On December 16 of the year 1243, Pope Innocent IV issued the bull Incumbit Nobis calling on several eremitical communities in Tuscany to unite themselves into a single religious order with the Rule and way of life of St. Augustine. The following March, 1244, the hermits held a founding chapter in Rome under the guidance of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi and put the union into effect. Thus began the history of the Order of St. Augustine.
The pope directed the Tuscan hermits to elect for themselves a prior general and to draw up a set of constitutions. From then on they became known as the Order Hermits of St. Augustine.
Saint Augustine Giving his Rules to his Brothers and Sisters
Santa Maria del Popolo is where the Grand Union of the Order in 1256 took place under the Papal Bull Licet Ecclesiae Catholicae of Pope Alexander IV
The monastic tradition embraced by the Hermits in 1244 has its earliest traces soon after St. Augustine’s conversion in Milan, when he and some friends returned to his native Tagaste, gave away their possessions, and began a life of prayer and study as “servants of God”:
You, Lord, make men of one mind to dwell in one house… We kept together with the intention of dwelling together in our holy resolution. We made our investigations as to what place would be best suited for your service and together we were returning to Africa (Conf. IX, 8).
Ordained a priest in 391, Augustine obtained the use of a garden at Hippo to build a monastery for his lay community. He later wrote a Rule for his brothers, inspired by the Christian community in Jerusalem: Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one soul and one heart seeking God (I, 2).
When he became bishop of Hippo he chose to reside in his episcopal house but continued to live a community life with his clergy. Later a monastery of women was established within the city, bringing to light three forms of Augustinian religious life: masculine, both lay and clerical, and feminine.
Augustine’s ideal spread to other parts of Africa. Several of the brothers were ordained bishops and brought their previous monasticism to other local churches. In fifth century Africa Augustinian inspired monasteries numbered approximately thirty-five. Between the years 430 and 570 this life-style was carried to Europe by monks and clergy fleeing the persecution of the Vandals. Around 440 Quodvultdeus of Carthage brought it to Italy near Naples. In 502 St. Fulgentius of Ruspe arrived in Sardinia. Donatus and seventy monks brought it to southern Spain about 570, and some monks may have even reached France.
The abundance of ancient manuscripts of the Rule of St. Augustine shows a constant interest in it during the middle ages. Nevertheless, it was overshadowed by other Rules for more than three centuries, particularly the Rule of St. Benedict. Augustine’s Rule appears again in practice in eleventh century Europe as a basis for the reform of monasteries and cathedral chapters. It was adopted by the Canons Regular of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, the Premonstratensians and the Lateran Canons.
The Friars at Prayer in the caves of Lecceto outside Siena
The Papal Bull “Incumbit Nobis” issued by Pope Innocent IV to gather various Tuscan Hermits in 2144 into the one regular observance of the Rule of Saint Augustine
Further development took place on 9 April 1256 with the bull Licet Ecclesiae catholicae of Pope Alexander IV. The pope confirmed the integration of the Hermits of John the Good (Rule of St. Augustine, 1225), the Hermits of St. William (Rule of St. Benedict), the Hermits of Brettino (Rule of St. Augustine, 1228), the Hermits of Monte Favale (Rule of St. Benedict), and other smaller congregations with the Tuscan Hermits into “the one profession and regular observance of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine”.
The Grand Union was made at the Tuscan hermits’ foundation of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, again under the direction of Cardinal Annibaldi, with delegates coming from each hermitage. Lanfranc Septala of Milan, previous superior of the Hermits of John the Good, became the Prior General of the Order comprising 180 religious houses in Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Bohemia and England.
The Union of 1256 was an important step in the Church’s reform of the religious life. By it the pope intended to end the confusion arising from the excessive number of small religious groups and to channel their spiritual forces into an apostolate of preaching and pastoral care in the rising cities of Europe. The Augustinians thus took their place as mendicant friars alongside the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and, were followed soon after by the Carmelites.
The Mendicant Movement of the thirteenth century was a revolutionary response to a revolutionary situation. The Church’s unity was being threatened anew by heresy. Fresh challenges were evolving out of economic and intellectual changes in society. The friars were sent directly into the developing commercial centers to preach to the growing educated classes and to bring the spirituality of the Gospel to the people.
Thus the spiritual identity of the Order had two foundations. The first was the person of St. Augustine from whom it received its concept of religious life, in particular the importance of the interior search for God and community life. The second was the Mendicant Movement by which the Order of St. Augustine became an apostolic fraternity.