By ALBERTO CAROSA
ROME — Villa Lante al Gianicolo, located on one of the many picturesque hills of Rome with a unique view of the eternal city, is probably one of the best-preserved Renaissance villas in the city and is the property of Finland. This stately mansion houses the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, Finland’s cultural institute, and the Finnish Embassy to the Holy See.
One of the main purposes of a cultural institute is obviously to arrange cultural events, such as the conference, “Pilgrims or Benefice Hunters? Ordination of Finnish Clergy in the Fifteenth Century Roman Curia.” It was held there February 19, under the auspices of the institute’s current director, Tuomas Heikkilä, a professor of history attached to the University of Helsinki. He has authored books on Finland’s patron saint, St. Henry of Uppsala.
Although I feared facing some of the usual anti-Catholic Church tirades that the intriguing title seemed to suggest, I nonetheless decided to attend the event, due to my interest in covering the Christian presence in Scandinavia. But, to my pleasant surprise, I had to eat humble pie, because the event turned out to be exactly the opposite, with a non-Catholic speaker exposing an anti-Catholic bias in a noted scholarly work.
The conference consisted in the presentation of and reflections on a book the speaker, Dr. Jussi Hanska, who teaches medieval history at the University of Tampere and Ecclesiastical History at the University of Helsinki, coauthored with his Finnish colleague Kirsi Salonen of the Universities of Turku and Tampere. The title is Finland: Entering a Clerical Career at the Roman Curia, 1458–1471, of the series Church, Faith, and Culture in the Medieval West (Ashgate Publishing Co., 2013).
As a follow-up to his lecture, Professor Hanska confirmed in a subsequent e-mail interview that the book was the result of his most demanding commitment ever, in the form of a decade-long project. It was prompted, as happens at times, almost by chance when some ten years ago he was at the Vatican Library to do research.
While consulting a book, The Church in Italy in the Fifteenth Century by the British historian Denys Hay (1915-1994), he was struck by what he read on pages 54-55. As a result of a single document investigated, the British scholar concluded that the Ordinations of priests at the Roman Curia, and specifically in the Camera Apostolica (Apostolic Chamber), during that century entailed proceedings that often “must have lacked dignity, and usually they must have involved only the most superficial verification of qualification and title. The ill-arranged, not to say slatternly, organization of the registers themselves confirms that a certain degree of disorderliness pervaded the whole process.”
To employ more updated language, we might say that the whole process was marked by an evident “lack of transparency.”
The above-mentioned document, identified as ASV, Cam. Ap., Libri format., vol. 4, f. 2r., is kept in the Vatican Secret Archives and Professor Hanska ultimately decided to see it for himself. He could not have been more astonished in finding out that the thesis upheld by Denys Hay — namely, that the ordinands were overwhelmingly some sort of uneducated, greedy, benefice-seekers adventurers whom the Vatican Curia failed to unmask and reject, be it for lack of diligence or due to incompetence or bribes-based complicity — was devoid of foundation.
The negative conclusions so arbitrarily drawn by Denys Hay, he continued, have serious implications. Although his book was published long ago, in 1977, it was reprinted in 2002 and still retains considerable clout in British and American academic circles, all the more so if one considers that there is hardly any other book in Italian (or in any other language) which tries to describe what the Italian clergy and their parishioners were like in the 15th century.
This was the century prior to the Reformation and in Italy it has generally been seen with either neglect or recrimination. Whereas Protestants tended to see the Church becoming ever-more corrupt, Catholics lamented that it was “paganized” by the Renaissance. Be that as it may, unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations like Professor Hay’s are precisely the kind of material that can trigger and/or foster what is at times known under a specific term, “black legends,” namely, a sort of mud-slinging exercise against the Catholic Church and its clergy.
Alas, long gone are the days when the English-speaking cultural domain was graced by academics of the caliber of Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), a British scholar who is considered among the greatest English-speaking historians of the 20th century!
Back to Professor Hanska’s discovery. The initial result of his mere curiosity soon developed into a much wider plan and actually turned into a mammoth job: a thorough screening of 14 volumes of Libri Formatarum, viz., the registers of Ordinations which have survived thus far. Due to this massive material, he had to limit his investigation to the pontificate of Paul II, from 1464 to 1471, for a total amount of 1,673 Ordinations of secular clergy (excluding religious orders, since they represented a particular case from the viewpoint of canon law) in the Roman Curia.
Next step was to source information on these clergy: Who were they? Where did they come from? What was their background? Why did they decide to be ordained in Rome? Besides the good amount of data already contained in the Libri Formatarum, Professor Hanska was able to collect further evidence from other sources, such as the Repertorium Germanicum and other documents from the Vatican Secret Archives.
Again, Professor Hay’s assumption that those ordained in the Camera Apostolica were inept candidates with neither education nor titles, but with enough money to “buy” their Ordinations, was proven wrong.
For example, the Finnish professor wondered, how could these Ordinations have “lacked dignity” if their religious celebration took place in the majestic Basilica of St. John Lateran, in the Sancta Sanctorum Chapel? Moreover, a great many of the names in the list of the candidates to presbyteratus were preceded by two initials, H and L, standing for Habuit Letteram, meaning that they had received from their bishops a littera dimissorialis, viz., the permission to be ordained in another diocese.
But Professor Hanska further pointed out that another abbreviation could be noted: r.p.e., namely, rector parochialis ecclesiae. This is the clear indication of a certain status, in the sense that these ordinands had already a cura animarum, viz., they were taking care of souls in a parish church and therefore in terms of canon law being fully ordained was mandatory. Normally a stipend was also attached to a parish church, and this stipend could be used in part to pay the vicar taking care of the parish church during the ordinand’s absence and the rest by the latter as a bursary, if he was also a university student.
We should also bear in mind, the professor emphasized, that we know nothing about half the ordinands, but whenever data are available about them, invariably the same picture emerges: They were well-educated members of the clerical establishment and at times not even foreign pilgrims, but persons living in Rome, many of them even in the Curia or relatives to well-known members of the Curia, in some instances next-of-kin of the Pope himself.
And the few cases of ordinands coming from Finland, the professor concludes, are no exception, since the relevant documentation points to the fact that they were also members of the career religious establishment, however low-ranking they might have been — a far cry from any idea of benefice-hunters.
To sum it up all, all available data confirm that well-educated members of the then ecclesiastical elite were ordained in the Camera Apostolica, rather than scoundrels, rogues, and crooks as contended by Professor Hay in his book.