CHAPTER II. THE MODEL PRIOR. (1528-1543.)
The next fifteen years of his life were passed in various monasteries of his Order. Four times he was elected Prior; first at Vigevano, where his fitness for the office was thoroughly understood; next at Soncino, then once more he was elected at Vigevano, whence he was promoted to the important priorate of Alba, where the Dominican nuns in the neighbouring convent begged him so earnestly to become their spiritual director that, after an appeal to the Provincial, Father Michael was fain to yield. " The monasteries," says an old Italian writer, " waited with impatience their turn to secure him as their head."
Father Michael would very much have preferred to remain a simple friar. Responsibility terrified him. He once told a friend that had it been possible to do so without rebelling against the will of God, he would never have accepted any dignity. * Sometimes he said he would dread less to be Inquisitor than Prior. "f the glory of God and my duty did not prevent it I would resign to-day, to assure the salvation of my soul, and shake off this responsibility which angels themselves might dread." 1
Yet there was no doubt that he was the ideal man for such an office, perhaps the more so as it caused him very real suffering. His delicate nature, always sensitive and highly-strung, with a certain fine sense of humour, suffered acutely from a hostile atmosphere, from veiled or open dislike. Things which would have been utterly unnoticed by a man of coarser fibre, or passed over with contempt, became to him real torture—or would have done so had he given way to nature. For his rule, though tender, was severe even to sternness, and doubtless excited certain criticisms. This dominant characteristic of his, the mingling of great strength with angelic tenderness, was the two-edged sword which was to be so mighty a weapon in the armoury of the Church, in the Hands of Almighty God.
All his biographers speak of Fr. Michael's extraordinary spirituality and manifest holiness. He seemed to live in the very presence of God. Without going in any way beyond the Rule, he kept it so literally and exactly, both in spirit and letter, that it is recorded that he was never once known to fail in any detail. In this perfection lay his spirit of mortification. Taking the Rule as the means to his end, he observed it with an exactness which renders him a worthy model for all the sons of St. Dominic. He was an idealist, and worked hard to make the monasteries over which he was set live up to his ideal. To the poor his charity was unbounded. "St. Bernardine" they called him, after the great Franciscan, the fragrance of whose memory, after a hundred years, was still fresh in the country.
To his religious he preached rather by example than by word. Always punctual to the moment for the Divine Office in choir, he never gave permission to his friars to absent themselves, except for serious illness, or for some urgent work of charity. Slight indispositions he did not consider sufficient excuse. His own health was not good, but his stall was never empty. "Without the Divine Office neither piety nor religion, nor even temporal blessings for our convents," he often said ; " on the other hand, everything abounds in our houses when the Opus Dei is honoured."
He never used dispensations from the Rule usually granted to those preaching and teaching; he even called them " relaxations" only encouraging nature to revolt against spirit. " Without temperance there can be no chastity," he was wont to say; " and a religious should only take food to preserve the strength necessary to fulfil his duties." He scarcely ever drank wine, and when obliged to do so diluted it with water. Scrupulously he observed the long fasts of the Order. Throughout his life, as his confessors bore witness, he preserved his baptismal innocence. He called mental prayer the most efficacious method of acquiring knowledge: "the more a soul is united to God," he said, "the more it becomes capable of receiving Divine illuminations, which constitute and develop knowledge and science in the Saints ". " Piety and learning are the two springs from which religious should drink; without them, heart and intellect wither and grow sterile, deprived of all interior unction." Like our Holy Father St. Dominic, he spent the day in working for souls, and the greater part of the night in prayer. Reading and study were his favourite recreations. Daily he read the lives of the Saints, especially that of St. Dominic, where he loved to search for " examples ". To St Thomas Aquinas Father Michael had a great devotion; he was a diligent student of the Angelic Doctor's works, as well as all those of the early Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
He would never leave the monastery except on business of the community or for some priestly duty. Nor did he easily allow those under his care to go outside the enclosure, especially the young religious. " This measure," says a French writer, "which may appear severe, was to those in his charge the cause of great spiritual progress." He compared a religious out of his monastery to a fish out of water: "if you leave it long enough on the bank it will die " As salt," he often said, " dissolves when it is thrown into water and becomes indistinguishable from it, thus the religious (by the grace of God the salt of the earth) assimilates with fatal eagerness the maxims and spirit of the world, when he begins to spend his time in a number of unnecessary visits."
Severe though he was to those who sought dispensations, he was still more severe with himself. During his .second priorate at Vigevano, seven leagues from Milan, the Governor of that town appointed him his confessor and almoner. It took him six hours to go and return, for he always went on foot. In vain his friars begged him to buy a thick mantle to shelter him from the cold and rain of winter, when, as was his weekly custom, he walked to the palace at Milan. It is scarcely worth while to profess poverty if one is as comfortably dressed as people in the world," he replied smiling, and gave every soldo of the Duke's alms to the poor, without more thought of himself. He never would ride, though he often went out to preach in far-distant towns, or to the Provincial Chapters. He journeyed on foot like a simple religious, carrying his bundle on his back and scarcely speaking to his companion except now and then of heavenly things, after the example of St. Dominic. He confessed that he hated leaving the monastery. As they walked they would recite the Rosary, always the favourite devotion of the future Pope.
Of his unusual courage and tact two examples may be given. Both took place during his government of the Priory of Alba. The country, devastated as usual by war between France and the Empire, was ravaged by bands of soldiers who, unpaid and masterless, were obliged to pillage, and steal in order to secure food and shelter, A band of these ruffians one day appeared before the gates of the nuns' convent at Alba, and threatened to break down the doors. Happily the Prior was within. He came out, causing the door to be locked behind him, and like a second St. Leo, he harangued the lawless crowd with such fire and passion that, ashamed of themselves, they turned and slunk away.
The other instance was at the monastery itself.
Three hundred French soldiers, 2 pressed by hunger, came to the gates to pillage and destroy. Again the holy Prior came out to them, and his tender heart seems to have been deeply moved by their state of ferocious misery. He asked what they wanted. "Food and shelter" they replied with oaths and threats. " Listen! "cried the brave Dominican: " what can you gain if you do pillage the monastery and slay us all ? Nothing but the guilt of murder, for we have only food for a day in the house. Take my advice, and become my guests. Adopt for a time our manner of life, sit with us in the refectory, where we will give you what we have ourselves, and walk with us in the cloister. Accept such hospitality as a poor monastery can offer." The hardened villains, to whom such words had never been addressed in their lives, stared at the white-clad figure in the porch, and at each other; and then, laying down their arms, followed him one by one into the cloister in silence.
For three months they lived in the monastery at Alba, eating the simple fare of the friars in the refectory, listening silently to the spiritual reading, and generally behaving with great correctness!
Then another band of their brethren came to pillage, and incidentally to find out what had happened to the first company. These the Prior exhorted sternly. " There is nothing here! " he cried: " for three months we have fed three hundred of your fellows with the best we had. Is the Church itself not safe from your insults ? If Catholics, our defenders, treat us thus, what can we expect from our enemies ? " One man replied sulkily that the Prior spoke with a good deal of assurance. "I speak as I ought," cried the intrepid Friar, "for I speak for the Church!" Then he told them tenderly he knew how hungry and wretched they were, and he would do his best to feed them. Their comrades came out to tell the new-comers what had been done for them, and finally they all departed together, full of reverence and gratitude to the heroic man whose dauntless courage had preserved both monastery and convent.
Meanwhile in the great world outside the threatening storm had become a downpour. Everywhere was war and discord; everywhere was heresy spreading, flagrant or hidden. In 1534 Pope Paul III had at last published the bull of excommunication against Henry VIII, after his marriage with Anne Boleyn, 3 and the dissolution of the monasteries, the final cause of the Papal action being the desecration and robbery of the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. The danger of the Turkish invasion was looming very large on the horizon. 4 On none of the great European Powers, all nominally Catholic, but each swayed by the most selfish political motives, could the aged Pope really rely. The ever-rising flood of Calvinism and Lutheran heresy in Switzerland and Germany was gradually, but steadily, filtering through the Grisons into Northern Italy. Things looked very black indeed towards the close of the first half of the sixteenth century.
In 1542 the Pope consulted with Cardinals Caraffa 5 and Alvarez 6 as to the best means to stop this constant influx of heresy. Both strongly advised the reorganization of the Inquisition, of which St. Dominic had been the first ruler. The supreme tribunal was to be at Rome, with local dependencies everywhere. " At Rome St. Peter conquered the first heresiarch; at Rome his successor shall put to flight the heresies of the present day! "
On 21 July appeared the bull instituting the Roman Inquisition. Six Cardinals, including Caraffa and Alvarez, were nominated Universal Inquisitors in matters of faith, with power to establish inquisitors wherever it seemed good to them, to decide appeals, and to seize, incarcerate, judge, and condemn if guilty, preachers, teachers, and abettors of heresy.
The Holy Office lost not a moment. Every town under suspicion received an inquisitor. Venice, the time-serving; the Swiss frontier; the beautiful lake-country of North Italy, especially Como, needed strong and vigilant men. In 1543 the Dominican Provincial Chapter of Lombardy was sitting at Parma. To the united Fathers the Pope addressed a Brief, urging them steadfastly to combat heresy so insidious that even the cloister was not exempt. 7 The friars wished to hear from Father Michael a refutation of these errors. He was called upon to sustain a thesis of thirty propositions, chiefly against the Lutheran heresy and in defence of pontifical authority. This he did with so much certainty of doctrine, so much ease in the solution of difficulties, and, above all, so much zeal and love for Holy Church that the Fathers were themselves confirmed in the Faith, and when, just at that moment, the Holy Office applied to the Province of Lombardy for the best man they had as inquisitor at the important outpost of Como, the Provincial, with the unanimous and delighted approval of the whole Chapter, nominated Michael Ghislieri.
1 St Pius had always a great devotion to the Holy Angels, and especially to his patron, St, Michael.
2 Probably during 1536 or 1537.
3 Elizabeth, the child of this illegal marriage, was in her turn to be excommunicated by the future Pope Pius V.
4 The Turkish Invasion of Europe (see chapter vii) was even then causing terror and dismay, especially among southern nations. Against this growing danger Pope Paul III formed a league with Charles V and the Venetian Republic (then a great maritime Power). It is only too plain that had it not been for the hopelessly commercial spirit of the Serene Republic the power of the Turks must have been greatly curtailed.- Venice placed her commerce before her Faith, and it led in the end to her ruin.
5 The future Paul IV.
6 A Spanish Dominican.
7 The notorious Martin Luther, to give only one instance, was a renegade Augustinian friar. In 1525 he had " married" Catherine Bora, an ex-Carmelite nun, whom he had persuaded to break her vows.