blessed james of viterbo

Blessed James of Viterbo by Mario Ferrari, Rome, Italy.Blessed James reminds all that the love of God shown in saving people calls them to be a people of God in loving one another and working for salvation through the Church.

James, a member of the Cappoci family, was born around the year 1255 in the Italian city of Viterbo. Little is known of his early years other than that in 1270 he joined the Augustinian Order in his native city. James flourished in his new life as an Augustinian and soon began a distinguished academic career that was destined to bring him both widespread recognition and the responsibilities of high office. His superiors decided to send him to Paris, then the leading center of university studies in the whole of Christendom, where from 1275 to 1282 he pursued the study of philosophy and theology. While at Paris he had as one of his professors the illustrious Augustinian scholar, Giles of Rome, who in turn had been a pupil of Thomas Aquinas.

Upon his return to Italy James worked diligently among his Augustinian brothers and became recognized for both his intelligence and his piety. He later went back to Paris in order to pursue advanced degrees, and he eventually became the successor of his former professor, Giles of Rome, and the director of the international study house for his fellow Augustinians. During those same years his teaching career earned him recognition as an international university figure. As a writer, too, James was important. In his famous book Christian Government, the earliest known treatise on the Church, James presented the essential role of the Church in human society. He strove to make the reality of the Church alive to the people of his time.

In the year 1300 James had occasion to return to Italy as a member of the general chapter of the Augustinian Order, which in that year was held in the city of Naples. At this chapter, however, in spite of his already established fame as a scholar, it was not his intellectual achievements which attracted attention, but something entirely different: his humility. It happened that James found himself involved in a public disagreement and confrontation with the then prior general, a friar no less distinguished than himself and one who also was later given the title “blessed,” Augustine of Tarano. The story of the conflict was recorded by Henry of Friemar, an eyewitness to the event and a reliable chronicler who may justly be called the earliest historian of the Augustinian Order.

The misunderstanding between James and Augustine arose because a certain German friar, whose name is not known and who apparently was a student in Paris, was unjustly charged with some serious misconduct. Reports were carried to the ears of the prior general, and he, searching for more accurate information, questioned James on the matter. Although James of Viterbo defended the accused friar, maintaining that the charges were unfounded, the prior general for some reason remained unsatisfied with the explanation. Thereupon, as Henry of Friemar tells it, the prior general, “out of zeal for the good of the Order, which in this case was perhaps ill considered,” made a public denunciation of certain friars “who have enjoyed favor and places of honor in our Order and who show their gratitude to the community by going out of their way to excuse and defend friars who are unworthy and lacking in observance.” James, who recognized this reproof as being directed at himself, rose in the presence of the assembly and responded as follows: “Father, I declare before God and yourself that if I have spoken in this matter, I have done so with a sincere heart and clear conscience and for the good of the Order. If you feel, however, that I did wrong, I confess my fault before God and you, and I am ready to make amends.” Upon hearing this humble and deferential reply, reported Friemar, “all the friars were amazed and deeply edified.” James’ contemporaries understood his conduct on this occasion to be a measure of his deep devotion to the Augustinian Order and to the person of the prior general, whom he viewed as the principal of unity in this Order.

Recognizing James’ leadership in and love for the Augustinian Order, Pope Boniface VIII called James to express that leadership and love toward the Church as bishop of Benevento on 3 September 1302. Little more than a year later, on 12 December 1303, James was called to exercise his care for the Church in an even greater way, as archbishop of Naples. As archbishop, James so moved the people of Naples that they worked to complete the construction of the cathedral in Naples as a symbol of God’s work alive in the city. Blessed James died in Naples in 1308.

His memory is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 4 June.