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Lessons from the flawed and controversial life of a Servant of God

The 15th-century Italian Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who was executed by the Church on May 23, 1498, is a fascinating example of both sincere boldness and prideful imprudence.

Left: "Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola" (1497-98) by Fra Bartolomeo (WikiArt); right: A mid-17th century rendering of the execution of Fra Girolamo, Fra Domenico, and Fra Silvestro Maruffi (Wikipedia)

There can’t be many men who have been given the title of Servant of God by the Church but who were also burned at the stake by the Church. That’s what happened to the Italian Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who died on May 23, 1498. Understanding Savonarola’s controversial life may help us avoid making some of the mistakes he made in trying to reform his culture.

What were some of the decisions facing Savonarola in the fifteenth century?

What should a faithful Catholic do when civil leaders are leading people away from God and making decisions that harm those who are weakest? What should be done when Church leaders (including the pope) appear to be behaving in ways that confuse the faithful and damage people’s understanding of the faith? What should Catholics do when the general public seems to enjoy inciting riots more than making peace?

Clearly, the problems that this Italian friar faced sound like our own. But to understand Savonarola, it helps to listen to both his defenders and his detractors.

Savonarola’s admirers would rightly point out that he was, in many ways, the perfect Dominican priest. He was intellectually gifted and Biblically knowledgeable. He was a popular speaker whose ascetic personal life was above reproach. Large numbers of people—including young adults—flocked to his sermons. Through his emphasis on personal repentance, he singlehandedly caused a religious revival in the city of Florence, with men and women voluntarily disposing of frivolous clothing and indecent entertainment. He was unafraid to confront the rich and powerful about their immoral lifestyles, from local leaders to Church leaders all the way up to the pope himself.

It was that final step—his public correction of Pope Alexander VI—that ultimately led to his execution.

Savonarola’s detractors, however, have good points too. Yes, he was an honest, sincere, and faithful Catholic, but he was also painfully naïve about how to act effectively in the world of politics. Yes, he brought many people to repentance and virtuous living, but he also encouraged a sort of “moral police”, individuals who went door-to-door to find objectionable items in others’ homes and who spied on their neighbors. Yes, he was intelligent and zealous for God, but he seems to have forgotten that, as a Dominican, he had taken a vow of obedience to his superiors. On more than one occasion, he simply ignored his superiors’ orders to stop preaching when he was creating civil unrest. Yes, there were many leaders in his day who needed to be reminded to avoid immorality and to care for the poor. But threatening people with apocalyptic doom is not generally the best way to inspire the rich and powerful to change their ways.

Five hundred years later, it is not difficult to see what caused the friar’s rise and downfall. Savonarola’s sermons about God’s imminent, dreadful judgment provoked great fear in his listeners and attracted large crowds. Swelled with pride over his success, Savonarola found bigger and bigger targets for correction—starting with the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici and ending with Pope Alexander VI (who was, it must be admitted, one of the worst popes in the history of the Church). Savonarola’s fawning followers emboldened him to become more and more involved in complex political matters that he knew nothing about.

Compare Savonarola’s actions to that of canonized saints in similar situations. When Saint John of Avila—a Spanish priest who was a gifted preacher—was accused of speaking too strongly against the wealthy, he obediently appeared before the Inquisition and accepted imprisonment. He was later vindicated of all charges. When Saint Catherine of Siena felt called by God to encourage successive popes to move from France back to Rome, she always spoke to them with great charity and respect.

When the English bishop Saint Thomas Becket found himself exiled and locked in a bitter feud with the king of England and the pope, some of the blame could be traced to Thomas’ own bad choices and weaknesses. But that experience humbled Thomas, helping him become the sort of man who could look his assassin in the face and offer his life for the Church during his final moments.

What does all this teach us about dealing with our current calamities? It should remind us that the weapons of the saints are not hating our enemies, cursing bad Catholics, and fomenting disagreements. Instead, the weapons of the saints include obedience, charity, and humility. The saints would tell us to obey legitimate authority, speak respectfully to those who oppose us, and be humble enough to accept correction. They would also point out that every Catholic’s primary responsibility is to clean up his or her own soul first.

But lest we think that simply living a sacramental, virtuous life would be boring, look at the life stories of Saints John, Catherine, and Thomas. Their passion for God and reputation for holiness led civil leaders to seek them out for advice, gave them opportunities to be faithful witnesses at all levels of the Church, and helped them make peace within families and communities.

Despite Savonarola’s pride, disobedience, and lack of charity, the Church ultimately gave him the title of Servant of God. Why? Is it out of guilt because the pope ordered the man to be burned at the stake when he was only trying to make Catholics behave like true Catholics? More likely, it is because Girolamo Savonarola was, in the end, an honest (though flawed) servant of God who loved Christ and His Bride, the Church.

On this anniversary of his death, we can pray to become zealous and wholehearted servants of God, but also to become obedient, charitable, and humble saints.


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About Dawn Beutner 14 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

15 Comments

  1. “The saints would tell us to obey legitimate authority, speak respectfully to those who oppose us, and be humble enough to accept correction.”

    1. What do the saints have to say about responding to illegitimate authority, or determining whether an authority is illegitimate?
    2. Christians should speak respectfully to one another; to true enemies a different mode of speech may be required, and “respect” may actually be injustice. If I call an abortionist a murderer, am I being respectful?
    3. Someone must have credibility through his Christian witness before he can be accepted as a corrector; credentials or office are not enough, especially if the one holding that office is held to be suspect with respect to his personal character or orthodoxy. This is basic psychology, and basic Natural Law.

  2. Thank you for this piece, Ms. Beutner. I have always been curious about this charismatic but problematic friar.

  3. Alexander VI has some competition presently. Ultimately theological abuse [which encompasses indifference] precedes immorality. It is intellectually dishonest to characterize the virtue of humility with a “bent neck.” Humility is always conformed to the truth and hopefully is accompanied by fortitude. Should Savonarola’s fault be characterized as pride or simple but fatal imprudence?
    Let us pray for the ultimate canonization of the Servant of God when, sometime in the future, by the grace of God, there is once again a moment in our history which can appreciate a priest with a spine.

  4. I as a traditionalist will follow the exhortation of the Apostles, to reject any other Gospel preached that is not theirs. The Apostles I will obey, but those leaders in the Church who are preaching a heretical different Gospel I will not obey. I live my life not to please man but to please God first. So burn me at the stake!

  5. Thought provoking article! So much is packed to consider in this short article. One thought that occurs to me is to be true to the Catholic beliefs, not to be afraid to express our catholic beliefs especially on issues of abortion, same sex marriage etc., but not prideful in how we take this discussion to others. We need to pray for ourselves that our actions are guided by the Holy Spirit and not pride, the tool of satan. However it is still nice to learn that a number of Notre Dame students protested Biden speaking at their upcoming Graduation, resulting in Biden cancelling out due to schedule conflicts. They made their point, prayed and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

    • I couldn’t agree w/you more…. our priest spoke up on those issues, and was cut down by a parishner. The article was on the from page of our local newspaper, Record Eagle( but not the sermon he gave)I wrote a letter on the behalf of our wonderful priest who has had the guts to speak about this and fill the congregation that we are all called to be servants of God, if our priests don’t speak about this, then they are not guiding souls to heaven.That is the goal, to say the least. So we have some in our church that don’t care about those sins.As long as everyone loves one another. Well, like I said in my letter to the paper, it would not be compassion not too.Keep standing up for souls GR Mike.

  6. A Savonarola among the ordained Catholics today? A Vigano? No, he’s just perpetuating right wing conservative conspiracy theories and enabled and empowered by his uninformed and malformed Catholic fans who in turn are driven by political ideologies in aiming at either bashing the Pope or rejecting a Council. Some fancy themselves as a modern day Paul confronting Peter in his successor today. Some have deceptively employed the false optics of having a former Pope on their side to throw stones at the present Pope. Obviously they are far from being holy saints we can follow.

  7. Just to add there is on You Tube, a sermon given by Father William Kosco, St Henry Parish in Arizona, where he unloads on pro abortion Catholics.

  8. What is legitimate authority? Representing a political party with a slim majority in the legislative National Parliament, unifying the nation with charismatic leadership, legally appointed Chancellor by the President, declaring martial law during a national political crisis, re-building an economy by socializing key industries and strengthening the armed forces against Communist aggression and securing the Olympic Summer Games; I’m sure these sounded like actions of legitimate authority to the good Christian Germans in 1936 – But in hindsight maybe they should have protested the tune being played early on before the entire population followed the Pied Piper of Braunau off the cliff.

  9. We have the same kind of holy zeal and prideful imprudence in the Viganos and Vorises on the contemporary scene. Sadly, they may well have on their hands a contemporary Alexander VI that deserves to be challenged–not an immoral pope per se but a doctrinal disaster, although arguably every bit as political and wiley as a Borgia. What we need to deal with the worldy and compromising prelates of our times–the Cupiches, Tobins, Parolins, Sorondos, Paglias, etc.–is not another Savanarola but another St. Philip Neri or St. Catherine of Siena.

  10. Perhaps if Alexander VI had said as Pope what Savonarola felt needed to be said, Savonarola wouldn’t have caught all the heat that he did. It’s when leaders do not lead that matters take on a life of their own. Get my point?

  11. Saint are not perfect, just in Heaven. Many today, painful as it is, point out St. John Paul II’s naivete’ with the Legionaries, etc…but they are always humble and obedient, and charitable in correction, which admittedly, many Catholics today direly NEED.

  12. Had the action been left to my decision, I would have set aside the penalty, late as it is, but not made him Servant of God. There are quite a number of worthy deceased much more deserving of the designation. In any event, it is not any of us who will appropriately reward the holy and righteous. That is left to a higher judgement. Note: For all his many faults, Alexander VI was actually quite conservative in theological matters, probably because he was occupied with other things.

  13. Thank you Dawn for this outstanding article so relevant for today, and me personally. Too often, considering today’s scandals, I wouldn’t be bothered to see corrupt bishops and cardinals burnt at the stake. Perhaps it’s my Italian heritage ;). The insights and perspective you shared are helpful and balanced. I will be sharing your article with family and friends. Rick from Oregon.

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