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(Girolamo) Savonarola: a saint after all?

Rome--In the approach to the year 2000, the Church is striving to right past injustices. Some people are seeking the rehabilitation of Girolamo Savonarola, burnt at the stake in 1498. Is this a hoax or what? Not according to Father Innocenzo Venchi, who is pursuing the cause of Savonarola's beatification.

The puzzle

Girolamo Savonarola, born in Ferrara, entered a Dominican monastery in Bologna in 1475 and later was sent to the monastery of San Marco in Florence. There in the late 1480s and 1490s he delivered fierce attacks on the profligacy and corruption of the city which made him famous and popular.

He did not hesitate to attack corruption elsewhere too, including in the court of Pope Alexander VI in Rome. After the banishment of the Medici family from Florence in 1494, Savonarola became heavily involved in political controversies; he took the side of a democratic faction, which brought on the wrath of an aristocratic party; the latter called him an imposter and called on Rome to condemn him.

Three times the Pope summoned him to the Vatican to answer the charges against him, but he refused to go. This led to excommunication.

By this time popular sentiment had turned and was running against him. It was said that his severity was terrifying, and that he trained his followers to spy out the vices of others. In March 1498 the government, in fear of a papal interdict, asked him to stop preaching.

Ruin came suddenly when one of his disciples accepted an ordeal by fire to prove Savonarola's holiness. Rain spoiled the test, but riots followed, and Savonarola and two of his followers were put in jail. After a month of hearings and torture, the three were found guilty of schism and heresy, and they were hanged and their bodies burnt.

Now, 500 years later, there are attempts to rehabilitate him. Father Venchi argues that Savonarola was the victim of calumny, and was really a virtuous man, in fact a saint. The corruption he complained about really existed; if he had been listened to, the Reformation might not have happened. The Pope had been elected in a shameful manner; the majority which supported him was heavily bribed, and he--a Cardinal for forty years--had been a scandal to the Church all that time. He had four children, two of whom--Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia--were examples of the worst kinds of corruption Rome has ever seen.

Savonarola is remembered as the severe moralist who burned Botticelli's paintings because nude women appeared in them; but Venchi points out that Michelangelo admired him, and that Raphael (now "Blessed" Raphael) painted him in a mural in the Vatican. Later on he was admired by other great saints, such as St. Philip Neri, St. Catherine of Rizzi, and St. John Fisher. In the difficult moment when he faced death, Venchi writes, he had the strength to write a commentary on the Miserere (Psalm 51) which is one of the most beautiful in the history of the Church.

Venchi makes a strong case for reconsideration. Curiously, he says that Savonarola never disobeyed the Pope, though most accounts of his life say the opposite. He describes him as walking the Passion of Christ again--betrayed, imprisoned, abandoned by all, and enduring all these humiliations without bitterness--in truly saintly fashion.

(Based on an interview--published in National Catholic Register of New York, Sept. 5)
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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