would have them do to you.[15] It is Christ who is telling you this, my dear Christ, not me. This is not carnal prudence. This is not philosophers or human teachers. He is your Redeemer.

So you must love your neighbour as you love yourself by seeing and recognising him to be better than you. So, the proverb that says: “Love commences at home”, is wrong. If you who are a prelate, you should realise that when you share your income you are obliged to do so not only according to the false proverb. You should do so in the best way that a minister of Christ would share it. If you who are in charge of the Republic, think about what you are doing when you assign the civic staff in the Senate. You have set down a law based on a very wrong proverb that says: Rightly or wrongly you have to favour your own people. I can tell you that if you think that one of your enemies is better suited for that office in the eyes of God and for the welfare of the republic than your child, brother or friend you are obliged to support your enemy completely and in everything when he is more suitable than your child.[16]

5637 My Christian, consider how you observe this commandment, whether you are far from or close to the Gospel path and do not deceive yourself any longer. You might say to me; “O Father, I often go to church, I avail myself of many indulgences, I say the Rosary every day, I practice many devotions, I belong to this and that society, I attend daily Mass, I go to Confession and Communion frequently and because I feel that you are a good Father I value your friendship.” Something more is needed, O Christian. I am not saying that what has been mentioned is not very good and holy when it is carried out for the love of God and neighbour. However, do whatever you like but if you do not have love you are exhausting yourself in vain.

Do you know what will become of you? You will end up like the rat when a cat catches him. You see that the cat carries him in his mouth. He lets the rat go and allows and provokes him to run about here and there and he could not care less, in fact he enjoys it for he knows for certain that the rat will not escape from his grasp and that he will eat him in the end. Thus the devil is not upset about you attending Masses, about you frequently going to Confession and Communion, building monasteries, constructing chapels, making what is required for the altar with your coat of arms on them, as if Christ who created you did not recognise your coat of arms or your identity. You have Masses offered. You celebrate jubilees endlessly and fill them with ceremonies and dead activities and they are devoid of charity. After all this you do not love your neighbour as you love yourself for the love of God, indeed you despise him. You suck his blood with a thousand catchphrases. You pretend that you do not see the poor person, his anxiety or his anguish, indeed you are grateful to the demon who is the cause of all of this, the ceremonies, the works that appear to be holy, but which are not motivated by charity and which undoubtedly have you devoured and eaten up in hell.[17]

5638 In the primitive Church there were not that many church buildings, superfluous decorations and extraordinary expenses. In Jerusalem, which was a great and famous city, there was only a single temple, in which there were not as many sacred vessels or an abundance of various vestments of different kinds as there are now in our temples. Now the poor, indeed Christ in the poor, are being despised. Oh, tell me, my Christian, if a poor person who was dying of hunger asked you for bread, or if someone who was naked asked you for clothes and you answered I will send you to an artist and he will paint a portrait of you, tell me, would the poor person not say to you: “I need bread and clothes to cover me because I am dying of cold..” Likewise, Christ does not need paintings, churches, chapels, extra chalices, decorations and vestments in church buildings. He wants you to feed and clothe the little poor person in his temple. I am not cursing the above-mentioned decorations in the churches. Indeed, I am praising them, this you ought to have done, without neglecting the other.[18] This means that you should do this but not neglect the other things. However, I insist that you should put the poor little ones in the first place and consider them before other things.

But, Oh dear me, what shall I say about the pastors of souls who by means of the Word of God, their example and income, apart from sparingly providing themselves with food and clothing, should also assist the souls of their neighbours as they are obliged and bound to do and yet it appears that they are more concerned about even the smallest things. Oh, what a great shame! Oh, what undue ingratitude! Even the father of a family who had to go to a distant country would make arrangements to provide a tutor who was someone he knew very well for his children. He would tell him and say to him with a tender heart: Because I trust you, I place my children under your care. They are the apple of my eye and of my heart. Most of all I beg you to instruct them about the way to God and teach them to fear him. Do not be impeded in doing this by having to provide yourself with food and clothing and thus become unable to look after them diligently. I leave you adequate support on which you can live and clothe yourself.” This is how Jesus Christ when he had to leave his children made out his last will and handed[19] it to Peter and his pastors when he said with intimate, profound and heart-felt affection if you love me, feed, feed my sheep.[20] This means, if you love me, Peter, I will be sure that you feed my sheep with my word with the extra profit by proclaiming and implanting the holy Jesus so that nothing will make you happier than to feed his flock and to love your neighbour.

5639 I shall say this: God will not accept your love or your sacrifices unless your love is warmer than Mary Magdalene’s love[21]was. In short if you love with all the perfection of charity, but do not love your neighbour out of love of God, and do not support and help him in what he needs with heartfelt affection for love of Christ, it will be of no benefit to you. Do as you wish, but just as he does not want you to love your neighbour without loving him, so too he does not want to love him without loving your neighbour. Therefore, tell me, if you show a father all the signs of love and genuine friendship that are possible, and on the other hand hate, hurt and despise his beloved child, I ask you, will your friendship or gifts please him? So, give your love and superfluous goods to the poor for the love of your Christ, because, my Christian, your superfluous goods are not your own.[22] Believe me you might be stealing those goods because they belong to the poor. Therefore if the poor had an agent, note this word, or had a just judge and when they suffered began to place demands on all the superfluous possessions of pastors and of the wealthy undoubtedly the sentence would favour some of them and they would gain possession, as I have said, by means of a just verdict and just judgement concerning what was superfluous to the pastors and the wealthy.

Oh, my Christian, Enter into the dark prison of your heart and see where you stand, and how far you are from doing the right thing and the genuine Gospel path, and say: Oh, What will it profit them if they gain the whole world and forfeit their life? [23] What could I give in exchange for my soul? I should quickly, quickly abandon everything and place myself before God to render a special account with respect to charity towards my neighbour to see whether I gave him something of the extra I had out of love. You must certainly do this and not put it off. So, give the poor what honestly belongs to them and is not yours. Correct your errors concerning wealth and heavenly treasure, if you want to gain genuine glory and solid riches by loving your neighbour as yourself so that you may be happy in this life and in the next.


Endnotes:

  1. Cf. Mt 19: 19; 22: 39. Rom 13: 9. Gal 9: 14; Jam 2: 8.
  2. In the text flussibili = passeggeri, transitory.
  3. This formula was often used by Ochino and other preacher of that day. It was used to launch the subject.
  4. Ochino may be recalling his medical studies in Perugia.
  5. This is denying the value of external works if they are not animated by the spirit and accompanied by charity and love.
  6. This topic is developed in Dialogo terzo cf. above nn. 4038-4060.
  7. Cf. Mt 25: 40-43.
  8. This is a remarkable Gospel and Franciscan insight that recognises “the mystical Christ” in the poor. Here Ochino intends to reproach the city of Lucca, which, a few years previously, in 1531-32, had squashed the uprising of the “rag people.” Cf. M. Berengo, Nobili e mercanti nella Lucca del Cinquecento, Torino 1965, 117-146. See especially G. Carocci, La rivolta degli Straccioni in Luca, in Stor. Ital. 53 (1951) 28-59. In the text “Gesù dolce”, which is a normal expression used by Ochino, probably goes back to St Catherine of Siena who used it frequently in her letters.
  9. Dono, regalo.
  10. It is possible that Ochino is referring to the disastrous famine of 1528 that was immediately followed by a serious plague that saw many beggars, part-time workers, tradesmen and farmers die of hunger on the streets of Lucca. They had come to the city is search of work. Cf. M. Berengo, Nobili e mercanti, cit., 120, note 2.
  11. Cf. Mt 9: 13; 12: 7. This is a very strong reproach against the rich clerics and laity using expressions taken from the Fathers and Reformers that were frequently used by the “Spirituals” and the Catholic Reform movement.
  12. Cf. Mt 19: 19.
  13. In the text amerailo but here amerai.
  14. In the text tuoi, but here tue.
  15. Mt 7: 12; Lk 6: 31
  16. He is effectively attacking the accumulation of benefices among ecclesiastics and the nepotism among laity who operate at the civic level.
  17. We see in this outburst against religious practices that are carried out without the spirit of charity one Ochino’s basic concepts concerning “ceremonies and activities that are dead”, which are lacking affective love of neighbour.
  18. Cf. Mt 23: 23. These are thoughts that were often expressed by the holy Fathers, especially when stressing the contrast between the richly adorned churches and the poor who were dying of hunger. Cf for example S. Girolamo, Ep. 52, 58, 108, 130. (PL 22, 534, 584, 892, 1107). St John Chrysostom, Hom. 50, 3-4 (PL 58. 508s). This is the genuine explanation of the poverty and simplicity of the vessels used for cult and the churches frequented by the early Capuchins. Cf. Const. 1336 nn. 56 and 104.
  19. In the text raccomandoli here raccomando.
  20. Cf. Jn 21: 15-17.
  21. Mary Magdalene is the symbol of very ardent love. Ochino spoke about such love in his sermon at Venezia in 1539. Cf. below nn. 5796-5810.
  22. In the text tuoi here tue. This is St Francis’s idea. Cf. AC, 11, AAED III/I, 218I; 1SP, 12 FAED III, 223; 2C 87, FAED II, 304. See also Const. 1536, n. 84.
  23. Cf. Mt 16: 26; Mk 8: 36; Lk 9: 25