by Luke M. Foster, OSM
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
The author begins by letting us know that the call for reform in Western Christendom was clearly sounded in the early Middle Ages as the Church emerged from the decline of the Dark Ages. In the middle of the eleventh century the Western Church was able to witness a will for reform at the top: in 1049 Pope Leo IX arrived in Rome bringing with him Hildebrand, the future Gregory VII opening the road to the famous “Gregorian reform”. This was accompanied by a monastic reform epitomized in the radical monasticism of St. Bernard and the Cistercians. There was a movement to return to the call of the Gospel.
There was a great deal of reform of religious life and genuine renewal within the Order. It recalled the order to greater observance and austerity. The early fervor and religious zeal were soon intermingled with political and partisan elements, making it extremely difficult to make an objective assessment of its true value and achievement. At Monte Senario, where the Observance came into being, we find between 1404 and the earthquake which almost destroyed the building in 1523, a genuine spiritual quest, expressed in a strict observance of Servite religious life which steadfastly refused to be drawn into the political arena. There were also individual friars and even communities elsewhere, particularly in the early stages, who led lives of prayer and austerity, unaffected by the intrigues and wranglings in the Order which were so detrimental to reform of religious life.
The hermitage diary affords some precious insights into the day-to-day life of the hermits. Among other matters it records the names of those who applied to join the community or at least to make trial of its life style. From August 1595 when the eremitical life was initiated on Monte Senario up to the end of 16003 when the diary ceases, we are given the names of 27 such applicants. Some left after such days and weeks before receiving the habit others left during their year of novitiate. During the Napoleonic and subsequent suppressions of religious houses in Italy, conventional life also came to an end in these centers, Monte Senario alone remaining. What may appear at first sight as harsh treatment meted out to the hermits of Monte Senario, the Order’s and the Church’s high esteem of the hermits could not permit that they continue to exist in a state of decadence. However, the weight of political influence in the call for their reduction to conventional life would also need to be considered in any assessment of motives.
The historical milieu was the Counter-Reformation effort of the Catholic Church in the Austrian territories, which aimed to instruct the faithful and arouse their zeal. But within the family of the Servite Order it was seen merely as an adaptation of Servite life within a particular geographical area, and by this compromise the unity of the Order was maintained. Although it retained for much of its existence the austere tone of its founding period, it became heavily conditioned by impinging circumstances and needs, especially of the political variety. It retained in itself a good expression of Servite life, and, because it continued in existence up to the present century, it enabled the Order to operate the principle of diversity within unity up to modern times. This is a wonderful history of Servite reform movements and makes one realize how similar the Church of today is to this historical understanding