BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SOMASCAN ORDER
THE RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT OF THE XVIth CENTURY
The Somascan Order is part of the religious movement that developed in the midst of the Christian renewal in the sixteenth century. Founded in 1532, it is second in the chronological series of the Orders of the Clerics Regular. In 1525 at Rome St. Cajetan Thiene started the Theatines; in 1532 St. Jerome Emiliani founded the Somascans in Venice. They are followed by the Barnabites of St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria in Milan, and by the Jesuits of St. Ignatius at the chapel of St. Denis, Montmartre, in 1534.
The times with their changed social and cultural conditions, called for variety of activities; they required active spreaders of the faith, who would indeed come from organized bodies, but who would mix with the world and deal with the world. Hence a double aspect of these Orders of the Clerics Regular. Their members were true religious, who took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their poverty was even more absolute than that of the Franciscans: they lived in common and austerity. They all wore the black cassock of the secular priests. They all engaged in the same kind of outside work and apostolate. While first attending to the material needs of the sick, the poor, the illiterate, they found a way to their soul and raised them up towards God. Finally, they realized that the pope and the ecclesiastical authority could effect a thorough reformation and, therefore, they made themselves the direct helpers of the Holy See and the Bishops upon whom they immediately depended.
All the religious orders born in the sixteenth century are influenced by the Oratory of the Divine Love. At that time pious and religious confraternities were founded in several parts of Italy. One of them appeared in Rome in 1515, which was called the Oratory of the Divine Love. The attention of its members was turned toward the inner renewal of the religious life. The best way of spreading the religious renewal was to reform themselves through pious exercises, prayer, through the reception of the sacraments and the performance of works of charity. Humble and modest, they merely wished to set a good example. Several Christian humanists belonged to the Oratory. Their association was morally, socially and intellectually distinguished. It was soon joined by two men who were both to influence deeply the future of the Church: St. Cajetan Thiene and Cardinal GianPietro Carafa (later, Pope Paul IV), the spiritual director of St. Jerome Emiliani.
THE FIRST SOMASCAN CHAPTER in 1533: the Chapter of the mats of straw.
It is the heart of the summer 1533. Around Merone the harvest is almost finished. The moon rises on the sleeping countryside. A few men walk noiselessly along the deserted field. They look like conspirators. They suddenly stop and sit on clusters of millet that are scattered on the ground. These men are going to hold a council, like on the eve of a battle, trace a plan, and regulate a battle.
At the same hour in the world a conspiracy is being plotted, inspired by ambition and cupidity. But these evening walkers are the companions of the Divine Love, the friends of the Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit guides them.
It is a long time since Jerome heard the call for help. And long, since did he answer. But now he is asked for more. Two questions must find answer this night: What more should he do for the love of God? What more should he do for his neighbor?
Men of different talents united in Merone to associate themselves with the servant of God in the help of their neighbor. There are priests and lay people. Jerome, who always judged himself unworthy of receiving the Holy Orders, consults the first ones with a profound respect. Altogether they plan landmarks, establish a program; little by little a conclusion is reached. What a clear and inspiring evening! The condottiere calls for a council the members of his flock, and forms a regular militia glorious through the centuries in Christ's army. Seated on straw and scornful of the ancient emblems of the dynasty of the Emiliani, Jerome founds a new family and takes a new coat of arm: Christ carrying the cross, and a motto: 'My Burden is Light', and the title: 'The Compagnia of the Servants of the Poor.'
THE ORDER IS NAMED AFTER THE VILLAGE OF SOMASCA
The good grain will abound. Now there must be a cradle, which will be the mother-house, the novitiate, the residence of the disciples of St. Jerome. Nevertheless, Jerome is far from thinking that he has founded a religious order. He thinks of a small institution, a fraternity, a company like that of the Divine Love.
Later on, accompanied by a few children, Jerome crosses the St. Martin Valley. Some small villages bordered by ponds, surrounded by mountains, attract him. Splendid scenery! But at Vercurago where his friends offer him the hospitality he does not stay. The spot is not deserted and silent enough, while the neighboring village seems favorable to peaceful contemplation.
No one can move heaven and earth without kindling the hatred of Satan. Jerome is struck by the malevolence of a wealthy man: "Out of here, starving beggar! No tramp in my territory!" Jerome does go away in search of another house. In the gentle light of autumn here is a village on the edge of a lake, protected by a mountain, Somasca. Suddenly Jerome stops. Without difficulty he obtains from the Ondei family a house. It is not a resting place, but a point of departure. The converted soldier of New
Castle has found his headquarters. Near him, men are going to realize their vocation and work for the glory of God.
THE SECOND GENERAL CHAPTER IN 1534
The second assembly was held in Somasca. The moment had come to give the institute stable regulations inspired by the statutes of the Divine Love, by the Benedictine ideal expressed in the motto: Ora et Labora.
In the house of the Ondei convened men of different social classes, priests and lay people, dressed humbly. The name of 'The Compagnia of the Servants of the Poor' was definitely adopted and many decrees were approved by the assembly. The administration of the institutions would be assigned to some honest and capable laymen; thus the religious members would be free for their spiritual apostolates. As for poverty, they agreed unanimously to refuse anything that could constitute an assured income, the religious becoming firm in the desire to live with the unique trust in the Divine Providence. For the same reason, the servants of God sould never accept family inheritance of those who would become members of the community. They engaged themselves to live by daily alms. They would receive the Holy Orders, recite together the divine office, would preach the gospel and hear confessions.
The great concern of Jerome was always the renewal of the Church for which he composed a prayer that the children said daily: "Dear Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, we ask of your infinite mercy to return the Christians to the state of sanctity that showed forth at the time of the Apostles."
EXPANSION OF THE SOMASCAN ORDER
By the Bulla of June 6, 1540 Pope Paul III approved the newly-born Institute and gave faculty to elect superiors, to call for a general chapter, to issue the constitutions.
In 1565 a prelate of twenty-seven years of age, Charles Borromeo, made a solemn entry to Milan. He entrusted the Somascans the direction of St. Maiolus College in Pavia. A few months later, the young Archbishop of Milan made an official visit to the tomb of the Father of the Poor, opened the coffin and incensed the relics. It was the first ecclesiastical approval of the sainthood of Jerome Emiliani.
In December 6, 1568 the Society was officially named "The Order of the Clerics Regular of Somasca" by Pope Pius V, once Jerome's friend in Pavia.
In the region of Lombardy as well in Venetia the example of Jerome Emiliani continued to stir enthusiasm. However, it is only in 1747, under the pontificate of a Somascan alumnus, Pope Benedict XIV, that the ceremony of the beatification took place in the Vatican Basilica. Twenty years later, the 16th of July 1767, Clement XlII proclaimed saint Jerome Emiliani.
The 24th of May 1921 by a decree of the Congregation of the Rites, Pope Benedict XV granted
the Somascan Order the privilege of venerating the Blessed Mother under the name of “Maria, Mater Orphanorum”, “Mary, Mother of the Orphans”.
1928 Pope Pius XI proclaimed solemnly St. Jerome Emiliani "Father of the Orphans and Univesal Patron Saint of Needy Youth".
Through calamities and difficulties of any kind that have developed during the four centuries of history the Somascan Order has never ceased its apostolate for the needy youth. St. Jerome has now on earth those numerous hands and arms of which he has dreamed. His disciples have founded seminaries, houses of education, colleges, professional schools, workshops in Italy, in Switzerland, in Spain, in Central America, in Mexico, in Colombia, in Brazil, and in the United States of America. In Belgium exists a branch of the Somascan Order since the Hieronymieten dedicate themselves to teaching and to the care of the sick under the patronage of St. Jerome Emiliani. They are established in the Oriental Flanders, at St. Nicholas-Waas, Gand, Beveren-Waas, Lokeren, Maldegem, Sleidinge, Stekene. These religious members address to the Founder of the Congregation of the Servants of the Poor this beautiful prayer: "Your hands were instruments of prayer and charity. Teach us to pray and love in spirit and truth”.