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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