Penitential Sermons in Renaissance Italy: Girolamo Seripando and the Pater Noster

By Cesareo, Francesco C | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Penitential Sermons in Renaissance Italy: Girolamo Seripando and the Pater Noster


Cesareo, Francesco C, The Catholic Historical Review


The revival of interest in classical antiquity during the Renaissance had an important effect on the style and content of preaching. Thematic in structure, the medieval scholastic sermon, with its focus on abstract doctrine, had as its principal aim docere.' During the Renaissance, preachers began to utilize and adapt the classical rhetorical form, thereby broadening the scope and content of the sermon. Not only was the sermon meant to teach doctrine to the listeners, but also move them to action through persuasion.2 Among those responsible for this shift in emphasis was Erasmus, whose work on sacred oratory, the Ecclesiastes, was published in 1535. In this work Erasmus defines preaching as an act of teaching, but a different type of teaching from that found in the medieval sermon. "For Erasmus, truly Christian teaching is never dialectical or argumentative, never frigidly abstract, for it must always be persuasive of a godly life.35 Consequently, Erasmus located the sermon in the genre of deliberative oratory, giving it a greater moralistic quality since it was most often addressed to a group of ordinary people.4

Given the moral tone of the sermon, by the middle of the sixteenth century the Gospel came to be linked in "preaching theory with a turning from vice and an embracing of virtue, under threat of punishment and the hope of reward." Preachers began to paint a picture of a religion based on sin and atonement where salvation was possible to those willing to alter their way of life.6The way to salvation was taught by preachers in familiar, simple language so that the ordinary person could understand. Theological doctrines were taught through the use of images from family life and human relations. "The central theme of late medieval Catholic theology was that God gave man the ability to cooperate with grace, to do what was in him. The preachers did not demand the impossible, but insisted that man's creation in God's image allowed him to participate in the business of his own salvation? As a result, preachers were more concerned with moral reformation and penitence than condemnation.

This emphasis gave rise to a series of treatises on preaching that contributed to a new understanding of the sermon. In 1543 Alfonso Zorilla published De sacris concionibus recte fo?rmandis, the first treatise on preaching printed in Italy that broke with the medieval style, which saw the sermon as an informal, familiar discourse between the preacher and the congregation.8 In 1576 Diego de Estella published his Modus concionandi, which turned the teaching of the sermon to a moral purpose. The preacher, in de Estella's mind, focuses on the moral sense of scripture, aiming to move the audience away from sin and to a life of virtue and good works.9 Luis de Granada, following Erasmus' ideas on preaching, viewed the sermon as persuading individuals to live a life of justice and piety.10

This moralistic quality and persuasive character was clearly evident in the penitential sermons preached by Girolamo Seripando (14931563) upon his elevation as archbishop of Salerno in 1554. While Seripando was not unique in the preaching of such sermons, they differed in character and in tone from many of the penitential sermons preached throughout Italy during the Renaissance. Preachers such as Bartolomeo Scala and Francesco Berlinghieri exhorted the faithful to practice penitential. mortifications as a means of purification and reconciliation with God." Seripando, however, was more concerned with moral reformation and inner renewal. As a result, he embodies a more Erasmian attitude toward preaching, avoiding elaborate theological discussions or rhetorical discourses. Seripando desires to move his listeners to cultivate their religious and spiritual life by presenting them with simple explanations of the elements of the faith.

In this way, Seripando was anticipating the Tridentine legislation requiring bishops to preach to their people. …

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