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The Institute of Charity, or, officially, Societas a charitate nuncupata, is a religious congregation founded by Antonio Rosmini, first organized in 1828, formally approved by the Holy See in 1838, and taking its name from "charity" as the fullness of Christian virtue. In English-speaking lands its members are commonly called Fathers of Charity, but in Italy, Rosminians.

Foundation of the institute

The founder of this society was, strictly speaking, Rosmini alone. Nevertheless there existed in the age into which he was born many very potent directive elements which gave a bent to his thoughts and supplied an opportunity for their embodiment in some organization. His life was in the immediate wake of the French Revolution, and doubtless it was by the many tendencies and movements, some of them remote enough, which culminated in that upheaval, that he was gradually and unconsciously led to consider the intellectual and moral inheritance of Christendom as a whole, not in blind protest and reaction merely, but with impartial contemplation of new ideas as well as of old. The one side of truth was to be corrected by its counterpart, and secondary things which had usurped a primacy were to resume their just order. Rosmini not only saw the Church's enemies roused to new vigour of attack, but also a growing danger among many who still remained within the Church of a practical denial or at least a belittling of the supernatural in man. There was ill-regulated activity and impatience of ancient tradition, and by reaction from this in other quarters there was an equally ill-timed and fatal passiveness. The world was too wrong, it seemed, ever to be set right; and nothing it could say was worthy of being even heeded. This was a spirit that shut itself up in the past and anathematized all fresh thought. The Church was to renounce either tradition or development, in either case abandoning her Divine Guide.

On such a basis there could easily be set up a spirit which looked on the whole Church as a party, and furthered her cause with partisan eagerness, or else substituted for the great end of the Church's good the petty end of the good of some society or persons within her. It tended to replace Catholicism by clericalism. But Rosmini judged these domestic ills no less than the relentless attacks from without to be traceable to one deeply-seated cause, namely, that men were relaxing their grip on the fundamental and general truths. What was becoming blurred was God's own part in the world: first His creative part; then the Divine nature of that moral good which in some sort stands before the human mind as truth itself; and again the Divine action of grace, causing truth and good to be felt in the depths of the soul as having not only infinite rightness and bindingness but also supreme driving-power. The crying need then was for a clearer recognition of God's place in nature, in the soul, and in the Church, and hence for the re-establishment of Christian first principles as a slow, indeed, but the only radical, cure of the evils of the day.

Antonio Rosmini, an Italian from Rovereto, was ordained in 1821. He was already organizing his life on principles of order, an order which puts God's prompting first and man's instant and swift action second. His two life-principles, written down at this time for his own guidance, and forming the true harmony of humility with confidence and passiveness with activity, were: first, to apply himself to the amendment of his faults and the purifying of his soul without seeking other occupations or undertakings on his neighbour's behalf, since of himself he was powerless to do anyone real service; and, second, not to refuse offices of charity when Divine Providence offered them, but in fulfilling them to maintain perfect indifference and do the offered work as zealously as he would any other. The formulating of this rule and the putting of it into practice by living retired in prayer and study constituted the first step towards founding the Institute of Charity; the second was this: the Venerable Marchioness di Canossa, foundress of a society of Daughters of Charity for poor friendless girls, had long desired a like institution for boys, and no sooner was Rosmini a priest than she began to urge him to establish one. On 10 December, 1825, he wrote to her that in accordance with his rules of life he could not altogether refuse her request if God were to provide means, but that even then he could form such a society only on the basis of the two aforesaid principles.

The rough sketch of the Priests of Charity written on this date is really only the first brief form of what was approved by Rome more than twelve years later. But he took no practical measures. He still waited for God's signs. Led to Milan in February, 1826, for a charitable work and better convenience for study, he received there a powerful stimulus in June, 1827, by meeting the Abbé Loewenbruck. This zealous and impetuous priest introduced himself abruptly enough with the words: "I am thinking of a society directed to a reform of the clergy, and you must help me to carry this into effect." Rosmini answered by confessing his own aspirations and laying down the principles on which alone he would build. They conferred further, sought and received more light, and at last agreed to spend the next year's Lent together in fasting and prayer in an almost ruinous house on Monte Calvario above Domodossola, a town near the Italian end of the Simplon Pass. Here on 20 February, 1828, Rosmini began his great work, but alone, as Loewenbruck did not present himself again to cooperate in the labour. Lent was passed by Rosmini in practising austerities and writing the constitutions of the institute.

Still, this was no more than a plan. For forming a religious society a number of like-minded men are needed. Rosmini sought none, encouraged none. Two or three who knew his thoughts joined him; their very principles made them at once into a community practising many of the religious virtues. These principles urged him to betake himself forthwith to the Holy See and lay his society before it. He arrived at Rome in November, 1828, but would not do anything there to further his cause. Pius VIII, who was elected pope in the following March, called him to an audience a few weeks after. "If you think", said the Pope, "of beginning with something small, and leaving all the rest to God, we gladly approve; not so if you thought of starting on a large scale." Rosmini answered that he had always proposed a very humble beginning. His was no extraordinary vocation, he said, like that of St. Ignatius, but quite ordinary. In the autumn of 1830 he gave the institute something of its regular form; and all the community began to pass through their stages of religious training. Such was the state of affairs when on 2 February, 1831, Rosmini's friend and protector at Rome, Cardinal Cappellari, was chosen pope and took the name of Gregory XVI.

The new pope became from the outset the foster-father of the institute, and Rosmini shunned all initiative more than ever. An unsolicited papal Brief came forth in March, calling the new society by its name and rejoicing in its progress under the approval of the bishops. Special spiritual graces were granted by a later Brief, and in 1835 the pope made known his wish that, since solemn episcopal approval had been given the society in the Dioceses of Novara and Trent, Rosmini should no longer delay, but submit the constitutions of the society to the formal examination of the Holy See. It was not, however, till March, 1837, that these were at length submitted, with a short letter in which Rosmini petitioned the pope to approve and confirm them and to grant to the institute the privileges of regulars, adding only that these seemed necessary to the well-being of a society which was intended for the service of the universal Church.

The matter was entrusted to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, which declared, on 16 June, its general commendation of the society, but also its judgment that it was as yet too young to be approved as a regular order, and its hesitation on one or two points in the constitutions, notably on the form of poverty. They therefore deferred the approbation. Rosmini satisfied Cardinal Castracane, the promoter of the cause, on these heads; but before proposing a new examination the promoter is accustomed to hear some other consultor; and to this end Zecchinelli, a Jesuit, was admitted by Castracane to write his opinion. It was unfavourable, principally concerning the matter of poverty; and his party further procured the appointment of a new consultor, a Servite, whose hostile vote was launched almost on the eve of the session in which a decision was to be taken. This action drove Castracane to appeal to the pope that the meeting might be postponed, and the pope intervened at once with such effect that the last vote was set aside and other consultors deputed instead. On 20 December, 1838, the congregation met and gave its final sentence that the society and its rule deserved the formal approbation of the Holy See, and that the institute should have the status of a religious congregation, with the usual privileges. The pope immediately ratified this decision. On the following 25 March the vows were first made, by twenty in Italy and five in England. Five of these then went to Rome and on 22 August, in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian made the fourth vow of special obedience to the pope. Apostolic letters embodying Rosmini's own summary of the constitutions were issued on 20 September, naming Rosmini as the first provost-general of the institute for life.

Spirit and organization

The end which the Institute of Charity sets before its members is perfect charity. Love of God is plenitudo legis, because it extends of its very nature to all intelligent creatures who are in God's image. No special manner of life is added in this rule as an obligatory proximate end; hence for a vocation to it nothing is required but a true and constant desire to love justice most. It is a universal vocation. It embraces all vocations, not indeed by taking all charitable works whatsoever as its province; rather it does not take one, but it refuses none. The field then is vast, but only with a negative vastness. Hœc est voluntas Dei, sanctificatio vestra. But by focusing the will on that one point the best way is opened to everything else. Thus the first or elective state of the Rosminian is just the unum necessarium, the contemplative life; not inactivity, not sluggishness, but prayer and labour and study and the learning of some mechanical or liberal art, that so he may be ready for any call and not become a burden to others. It is a time for accumulating experience and strength, and those who avail themselves of it apply themselves to their duties, awaiting the time when they will go forth to answer the call of zeal. If no such call comes, it matters little, for in the elective state all their end is achieved. If the call does come, the elective is laid aside for the assumed state, this being accepted not of choice at all, but only because of God's will clearly manifested.

By what methods does the institute discern this will? Apart from extraordinary inward motions of the Holy Ghost, the common way is that of outward events, which give sure tokens of God's will to those who use the light of faith. The principal events, as the institute views it, which make known God's call to charitable work are:

  1. a petition made by a neighbour in need;
  2. a request by someone else on his behalf;
  3. his needs themselves when they come before us.

Among simultaneous requests there is a choice. The pope's come first, a bishop's next;
ceteris paribus, earlier petitions are accepted rather than later. But in general whenever a neighbour, in the universal Christian meaning of that word, seeks the help of the institute, it has to be given, unless one of the following conditions be wanting: that the desired work be no hindrance to the fulfilment of duties already undertaken, that the whole labour which such addition involves be not beyond the brethren's strength, and that the institute have at its disposal members sufficient in both number and endowment for its rightful discharge.

Again, charity which is one in essence, is threefold in exercise, and according as good things regard the bodily and sentient life or the intellectual or the moral, the charity which bestows them is divided in the institute into temporal, intellectual, and spiritual. The temporal is the lowest and gives the lowest kind of good. Inconceivably far above it stands that which seeks to increase the life of the understanding by the knowledge of truth; and above both there is the spiritual charity which tends to make men good and happy by loving the known truth. Hence we see that the topmost point of the institute's activity is the cure of souls. Its whole theory leads to the religious and the pastoral life wedded together, as the crowning achievement of charity. The blending of the two types in the rule consists in this, that the brethren have to choose and prefer a private state in the Church. They are of the ecclesia discens. The restless disposition which indirectly seeks honours or powers would be treason to their whole spirit. Passive in privacy till public work summons them, they must then be all courage, confidence, perseverance, and work.

There are three classes of persons who more or less strictly belong to the Institute of Charity. The first is of those who, led by a desire to keep the Evangelical law perfectly, take on themselves the discipline of the society and bind themselves by vows. The second is of Christians who desire perfection, but are so bound by earlier engagements that they cannot make these vows, yet desire as far as possible to co-operate with the society, and these are "adopted children". The third is of "ascribed members", good Christians who do not aspire to the life of the counsels, yet according to their condition desire also to co-operate. But since only the religious are of the substance of the society, it is of their formation and regulation alone that we will here add a few words.

The institute neither solicits nor insinuates vocations, but leaves the initiative to Divine Providence, being from its fundamental principles just as perfect when small and hidden as if it was large and famous. Of the care used in examining and instructing the postulant and in implanting firm roots of piety and charity in the novices and in trying his vocation in many ways we need not here give detailed notice. After two years of noviceship his first profession is made, obedience being understood to comprehend the acceptance of any grade that superiors may assign. He thus becomes an "approved scholastic", who is not, however, definitively incorporated with the institute until he has fitted himself by study or other preparation for taking the coadjutor's vows. Coadjutors, spiritual or temporal, add the further promise of not seeking any dignity either within the society or outside and of not accepting and not refusing the spontaneous offer of it except under obedience. They are divided moreover into internal coadjutors if living in houses of the institute, and external if elsewhere, the latter state being from the universality of charity quite in harmony with the rule. From among the internal spiritual coadjutors presbyters are chosen, and these take a fourth vow of special obedience to the sovereign pontiff. Thus the body of the society consists of presbyters and coadjutors, but it is the presbyters who give life and movement to the rest and to whom the more universal works of charity are committed.

Vows in the institute are life-long, and ordinarily, though not necessarily, simple. Its form of poverty permits the retention of bare ownership in the eye of the civil law, but each member must be ready to surrender even that at the call of obedience, and none may keep or administer or use one farthing at his own will. Strenuous opposition was offered in Rome to this form of religious poverty, which was declared by one party to be merely affective, no effective. Rosmini answered by indicating the conditions just named and also the nature of property itself; that it is a complexus of rights, that rights are relations, and are divisible; that they may be relative to the State or to the Church; and that a religious keeps property relatively to the State only, and not absolutely. It is absolute ownership, not relative, that offends Evangelical poverty. The founder's sagacity in leaving property under the legal dominion of individuals has been abundantly illustrated since his time; the spiritual gains of the occasions thus given for continually renewed acts of sacrifice are no less obvious. The true facts of the rule are that board, lodging, and clothing are to be those of poor men, and that all, even superiors, do much of their own servile work. Chastity next, considered as a vow, is understood in the sense of the subdeacon's obligation. The virtue of obedience is regarded as a director of charity and, therefore, as quite universal; as a vow, however, though its field is still unrestricted, it comes more seldom into play.

The institute is governed by a provost-general elected for life by certain presbyters according to a minutely prescribed form. He has full powers except for a few exceptional cases. It is he who admits to the various grades in the society and who appoints all the superiors. The institute is divided into provinces, and each province, at least in theory, into dioceses, and each diocese into parishes; and there may be rectories besides for more particular works of charity. Having in view only the fullness of Christian law, it has followed as nearly as possible the organization of the Christian Church. Being ordered to charity, the institute chooses a way of living that will not sunder the brethren too far from other men. No habit and no special bodily mortification is prescribed them, but in lieu of further austerities they embrace the lasting hardness of their chosen lot. Not the hedge of a multitude of regulations, but a strong conviction of lofty principles is to make men such as the institute desires.

The institute as such holds no property and takes no kind of civil action. From the State it does not seek exemptions, but only common right. If guarantees of association were refused it, it could still live privately and contemplatively, and attain its whole end. Its members remain citizens, with a citizen's interest and duties. Towards the Church it has this chief relation, that it lives for her, not for itself, insists on not confounding the interests of one religious society with those of Christendom, and is so constructed as to be altogether ancillary to the Christian episcopate. Any exclusive esprit de corps is banned throughout the rule and is quite contrary to its spirit; for "the one groundwork of the institute," said its founder, "is the Providence of God the Father, and to lay another would be to destroy it." Instead of seeking its own aggrandizement, its tendency is to render the union of all Catholics more intimate and sensible, to make them feel their own greatness, and that they are stronger than the world and are follow-workers with Providence in putting all things under Christ.

History and activities

The institute is too young to have much history yet. As was to be expected from its principles, it has progressed but slowly. Its chief houses in Italy are Monte Calvario, which has long been both a novitiate and house of theological study; the college founded in 1839 for young boys at Stresa, and the large college for older ones at Domodossola built in 1873 and taking the place of a school handed over to the institute by Count Mellerio in 1837. Rosmini founded a house at Trent in 1830 at the bishop's invitation; but Austrian dislike of Italian influences brought it to an end in 1835. The same spirit drove the institute from Rovereto in 1835 and from Verona in 1849. The charge of the Sanctuary of S. Michele della Chiusa, an ancient abbey on a steep mountain-peak near Turin, was accepted in 1835 at the King of Sardinia's desire, and remains of deceased members of his house were transferred thither. This sanctuary is still kept, but the king's plan of a house of retreat was left unexecuted by his Government. A good number of elementary schools are conducted by the institute in various parts of northern Italy, and in 1906 it accepted the charge of the Church of S. Charles in the Corso at Rome. Noteworthy also are Rosmini's plans of an English college of missionaries for different parts of the British Empire, with a special training for work in India; his college of elementary masters in the institute, still flourishing, and his project of a medical college towards which Prince d'Aremberg offered a large sum. An orphanage, founded with this money at Sainghin, near Lille, was closed in 1903 through the hostility of the French Government.

The founding of the English province is inseparably linked with the name of Luigi Gentili. This cultured and ardent young Roman threw himself wholeheartedly into religious life in 1831, and from the first felt greatly drawn towards England. Ambrose de Lisle was already inviting him to work in Leicestershire, and Bishop Baines, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, had offered him a post at Prior Park. To this college he was sent by Rosmini in 1835 with two companions to teach both lay and church students. He became rector there the next year, but the entrance of two of the bishop's clergy, Furlong and Hutton, into the institute brought the engagement to an abrupt close in 1839. Invited next to the Midland district, the fathers taught for a while at old Oscott, and in 1841 was opened the mission of Loughborough, which has since remained in the institute's hands. Many converts were made and some missions founded in the neighbourhood, and in 1843 the first public mission ever preached in England was given by Gentili and Furlong. In the same year at Ratcliffe, near Leicester, were laid the foundations of a novitiate designed by Pugin, but in 1846 the present college for boys of the middle class was opened there. The mission of Newport, Monmouthshire, was undertaken in 1847, that of Rugby in 1850 and Cardiff (of which only two churches are now retained by the institute) in 1854.

The fathers were all this time giving zealous aid towards dissipating that excessive fear of outward devotion which English Catholics had inherited from times of persecution. Rosmini's warm interest in England had led him to send thither some of the most capable and apostolic men he had, Pagani (this J. B. Pagani, author of "The Science of the Saints" and "Anima Divota", is to be distinguished from the Italian provincial of the same name, author of a "Life of Rosmini", and other Rosminian works), Gentili, Rinolfi, Ceroni, Cavalli, Gastaldi, Bertetti, Caccia, Signini; and the mission of Gentili and Furlong, and also of Rinolfi and Lockhart, in many parts of the British Isles produced a deep and lasting effect. Gentili died of fever in Dublin, in 1848, while preaching a mission in a fever-stricken district. Of Lockhart it should be added that in 1854 he began the mission of Kingsland in North London, and here he worked for twenty years. The Church of St. Etheldreda, formerly chapel of the London palace of the bishops of Ely, and a fine specimen of thirteenth-century Gothic, was restored by the institute to Catholic worship in 1876, and Lockhart became its first rector. Other houses under the charge of the English province are the reformatory called St. William's School at Market Weighton, Yorkshire, and two Irish industrial schools, one at Upton near Cork, and, one towards which Count Moore gave land and money, at Clonmel. The latest mission established by the institute is that of Bexhill-on-Sea. The Rugby house, which had from 1850 the English novitiate, became in 1886 a juniorate, or preparatory school for novices. The present novitiate stands in wooded grounds at Wadhurst, Sussex, and a house for Irish novices has been opened at Omeath on the shores of Carlingford Lough in the Archdiocese of Armagh.

In America Fr. Joseph Costa, after working singlehanded in various parts of Illinois, gathered the first community of the institute about him at Galesburg in that state. Here they have St. Joseph's Church, which existed before; and in addition they have built Corpus Christi Church (1887) and College (1896) as well as St. Joseph's Academy, directed by Sisters of Providence, and in 1906 St. Mary's schools.

The provost-generals, since Rosmini's death have been Pagani, who succeeded in 1855, Bertetti (1860), Cappa (1874), Lanzoni (1877), and Bernardino Balsari in 1901. Other names deserving mention are Vincenzo de Vit, known principally for two works of vast labour and research, the "Lexicon totius Latinitatis", a new and greatly enlarged edition of Forcellini, and the "Onomasticon", a dictionary of proper names; Giuseppe Calza, noteworthy as a philosopher; Paolo Perez, formerly professor at Padua, and master of a singularly delicate Italian style; Gastaldi, afterwards Archbishop of Turin; Cardozo-Ayres, Bishop of Pernambuco, who died at Rome during the Vatican Council, and whose incorrupt body has lately been transported with great veneration to his see; and two English priests, Richard Richardson, organizer of the holy war against intemperance, and enroller in it of 70,000 names; and Joseph Hirst, member of the Royal Archæological Institute. (See ROSMINI AND ROSMINIANISM, GENTILI, LOCKHART, SISTERS OF PROVIDENCE.)


ROSMINI, Maxims of Christian Perfection (London, 1888); IDEM, Letters (London, 1901); LOCKART, Life of Rosmini (London, 1886); PAGANI, Life of Rosmini (London, 1907); Missions in Ireland (Dublin, 1855); Vita di Rosmini da un sacerdote dell' Instituto (Turin, 1897).

About this page

APA citation. Pollard, W.H. (1912). Rosminians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Pollard, William Henry. "Rosminians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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