The friars who belonged to the Augustinian observantine congregations were sometimes considered the least learned of the Order. According to Herrera, a medieval Augustinian friar and historian, these friars "devoted themselves more to prayer than to study."
However, the definitors of the Spanish congregation - always one of the most rigid - rejected the unfavorable judgment of the conventual brethren who categorized them as "simple and unlearned".
They asserted in their chapter of 1493 that it was pure calumny and without foundation. "By the grace of God almost all our priests know how to read well and can both sing and understand what they read. Further, among our brethren there are many learned men and good preachers, even though they are not concerned about degrees."
An anonymous Carthusian reiterated the same basic point regarding the French Augustinians of that period. In his De religionum origine, composed c. 1475, he states that although he had met only a few Augustinians, those he knew were "venerable men and very good preachers." The same can be said of the English Augustinians (Austin Friars).
The Observance succeeded only after a long and at times bitter struggle. Provincials deeply resented the constant efforts of the Observants to wrest the largest and most substantial houses from their control. The latters' retort that the bad example of such houses in important cities was more scandalous than in small places was convincing, but the conventuals (i.e., the non-Observants) seldom credited the Observants with such noble motives.
The Observants usually won out because the secular arm supported them in most instances and the populace has ever admired a strict religious life. The attitude of the Prior Generals veered from the conventuals to the observants according to their own affiliation. All the great Augustinian Prior Generals of the fifteenth century came from the Observance.
In numerical summary, it can be said that on the eve of the Protestant Reformation (and when Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. was Prior General in 1507-1517), there were at least ten observant congregations: six in Italy, two in Spain, one in Germany, and one in Ireland.
The movement was so successful in the Order of Saint Augustine that it captured the office of Prior General a number of times during the fifteenth century, including one friar who was one of the greatest-ever occupants of the office of Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A..
Observant congregations sought increasing autonomy, which unavoidably cut back the unity of the whole Order and the ability of the Prior General to exercise his authority.
This caused difficulties in Spain and Germany. In Spain, the matter was resolved amicably, assisted by Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. as Prior General acting with care and sensitivity.
(Continued on the next page.)
Photos (at right):
Students at Colégio San Agustín, Nunoa, Santiago, Chile.