Girolamo_SavonarolaMoral and religious decadence evokes spiritual reforms, and these require spokesmen, people who in the first place embody the life that they preach. St. Philip Neri would be such an agent for such a spiritual and moral reform. True religious reforms take time because they involve the change of people’s way of thinking and acting; these require reformers who are both humble and patient as well as magnanimous leaders. Before recounting his life Newman gives a sketch of another earnest and well-intentioned Florentine Reformer, Girolamo Savonarola.[i]

In the period of time depicted in the previous post, Savonarola (1452-1498) born in Ferrara moved as a Dominican friar to the Convent of St. Mark’s at Florence. Newman describes him as a man of “commanding eloquence and extraordinary influence, full of the traditions of his order, and cherishing a fierce hatred of the reviving heathen literature and the classical taste of the day.” He found Florence to be another Athens given over to idolatry. He was very disturbed by the misuse of the material riches and intellectual gifts of the rulers, and by its luxury, depravity in entertainments, and superstitious practices.

Unlike St. Paul at Athens Savonarola fiercely decried the abuse and gained immediate followers and success. With supposed visions and apocalyptic prophecies of doom he brought about a Puritan reform in which the people expelled the powerful Medici family from Florence and established a “popular” republic.

“In the houses of great prelates and great doctors,” he cried out, “nothing is thought of but poetry and rhetoric. Go and see for yourselves; you will find them with books of polite literature in their hands, pernicious writings, with Virgil, Horace, and Cicero, to prepare themselves for the cure of souls withal. Astrologers have the governance of the Church. There is not a prelate, there is not a great doctor, but is intimate with some astrologer, who predicts for him the hour and the moment for riding out, or for whatever else he does. Our preachers have already given up Holy Scripture, and are given to Philosophy, which they preach from the pulpit, and treat as their queen. As to Holy Scripture, they make it the handmaid, because to preach philosophy looks learned, whereas it should simply be an aid in the interpretation of the divine word.”

He lambasted prelates who celebrated beautiful liturgies with costly vestments and jewels but did not live the spirit of the Gospel. He preached conversion in very strong words: “”O Italy!” he cried out in the tone of a prophet, “O rulers of Italy! O prelates of the Church! the wrath of God is over you, and your conversion alone will avert it.  For almost ten years the common people as well as nobles and artists paid heed to him, and he ruled in the city.”

With his writing and preaching Savonarola sought a moral reform, condemning the sexual decadence of Florence. “The beauty of every creature is more perfect, the more closely it resembles God’s beauty; and the body is beautiful in proportion to the beauty of the soul. Conceive what must have been the beauty of the Blessed Virgin, who possessed such sanctity, sanctity that shone from all her features. Conceive how beautiful was Christ, who was God and man. Now even Aristotle, who was a pagan, bids us not to tolerate indecent pictures, lest children, seeing them, be corrupted; but what shall I say to you, Christian painters, who execute these immodest figures?” With this preaching there were many conversions including that of artists, many becoming Dominicans; the Dominican convent of St. Mark had to be enlarged to accommodate them. People went to hear lengthy sermons and women reformed their dress. At last, during Carnival Savonarola arranged to burn pagan books and art that had incited sinful behavior in a large bonfire. The burning was repeated the following year.

His zeal and pride as a reformer fueled a fundamentalist and apocalyptic campaign of reform.  He incurred the anger of Pope Alexander VI when Florence declined to join the Holy League in an alliance against France. Later after failing to go to a summons by the Pope to Rome and to cease preaching he was excommunicated. His enemies in Florence reacted against him and along with two other friars he was eventually accused and condemned by civil and religious authorities for heresy and schism. They were hanged and burned in the very square where they had held the bonfires of vanities in Florence. After this things returned to the way they had been before in Florence.

The powerful Medici Family returned to Florence in 1512 although they were not fully restored to power until 1530 with the help of Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici). Savonarola and his companions were considered by some as martyrs and their influence lived on. Shortly afterwards their religious ideas inspired Martin Luther and the French Huguenots. Savonarola’s social and political ideas inspired the Italian Risorgimento and years later Don Luigi Sturzo, the founder of the Italian Popular Party.

The spiritual movement had degenerated into a fanatical one and had become a political force with political enemies. The wealth and moral depravity of the 16th century Florence resembles that of some large 20th century cities in Western countries. Society and the Church need religious leaders and reformers who inspire peaceful and lasting reforms and stand out for their lives of humility and charity. The reformers that are needed are men like St. Philip Neri, born in Florence (1515) only a few years after the death of Savonarola.



[i] See a good article on Girolamo Savonarola at

Like this article?

Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

Leave a comment

We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

Our Books

About Cardinal John Henry Newman

Purchase Book

A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

Purchase Book

Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.

Purchase Book

Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

Purchase Book

What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

Purchase Book

Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

Purchase Book

Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
About Newman
Fr. Peter Conley

Slopes, Popes and Newman

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

Read More »
Sermon Blog
David Warren

Endurance, the Christian’s Portion

Today, on Good Friday, we remember our Lord’s crucifixion, not as though it was a wrinkle in His otherwise peaceful earthly life, but rather as the focus and the pattern of His life.

Read More »
About Newman
Fr. Juan Velez

Fasting and Holy Week

In Fasting a Source of Trial, Newman reminds that we must not forget its main purpose: to unite ourselves with Christ.

Read More »