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The generalate of St. Philip Benizi

posted Aug 23, 2014, 10:05 AM by Vidal Martinez


In spite of a promising start and the support of Peter of Verona, the Servites were soon to encounter such difficulties that the very survival of the Order was placed in jeopardy.

The chief protagonist in this tempestuous period was St. Philip Benizi of Florence. He had entered the Order about twenty years after the original decision of the Seven, and was to die in 1285, probably before most of them.

In order to understand this period properly, two dates have to be kept in mind: 1215 and 1274. In 1215, during the pontificate of Pope Innocent III, the Fourth Council of the Lateran was held. In 1274, the Second Council of Lyons was celebrated in the reign of Pope Gregory X. Between these two dates the Dominicans and the Franciscans became established and flourished.

Apart from its principal concern, the fight against heresy, the important matters before the Fourth Lateran Council was how to put some order among the many religious movements that were springing up throughout the Church. The unifying policy of Pope Innocent III could not allow these to escape the control of the Roman Curia. Canon 13 of the Fourth Lateran Council stated in blunt terms that any individual or group who wanted to embrace religious life had to choose one of the existing forms approved by the Church authorities. If any individual or group really wanted to found a "new" form, they would have to adopt one the approved "Rules" - those of St. Benedict and St. Augustine for the West, and that of St. Basil for the East. This did not mean that a new foundation had to be subordinate to one of the existing orders in the Church, but it did make it rather difficult to found new orders because every individuating characteristic could be termed "new" and therefore a reason for the Church to withhold recognition.

Nevertheless, new religious movements did spring up after the Fourth Council of the Lateran, even though the majority of them took the precaution of adopting either the Rule of St. Benedict or that of St. Augustine.

As we have already seen, new religious orders did receive ecclesiastical approval from the local Church authorities and explicit protection from the Roman Curia. But, if the papacy itself is immutable, individual popes come and go.

The Second Council of Lyons decided to dust off the thirteenth canon of the Fourth Lateran Council. It stated that the Lateran Council's ruling had been so far disregarded that there was now an unbridled multiplication of new religious institutes. And so it, decreed, with even more severity, that the founding of new mendicant orders was now forbidden. Those established since 1215 were forbidden to receive new entrants, and were therefore condemned to eventual natural extinction. In the dispositions of the Council, this ruling was valid even for those institutes established after 1215 which had received approval from the Holy See but which professed total poverty and relied on the uncertain proceeds of begging for their support.

The Servants of Mary fell into this category; the act of poverty of 1251 had included the renunciation of all goods, property and possessions of any kind.

The situation was now more serious than after the Lateran Council. There were many exceptions to the Council of Lyons' ruling. The concept of "mendicants" as defined by the Council included both the Franciscans and the Dominicans, but these were explicitly exempted from the law. Since, moreover, the Council did not name all the orders concerned and some of them, even of quite recent origin, had powerful protectors at the Council, more than one, condemned on paper, in fact managed to escape.

Some chroniclers of the period included the Servants of Mary among the suppressed orders. The Servites, indeed, now entered into one of the most critical periods of their early history, and managed to save themselves from extinction, humanly speak­ing, though the energy, courage and ability of their prior general, St. Philip Benizi.

Philip was born in the Oltrarno district of Florence in 1233, the son of Giacomo Benizi and Albaverde. The Legenda de origine and the Legenda beati Philippi give ample space to the details of his life. The brief reconstruction given here is based chiefly on these two documents.

On Easter Thursday 1254, Philip received his mysterious but clear call to religious life while at prayer in the Servite church at Cafaggio. He entered the Order on 18 April of the same year. Tradition has it that, a few days after receiving the religious habit, Philip asked Fra Bonfilius if he could go to live at Monte Senario. "St. Philip’s Cave," on the eastern slope of the hill, is still pointed out to visitors today, along with the nearby spring known as "St. Philip’s Fount."

Hiding his education, Philip had asked to join the Order as a lay-brother. He was one for four years until an unexpected incident occurred, which forced him to reveal his learning. The story is told by the Legenda of St. Philip, which puts into the mouth of the saint one of the oldest and most touching descrip­tions of the nature and mission of the Servite Order. The episode reads like this: "It happened that Philip, out of obedience, went on a journey to Siena with a friar by the name of Victor. On the road were met by two religious of the Order of Preachers coming from Germany. These were puzzled at seeing our friars' habit. Their curiosity soon led to a conversation with Blessed Philip, and they inquired what kind of life they led and what Order's habit they were wearing. The man of God, Philip, in true humility but with marvelous wisdom, made the following reply: ‘ If Your question is about our place of origin, we are sons of this land. But if you wish to know our status, we are called Servants of the glorious Virgin, the habit of whose widowhood we wear. We live the life instituted by the holy Apostles, and follow the rule of the saintly doctor Augustine.' As they continued their conversation profound questions, to which the in wisdom and conviction, proving his adherence to true doctrine in every case and his ability to support it with numerous authorities and examples from the lives of the saints. When they had finished, each went his own way. Then Bless Philip's companion said to him, 'Brother, when you were received into the Order, why did you not make known the knowledge you possess, as we are so short of men of learning. Just now, you have shown great scholarship in debating with those two religious. I can tell you for a certainty that this very day the light of learning has begun to shine in our Order.' Then Blessed Philip begged him on his knees, for the love of God, not to reveal this to anyone. But as soon as they had both returned to Florence, Fra Victor began to speak and make known to all the others how Blessed Philip had dealt with those strangers. This caused much rejoicing among the friars. They promoted Philip to the clerical state and gradually advanced him to sacred orders."

Philip Benizi was ordained priest probably in 1258 or 1259, and a pious tradition tells of the celebration of his first Mass in the Chapel of the Apparition on Monte Senario. Nine years later, at only thirty-four years of age, he was elected prior general of the Order.

We shall omit the traditional story of how Philip Benizi refused the papacy. Afterwards, he is supposed to have gone to pray by himself on Monte Amiata, and the spring of mineral water produced by his prayers still flows today, at the place now called Bagni di San Filippo, near Castiglione d'Orcia in the province of Siena.

Philip Benizi was elected prior general in 1267. Seven years later, he was confronted by the situation resulting from the decisions of the Council of Lyons. The Servants of Mary found themselves at a crossroads, for they had been founded well after 1215. F.A. Dal Pino describes the position thus: "Either they could recognize that they fell into the category of mendicant order described by the Council, and therefore resign themselves to gradual extinction like the Brothers of Penance of Jesus Christ and their namesakes, the Servants of Mary of Marseilles, or they could attempt to prove that juridically they were no longer a mendicant order as they had been at the time of their foundation. They could argue that they could be classed as one of the orders founded after the Fourth Council of the Lateran but which followed an accepted Rule and had the Holy See's approval, and hence they had the right to continue in existence."

Philip chose the latter path. Some have argued that this meant that he must have imposed a "historical turnaround" on the Order, but in fact, Philip was only continuing and consolidat­ing a direction the Order had been following since at least the general chapter of 1257.

In support of the line that the Servites were a mendicant order there was the "act of poverty" of 1251; there were also the letters of Popes Innocent IV and Alexander IV recognizing that act, as well as deeds of purchase of property in which, in obedience to the act of poverty, they had stated that they were acquiring on behalf on the Holy Roman Church, not for themselves.

On the other hand, in support of the opposite position - and the only way for the Servites to survive - the prior general could argue that noteworthy exceptions had been made to the act of poverty, at least from 1257 when the general chapter had first requested this; these all received due permission from the Church authorities. Furthermore, the Order had, right from the start, followed the Rule of St. Augustine; its legislation (perhaps after a careful and quick revision) contained nothing that could be interpreted as a prohibition of property.

Providence decreed that a saint like Philip Benizi was needed to pursue such a course of action. It involved some compromises and manipulations along the way. Perhaps it is better that saints have to defend positions that may not be altogether sound, than that evil men should uphold justifiable causes.

Elected to an office he was reluctant to accept, Philip carried out his mandate with the integrity, coherence and lack of self-interest that are typical of saints.

. Philip's plan of action to counteract the Council's injunc­tions about the suppression of religious orders founded in the last sixty years was based on the sensible idea of one small step at a time. He understood that time was on the side of the Servites, and that it is the interplay of unexpected events that often determines the course of history.

The first of these unexpected events was the rapid succession of popes in the years immediately following the Council of Lyons. Gregory X, who had wanted the Council and had every intention of carrying out its dictates, died at the beginning of January 1276, before even getting back to Rome from the Council. Innocent V was then elected but reigned for only six months, to be succeeded by Adrian V, who died before his coronation. Next there was John XXI, who reigned but a year. There followed Nicholas III, whose pontificate lasted three years, Martin IV, who held office for four years, Honorius IV with a reign of two years, and Nicholas IV, who ruled for four years. He was succeed­ed by Celestine V, who only held office for a few short months, to be followed by Boniface VIII, who reigned nine years. Finally, Benedict XI came to the papacy; his pontificate too was quite brief, but during it the Servites finally obtained their definitive approval, in 1304.

A sixteenth-century Servite historian described how Philip, before deciding which course of action to take in the complicated affair of the approval of the Order, secretly called together all the priors and leading figures of the Order at Monte Senario, there to plan a united campaign. It was during this meeting that they decided on the recitation of a series of prayers to the Blessed Virgin, to be offered daily by the friars for the welfare and survival of the Order. This "Vigil of the Blessed Virgin" is still recited by the Order; it is generally known by its opening words: Benedicta Tu (Blessed are you).

Since it was a juridical problem, Philip was constrained to have recourse to the leading lawyers of the time, and did not hesitate to beg the money necessary to pay these curial experts' fees from the priories of the Order. The communities, for their part, made it their business to look for bequests and offerings, and all this also helped demonstrate that they were not in fact "mendicants." The pope himself, in the person of John XXI, ratified a big donation of land made by Count Henry of Regen­stein in April 1277 to the Servite priory of St. Mary of Paradise in the German diocese of Halberstadt.

Sincere friends of the Order were not lacking among the cardinals; a good example is Ottobono Fieschi, who became Pope Adrian V although death overtook him before his corona­tion.

According to the Legenda de origine and other authoritative sources, Philip's activities to secure the survival of the Order also included some of an indirect nature. He was a peacemaker in Florence and Forlì, and this helped to gain the respect of the papal legates, who were unlikely to forget his services to their cause.

His mission to Forlì had one remarkable side-effect. He arrived at the Servite priory in the city in the period, when the city had been placed under interdict by Pope Martin IV (26 March 1282 - 1 September 1283). His mandate was to preach to the populace and urge them to return to obedience to the pope.

Not all of them heeded his words, and a group of hotheads seized and manhandled him out of the city. Among them was the young Peregrine Laziosi, who quickly repented of his part in it and asked to join the Order. Later, he was to be proclaimed the patron saint of the city; the priory there now bears his name and contains his tomb and many important relics of his life.

The uncertainties about the Order's future were slow to resolve themselves, and Philip had to undertake frequent journeys to Rome. On one of these, while staying at the poor and insignificant priory in Todi for a brief period of rest, he died, at the age of fifty-two, on Wednesday 22 August 1285.

In order to defend the Order's case for survival, Philip had been forced to accentuate, or at least to give prominence to, the reversal of the original commitment to poverty that had been gradually taking place in the Order. He came to die in the very poorest Servite priory.

Many portraits of Philip Benizi depict him with a book in his hand, a not uncommon symbol and capable of different interpretations. A pious tradition that came to light in the sixteenth century recounts that, on his deathbed, Philip repeatedly asked for "his" book, the crucifix.

The seed sown by Philip to save the Order from the death sentence pronounced by the Second Council of Lyons bore fruit under his successor, Lotaringo of Florence. Indeed, scarcely a year after his death, another series of favourable "opinions" from the lawyers at the Roman Curia helped unblock the situation once and for all; the Order's position was now more secure, and the way was open towards definitive approval by the Holy See.

This long and laborious business had its price. As has been seen, the "act of poverty" of 1251 had been incorporated in the bull Alexander IV granted the Order in 1256. In the documents of recognition obtained from the Holy See in the period from 1274 to 1304, there is not a single mention of that act. This enforced silence, as Aristide M. Serra has pointed out in his biography of St. Philip, leads us to suppose that "Philip had arranged for modifications to be made to the sections on poverty in the original Constitutions of the Order."

Careful research in some of the oldest priories of the Order confirms that, even in the period between the Second Council of Lyons and 1304, Servite communities continued to live in poverty, though not all of them in the same way. Some latent contradictions were to come to light when the Order, after its approval, began to give its attention to the continuing questions of its development and updating to meet the needs of the times while striving to remain faithful to its origins. One of the Founders of the Order, Alexis Falconieri, was indeed still alive in 1304. He is believed to have died in 1310.

The Order underwent multiple and sometimes contrasting experiences in little more than fifty years; these were perhaps inevitable in its growth towards an organized religious institute.

One can now ask: How did Servite communities actually live in the thirteenth century? In most cases, the question cannot be answered, for the documents have not come down to us, but a look at one of the most important of them can give us some general indications of how a typical community of the Order arranged its life.

 

(Short History of the Order of the Servants of Mary

V. Benassi - O. J. Diaz - F. M. Faustini)

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