Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), was born in Ferrara, in Northern Italy. He became a Dominican Friar and preached religious, political and ecclesiastical reform in Renaissance, Florence. With this agenda he could not avoid making enemies in high places. Through the intervening centuries he has remained an enigmatic mostly due to his apocalyptic prophecies. (But, isn’t this always the case when a person claims a super natural communication? One only has to recall the story of Joan of Arc.) Although his instincts for reform were correct, in all three areas, questions will always remain about the veracity of his visions and the efficacy of his political involvement.
In, Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet, Donald Weinstein uses original sources; Savonarola’s sermons, theological writings and personal letters, as well as transcripts from his trial to explain the man and his times. For the most part, Weinstein’s research and commentary help to rehabilitate one of history’s most controversial figures. Weinstein also reports present efforts for Savonarola’s canonization. One would not be unsympathetic to the cause after reading the book.
No doubt, Savonarola was a zealot, and a very gifted one at that. Weinstein attributes Savonarola’s (the Frate, a term used in Italy for a friar) desire for a strict observance of the Rule of Saint Dominic, especially his love of poverty and his demands for moral rectitude, to his having been spurned in love by a woman of higher social status than he. Unfortunately, Weinstein does not get beyond normal psycho-sexual presumptions made by authors who do not appreciate the workings of God’s grace in those He calls into His service. To effectuate his Order’s renewal he separated from the wealthy Dominican Lombard Congregation and established the San Marco Province, in Florence, where he became Prior. Regarding this action, he wrote,
And so I was increasingly moved by the Spirit to bring about this separation which more and more seemed useful and necessary, and [I saw] that for the love of God I had to leave my fatherland, family, friends, honor, and glory, and embrace the cross of Christ, as it is written, ‘Go out of your land and kindred’.
Weinstein acknowledges the spiritual depth of the Frate’s writings and places them on a par with those of Augustine and Thomas á Kempis. Having read Savonarola’s Expositions on Psalms 51/50 and 31/30, which spoke of God’s grace and mercy, Martin Luther claimed the Frate to have been a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. However, Weinstein importantly points out that “Whereas Luther came to deny the magisterium of the Roman Church Savonarola affirmed it – even when he was most at odds with its moral failures.” The Frate’s “Manual for the Instruction of Confessors”, reveals a pastor who was a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the Confessional. Weinstein states that this work shows “a kinder, gentler fra Girolamo, Physician of Souls, tolerant of human weakness, generous with the medicines of comfort and mercy.” It is difficult to access the Frate’s direct involvement in the political life of Florence because, Weinstein says,
Whether, or how regularly, Savonarola transgressed these boundaries is not easy to determine, partly because so little of what was said behind closed doors has survived, partly because such boundaries were even then difficult to define.
Facially Savonarola’s motives seem beyond reproach. He sought good republican government and desired the common good which for him meant the end of Medici rule. Weinstein writes: “Savonarola’s concern for social justice was no mere pulpit rhetoric … The body politic, he thought, should represent the interests of all.”
The Frate also was a one man vice squad. He fulminated against unsavory activities like prostitution, gambling and sodomy and encouraged the enforcement of laws to eliminate them from the city, and to a large extent was successful in his campaign.
While not directly holding power, Savonarola helped shape the city’s government and public policy through his mesmeric preaching. He foretold of a New Jerusalem centered in a reformed Florence, as well as the conversion of Muslims. These prophecies made his message very appealing to both the religious and the mercenary. The Frate proclaimed,
Florence will have many blessings and more empire than she has ever had. God wants you to have these temporal benefits of riches and glory to help you maintain your spiritual well being.
The Frate’s promotion of the French King Charles VIII as a new Cyrus who would usher in the New Age directly conflicted with the plans of the immoral Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, who established the Holy League for the reunification of Italy. This meddling in state affairs and the personal affront taken by the Pope and some Cardinals to Savonarola’s call for reform of the Roman Church led to Frate’s excommunication and eventually to his execution.
Being a spiritual man, the Frate rightly saw no clear divide between politics and religion. His interpretation of the signs of the times were consistent are the apocalyptic writings of Scripture. He simply made contemporary application of the genre. The prophetic messenger has always had a place in the Church. Weinstein could have improved his book had he explained the historic role that prophecy has played in the Judeo-Christian tradition and whether Savonarola fit the profile.
Perhaps the best example of modern day prophecy, similar to the Frate’s was the preaching of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His warnings and vision for America brought about a conversion of hearts and a renewal of the original American dream of human equality.
Like all humans the psychological make-up of a prophet comes into play with the divine message and how it is delivered. During his interrogation, under torture, the Frate admitted that some of the revelations and dreams he related in his sermons were not always his own and that some were certainly embellished or created. Weinstein writes:
In this agony of self-doubt and contrition he faced judges and, with the first turns of the rope, accepted the cup of penitence he had so often urged upon others, accusing himself of worldly ambition, pride, and glory-seeking.
But what preacher has not used similar rhetorical techniques to enhance his message or titillate his hearers? What is obvious in the transcripts from Savonarola’s trial is his desire for honesty and humility. Furthermore, what comes through it that the essential message he delivered was always theologically consistent with the Bible and the Church’s moral teaching.
For us, Savonarola’s story, as told by Weinstein, is a valuable reflection on Church-state relations. Certainly, his time allowed for a greater co-mingling of the two realms than does ours. This book forces us to not only re-evaluate Savonarola, but more importantly, re-examine the role of prophet in today’s society. Is it possible that a modern day Savonarola might be needed to redirect the moral compass of contemporary American society? Certainly the IRS 501.(c)(3) rule, which prohibits political involvement by the Church in politics under the penalty of the loss of its tax exempt status, discourages such activity? For sure, a true prophet would take the risk and break the law at great personal risk as did Savonarola. A recent message placed in a New York City parish bulletin speaks directly to this issue. The pastor, now under fire for endorsing a political candidate, urged people to vote for Governor Romney because he opposes abortion, same sex marriage and the HHS Mandate. This incident opens the window to a needed debate on how the Church should engage civil society.
Savonarola was burned at the stake for his politics, not for his theology. The current effort on behalf of his cause for canonization by the Dominican Order is noteworthy since it recognizes his personal holiness and theological orthodoxy. His political rehabilitation may be next. Since, according to one of his early biographers, his call for and work on behalf of a democratic and just society “saved the city from chaos and ushered in an extraordinary interlude of peace and Christian living.” Perhaps the Church should take a cue from Savonarola and speak out more forcefully against those who are responsible for promoting offences against God’s laws. The heck with our tax-exemption!