Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap
Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap
Translator: This translation is based on the introduction 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, p. 2115-21117.
Undauntedly Bernardino Ochino was the greatest Italian preacher in the early sixteenth century, during the period that led up to the Council of Trent. He was praised by all the scholarly and educated people of the day and sought after by all the leading cities of the peninsular. His preaching courses were “events” that took place following long negotiations involving civic authorities, Cardinals, Bishops, Princes and Popes. Cities that could enjoy him for longer periods, especially for the whole of Lent, considered themselves to be most fortunate because in that way they could savour the vast range of his oratory and apostolic ability. The cities that enjoyed such good fortune included Rome, Naples, Milan and Venice. However, cities such as Florence, Siena, Perugia, Bologna, Messina and Palma also had the chance to hear him both when he passed through on preaching tours and when he conducted entire Advent courses.
He was not a preacher who spoke on just some occasions. He dominated Italian pulpits for many years and in 1539 he pointed out to the people of Venice that he had “preached thirty Lenten courses”. His great reputation faltered only when after 1534 Ochino threw away the cowl of an Observant Friar Minor and put on the rough Capuchin habit embracing a career that would lead immediately to the highest positions in the new Franciscan Reform. This rapidly brought a reaction in Italian chronicles which, without any proof, made him appear to be the founder of that Reform.
In fact, his outstanding preaching became a most effective advertisement and instrument of propagating the poor “congregation” of Capuchin friars. To people at the time, the Order appeared to be the reincarnation of the primitive Franciscan spirit because of its radical poverty, simplicity, austerity and penance.
The content of this preaching, notwithstanding its almost uninterrupted continuation, was simple. Its technique abounded in many shades of variety that focused on the Crucified Jesus Christ. The Crucifix is the sign of God’s love and the most splendid revelation of God who is love. The lyrical, emotional and moving presentation of the Crucifix brought about the desire to live the faith, the resolve for a practical response, a commitment to conversion and penance together with becoming involved in social charity.
A few very rare booklets that were printed in Venice in 1541 convey an accurate and precise image of Bernardino Ochino’s explosive apostolic character. They contain five sermons that were delivered in Luca in 1538, a further nine that were preached in Venice in the church of the Santi Apostoli during Lent in 1538 and a conference delivered to the university students in Perugia on 6 December 1536 or 1539. Altogether there are forty sermons. Because of the rarity of these sermons we thought it appropriate to reproduce all of these sermons as they are important for recreating the religious climate and the spirituality that predominated in Italy at the time.
In Perugia in front of a crowd of young university students who came from all over Italy and other European countries, Bernardino Ochino proclaimed Christ Crucified to be the book of life that would make one wiser than all philosophical and worldly knowledge. (cf. n. 1). In Lucca, in a very uneasy religious and political atmosphere, when the Republic was suffering from continual internal strife and while the oligarchy was reacting to the uprising of the “stracciati” (ragmen), Ochino gave five sermons that presented the evangelical duty of giving assistance to the poor. In these sermons he developed the notion of the “perfect Christian” who can be recognised and manifested in “in the living fruit of lively faith”, (n. 2) in the love of neighbour, true charity towards “the poor little ones” (nn. 3 & 4), in contempt for the world, (n. 5) and in trust in God who is rich in mercy (n. 6).
In his sermons in Venice in 1539 he spoke about the way to celebrate the Sacrament of Confession (n. 7), Mary’s conception of Christ as it was announced by the Angel (n. 8), the need for Christ to die on the cross for our sins (n. 9), the way to contemplate Christ’s Passion in order to fall in love with the Crucified (n. 10), spiritual discernment in choosing the instructions for an authentic road to God (n. 11), the purpose and fruit of Eucharistic Communion (n. 12), Christ’s exceedingly great love which he revealed as “a pilgrim” travelling along with the Disciples at Emmaus: (n. 13). In one of his last sermons during Lent in Venice Ochino left the people some spiritual advice and defended himself against the accusation of being heretical (n. 14). He addressed his last sermon specifically to women because he wanted them to model themselves on Mary Magdalene in her love of the Crucified as they wept over their sins at Christ’s feet (n. 15).
As we read these pages, we come to understand how fitting was the praise of Ochino’s preaching in Rome as it was contained in a letter that Agostino Gonzaga sent to the Marchesa Isabella on 12 March 1535: “His sermons are all about explaining the Gospel. They are concerned about nothing but how to walk the road to paradise. He possesses marvellous fervour together with a most perfect delivery. He expresses most excellently how one ought to communicate whatever one feels is necessary for the salvation of those who are listening, especially those who are in charge.”
If modern historians stress the influence of the opinions of Valdès and the followers of the “Beneficio di Cristo”, including reading into these sermons a leaning toward Protestantism, they are in fact a splendid example of “evangelical preaching” which was later prescribed in the Capuchin Constitutions of 1536, to which Bernardino Ochino made a profound personal contribution.