Tag Archives: Savonarola

Joy and tenderness

There is a proverb that “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

There is the saying attributed to Saint Teresa de Avila that “A sad saint is a sorry saint.”

Even the theologian Karl Rahner noted that “A good laugh is a sign of love.”

Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of joy for the follower of Christ. His Apostolic Exhortation is fittingly entitled The Joy of the Gospel.

Today is the feast of Saint Philip Neri, the sixteenth century apostle of Rome. Born in Florence he studied with the Dominicans at the Convent of San Marco – a house noted for the beautiful frescos that Fra Angelico and his followers painted on the walls of the friars’ cell. But it is also noted as the convent where Girolamo Savonarola lived.

Savonarola is noted for his fierce and severe call for reform in Florence, even setting up a sort of holy republic. For his efforts as well as for his biting critique of the papacy, he was burned at the stake in the center of Florence.

According to Paul Burns in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Philip Neri revered the memory of Savonarola. “He [Philip] aimed for a return to the apostolic simplicity of life, as his early hero Savonarola had, but encouraged people to embrace this without using hell-fire sermons and without deliberately upsetting the church establishment.”

Despite this he got into trouble at least twice – at one point Pope Paul IV prohibited him from preaching.

But what is striking is that he kept up a cheerful spirit in all this. As he said:

Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.

He also used humor to undercut the efforts to idolize him as a living saint – going around with half his beard shaved, wearing outrageous disguises, and playing practical jokes.

I was reminded of the place of joy and tenderness in our spiritual lives when I read the reflection this morning in Give Us This Day. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn recalled that

In the novel Adam Bede, George Eliot wrote, “When death, the great reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.”

God wants us to be people of joy. Severity may have its place, but ultimately we are called to nurture tenderness and joy.


Savonorala: a martyr?

The Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola and two other Dominicans were hanged and burned on May 23, 1498, in Florence. Though he was a friar and not a Florentine citizen, Savonarola was a major voice in promoting republican values in the city.

Savornarola, in San Marco church, Florence

Savornarola, in San Marco church, Florence

He got into trouble with the Pope because of his critiques of papal corruption and his opposition to papal rule in Italy. Though his followers managed to take control of Florentine politics for a short time, he fell out of favor – possibly because of the rather puritanical practices which he promoted (including the “bonfire of the vanities”), but also because of the vagaries of politics in Florence.

Last January I read an historical novel on Florence in Savonarola’s day and was astounded by the intrigue within the various ruling parties of Florence and also in the Vatican.

But Savonarola, no matter what his faults, sought an end to corruption and championed values of government not beholden to rich families. In his fiery sermons he called on Florence to be an example of a just and holy city. He also called for the reform of the papacy which, at that time, was corrupt, to put it mildly.

His memory is preserved in Florence with a plaque at the site of his execution.

Plaque at the site of execution

Plaque at the site of execution

There is also a statue of Savonarola in the church of San Marco and you can visit his cell in the adjoining San Marco Museum which was the Dominican friary where he lived.

Excommunicated and burned at the stake, he might be considered a martyr to the truth. Who knows?

In the midst of troubled times, he dared to challenge the powers that be – ecclesial, governmental, and economic. Would there were more people willing to speak out.

They, however, might also get “burned.”