Carmel in the World
2017. Volume LVI, Number 1

  • Titus Brandsma and his International Promotion
  • Peace and the Love of Peace
  • At Niagara Falls
  • Carmelite Explorers
  • The Transformation of ‘Poor Léonie’
  • Irish Carmelite Chaplains in the First World War
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Saint Thérèse, Preacher of Trust and Surrendering in God’s Merciful Arms
  • Poem – Once Begun
  • Desire: Living in Expectation and Trust
  • The Christian Virgil: John Baptist Spagnoli (below)
  • The Battle of Faith versus Life
  • Carmel around the World

The Christian Virgil: John Baptist Spagnoli
Fifth Centenary of his Death (1516-2016)
Charlò Camilleri, O.Carm., is a member of the Maltese Province.

Life and Literature
In the archives of the Carmelite Priory in Mdina, there is a fifteenth century volume of the poetic works of the Blessed John Baptist Spagnoli from Mantua, Italy. This year, 2016, the world of literature and the Carmelite Order are commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of his death.
Blessed John Baptist was born in Mantua on April 17, 1447. As his father was a Spaniard from Cordoba, Baptist inherited the nickname Spagnoli as a surname. After a somewhat wasted life as a youth, he experienced conversion and subsequently joined the Carmelite Order in Ferrara taking his first vows in 1464. He obtained his Doctorate in Theology in Bologna in 1475. He was elected Vicar General for the Carmelite Congregation of Mantua six times over and, in 1513, he became Prior General of the Order which he held until his death in 1516.
Baptist is a very interesting figure not only in the Carmelite Order but also in the literary sphere, playing also a significant role in the course of Church’s history. In 1489, at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, before the Pope, with strong determination and in a most radical and categorical way, he condemned the corruption that had infected civil society and the Church.
To this effect he wrote a three volume-long poem entitled De calamitatibus temporum, which later on became an inspirational text for Luther in his condemnation of the Roman Curia due to abuses and corruption. Luther quoted these three books in his written protests. Protestantism from the start found inspiration in him and published an anthology of his writings in 1571: Anthologia... sententiosa collecta ex operibus Baptistae Mantuani. This anthology played a significant role in the Reformation.
Protestantism considers Baptist to be the precursor of the Reformation. Scholars to this day wonder how a person of this calibre – resolute and fearless in speaking out against the corrupt ecclesiastical institution of his time – chose to remain within the fold. The answer is to be found in his being a wise man who knew that he too needed much reform in his life. This led him therefore to strive from within for the change he wished to see in the institution he was critical of. His strong love for the Church expressed in his poems dedicated to it and to several popes, weighed by the humility of a holy man, led him to work for the renewal of the Church from within its fold.
In 1513, the Baptist took an active part in the Lateran Council and, in 1515, he was charged by Pope Leo X with a mission of peace between the King of France and the Duke of Milan. As a humanist he was also a friend of the illustrious humanists of his time, known by many of them personally and by some through his writings, among them Castiglione, Trithemius and Erasmus of Rotterdam who nicknamed him ‘The Christian Virgil’.
Baptist authored more than 55,000 Latin verses and several other works which make him one of the best poets and literary humanists of his time. Several editions of his works that not only influenced and inspired generations of literary giants such as Jacopo Sannazzaro, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Alexander Barclay, Edmund Spenser, Torquato Tasso, but also continued to be studied in schools until the twentieth century. Holy figures such as St Peter Canisius also found in him a great inspiration.
Erudite academic studies on his opus are still popular among literates and academics today. Maltese literature also benefited from his influence on Prof. Anastasio Cuschieri, the Carmelite philosopher, poet and politician, known as Il-Poeta tal-Madonna u tal-Kelma Maltija. Cuschieri also authored several essays on the aesthetic philosophy and the theory of inspiration in this famous Humanist.The intense literary activity and interesting life which the Mantuan lived did not take away from him the Carmelite ideal of the interior life. He had a strong devotion to Sacred Scripture and towards the Virgin Mary to whom he credits his conversion experience which led him to take up a Carmelite vocation. He passed away five hundred years ago on March 20, 1516, in his native city and his cult was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1885. His feastday falls on April 17. His incorrupt body is preserved in the Cathedral of Mantua and, in 2016, it went on pilgrimage to various parts of Italy to mark the centenary.In addition to his poetic opus, he is the author of spiritual writings, some of which were penned in defence of the Catholic faith:
  • De Beata Vita
  • De patientia
  • De calamitatibus temporum
  • Parthenices Mariana
  • Parthenices
  • De sacris diebus
  • De moribus curiae romanae
  • Apologia pro Ordine Carmelitano
  • Objurgatio cum exhortatione ad capiendo, arma contra infideles ad reges et principes Christianas
  • De bello veneto commentariolus
  • Opus aureum in Thomistas

The wisdom of realistic discernment
Among his poetic writings, the most important and famous composition is the Bucolica seu adolescentia in decem aeglogas divisa written at the age of sixteen. In it he discusses the theme of “mad love”. Later, as a mature adult, he picked it up again, corrected it and allowed its publication. Written in colloquial form as a dialogue between friends, he shares his wisdom through life experience, admitting that: ‘we all lost our head at least once in a lifetime and acted like crazy, as this is part of the law of nature’.
The purpose of this particular literary work was that of educating and attracting the attention of the generations of his time, especially the young who, in the Renaissance, were attracted to fashionable habits of the classic ‘pagan’ life vision. As a humanist, he recognized that the world passed through epochal changes from time to time and the wisest way to relate to this inevitable cycle was to look at the changes taking place to learn and appreciate the good of the present history and culture, then as Christians engage in a process of evaluation, cherishing and following what was good and truly human in the contemporary worldview. The Bucolica seu adolescentia actually influenced and shaped generations in schools until the eighteenth century. Of course it was not always welcomed by everyone, particularly those who were restless. Hints of this are found in Shakespeare’s writing of ‘Love's Labours Lost’.
As a humanist, Blessed John Baptist believed that ‘Truth flourished in diversity’. He was against that branch of Thomism which held that Thomas Aquinas was the only theological authority in the Church and that there was only one true theology. For John Baptist no one could claim to appropriate the Truth. To his understanding, those trying to do so were plainly being sectarian and elitist. Truth is so high that all we can do is delve deeper into it as it gradually reveals and unfolds itself fully to us with the passage of time: Veritatem dies aperit. Therefore, we should always be open to searching for Truth and to find its revelation in everything, avoiding the shorter way of being absolutists in holding to readymade solutions to contemporary problems and challenges. In all this, the Mantuan is still relevant for the present times in urging us to engage in discernment as builders of a new culture. The future should be the fruit of dialogue between the past and the present, while embracing a realistic vision of life based on the Christian virtue of hope. The timeliness of this great humanist is revealed in this prudent stance in relating with the times one happens to be living in. Maybe it's ripe time to start following his viewpoint especially within the ecclesiastical and religious circles of our time as they move in epochal turmoil. Our times need the discernment, realism and openness to genuine dialogue with foreign cultures, not least within those formed by the Christian Humanist vision.

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