Catholic Encyclopedia – Theatines

Article

(Clerics Regular)

A religious order of men, founded by Gaetano dei Conti di Tiene, Paolo Consiglieri, Bonifacio da Colle, and Giovanni Pietro Carafa, afterwards Pope Paul IV. Carafa was Bishop of Chieti (Theate), a city of the Abruzzi in Southern Italy, from which the congregation adopted its specific name, to distinguish it from other congregations (Jesuits, Barnabites, Somaschi, Caracciolini, etc.) modelled upon it. Gaetano consecrated his order to the Cross, which he adopted as its emblem, and the foundation took place on the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross, 3 May 1524. It was approved on 24 June 1524, by Clement VII in the Brief “Exponi Nobis”. On 14 Sept., feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Saint Gaetano and his companions made solemn profession before the papal altar of Saint Peter’s, Rome, in the presence of Mgr. Giovanni Battista Bonziano, Bishop of Caserta, special papal delegate. The chief object of the order was to recall the clergy to an edifying life and the laity to the practice of virtue. Saint Gaetano and his companions zealously endeavoured to combat the errors of Martin Luther, which, having gained a foothold in Switzerland, Germany, England, and France, then threatened Italy. They founded oratories (among them the celebrated Divino Amore) and hospitals, devoted themselves to preaching the Gospel, and reforming lax morals. Through their good example clergy and laity were induced to better living.

Notwithstanding their severe rule of life and strict vow of poverty, the congregation rapidly developed, and soon numbered among its members illustrious names of the Italian aristocracy. They founded many beautiful churches, among them that of S.Andrea della Valle in Rome, a gift of Costanza Piccolomini D’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi. This church is a masterpiece of Carlo Maderna, and contains several paintings by Domenichino. The Theatines were invited to Turin, Genoa, Venice, Milan, Padua, Piacenza, Parma, Modena, Florence; Naples, Palermo, Messina, Lecce, etc., by the authorities of these places. They also attained a great development in foreign countries. In France, through the efforts of Cardinal Mazarin, they built the Church of Saint Anne la Royale opposite the Louvre in 1644. In Spain, under Philip II, the Theatine Cardinal Paolo Burali d’Arezzo, afterwards beatified, filled various embassies at the command of the viceroy of Naples. In Portugal John IV, in 1648, gave the Theatines a splendid house and college for the education of noble youth. In England, under Henry VIII, Goldwell, Bishop of Saint Asaph, entered the order of Theatines.

The Theatines were the first to found papal missions in foreign lands, as in: Golconda, Ava, Pegu, Mingrelia, the Islands of Sunda, Borneo, Sumatra, the history of which was written by the Theatine Bartolomeo Ferro (Missioni Teatine nelle Indie Orientali); Georgia, Arabia, Armenia, in which latter country Father Galano, author of the history of the Armenian Church, negotiated and concluded the reconciliation and union of that Church with the Roman Catholic; Persia and in many other places, as is shown by Theatine manuscripts dating from 1530 till the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century the order began to decline, and in 1860, through the well-known suppression of religious orders, it was reduced to a shadow of its former greatness. In accordance with the spirit of its rule, it had never acquired possessions and is the only order which feels the consequences of the law of suppression.

Father Francesco di Paola Ragonesi, general of the order and the last surviving representative of its ancient traditions, restored the Church of S. Andrea della Valle to its former splendour, by his care and zeal aided by the munificence of Comm. Filippo Giove Romano. The Theatines maintain a flourishing mission at Durango in Colorado, U.S.A. Pius X, in a Motu Proprio of 15 December, 1909, decreed the union of the ancient Congregation of the Regular Theatine Clergy with the youthful Spanish Congregation of the Holy Family at Barcelona. Besides the two saints, Gaetano, invoked for the interposition of Providence, and Andrea Avellino, against sudden death, the order furnished one pope, Paul IV (Giovanni Pietro Carafa), 250 bishops, archbishops, and papal legates, and the cardinals: Blessed Giovanni Marinoni, Blessed Paolo Burali d’Arezzo, Blessed Giuseppe Maria Tomasi, Giovanni Bernardino Scotti, Francesco and Domenico Pignatelli, Giuseppe Capece-Zurlo, Francesco Maria Banditi, and Ferdinando Pignatelli, the last named created cardinal by Gregory XVI. Father Anton Francesco Vezzosi (whom Clement XIII wished to make cardinal, but chose instead Fr. Ganganelli of the Conventuals who succeeded him in the papacy as Clement XIV) treats of the illustrious men of the order in his work “I scrittori de’ chierici regolari detti Teatini”, Rome, 1780. The last famous Theatine was the philosopher, littérateur, and great sacred orator, Father Gioacchino Ventura dei baroni di Raulica, a Sicilian. He preached and wrote in both Italian and French. His most celebrated work is his funeral oration on the death of Daniel O’Connell. He was the friend of the most illustrious men of his day, among them the Abbé de Lamennais whom he sought to save for the Catholic Church. He died at Versailles in 1860.

Theatine nuns

Theatine Nuns, a religious congregation of women — oblates and hermitesses — existing in Naples and Sicily, founded under the name of Sisters of the immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, by Venerable Ursula Benincasa. This illustrious woman, who, according to Padre Silos (“Istorie Theatine”, Palermo, 1666, XII, p. 657), united in herself the spirit of Gertrude, of Catherine of Siena, of Brigid, and of Paula, was born at Naples, 7 August, 1547. Her parents were Girolamo Benincasa and Vincenza Genuina. Her family came originally from Siena, in Tuscany, and had given to the arts, to the sciences, and to the Church both men and women of great distinction. Venerable Ursula herself displayed great talent; while still a young girl, she comprehended the most recondite meanings of Latin books and of the Holy Scripture. Her inclination to the monastic life was strongly pronounced from her earliest years. Many of her biographies (that of Maggio; Flaminio da Latera, “Compendio della storia degli ordini regolari” s.v. “Theatine dell’immacolata Concezione”; Bonanni in “Catalogo delle Vergine dedicate a Dio”) state that when ten years old she attempted to enter the monastery of S. Maria di Gerusalemme, which flourished at Naples under the rule of Saint Clare, and after various pilgrimages and trials she founded the Congregation of the Theatine Oblate Sisters. Her sisters, among them Christina who became the first superioress, and some of her nieces formed the community. Little by little, other pious women joined them, to the number of sixty.

The date of this formation is fixed by some as 1581, according to others (including so weighty an authority as Padre Bonanni, S.J.) as 1583. The latter date is the better substantiated, for in 1581 Ven. Ursula merely determined the spot on which she intended a church to be erected; it was in fact built near Castel S. Elmo, with the help of the Spanish priest Gregorio Navarro, Abbot of Francavilla, whom she had told of a vision in which the Blessed Virgin had commanded her to build a church in honour of the Most Holy Conception of Mary. At this period, having created much popular excitement by her visions, her ecstasies, and the loftiness of her teaching, and having attracted enthusiastic admiration and envenomed calumny, she was accused of being possessed by a devil and was therefore summoned to Rome. Baronius and Tarugi, Oratorians and illustrious cardinals, received her and took her to have audience of Gregory XIII at Frascati, 3 May, 1582. By the pope’s authority she was placed under the spiritual direction of Saint Philip Neri, who subjected her to the most severe trials; he was constantly astonished by her piety and humility. In 1583 the foundation proper took place, under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph, Saint Michael the Archangel, and Saint Peter.

The rules of the Congregation of the Oblates are those of the active life of Saint Martha, with simple vows. They include recitation of the Office of the Blessed Virgin and the Divine Office daily; one hour of prayer in common at morning, besides the recitation of the Veni Creator and the De Profundis at None; one hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in the church every Friday, with singing of appropriate hymns. In addition to the ordinary fasts prescribed by the Church, the Oblates fast on the vigils of the feasts of Corpus Christi, the Purification, and the Immaculate Conception, and they are exhorted to wear the hairshirt on Fridays. The daily recitation of one-third of the Rosary is also prescribed. They are recommended to labour with their hands, to practise the common life, poverty and the other virtues. The habit is that of the Theatine clerics: a white tunic under a black garment with wide sleeves and girdle of wool; on the head a white veil without wimple, the place of which is supplied by the collar of the outer garment, like that of the Theatine clerics (Baronius and Bonanni).

The Theatine Hermitesses (Romite Teatine) were founded in 1617. As Venerable Ursula wished to completely withdraw from the world she took thirty-three companions, in memory of the thirty-three years of Christ upon earth, and retired to a hermitage. The rules of the Hermitesses are much like those of the Oblates as regards works of piety; but the former religious follow the contemplative life of Saint Magdalene. In addition to their solemn vows, their constitution imposes on them great austerities. They are bound to perpetual abstinence from flesh meat except in case of illness, to fast on the vigils of feasts of the Blessed Virgin and with still greater rigour on the vigils of the Immaculate Conception, the Ascension, and Corpus Christi. They also fast every Saturday and on the last two days of Carnival, besides the ordinary fasts of the church. They are bound to keep the Blessed Sacrament exposed for five hours every Friday, with continual adoration by five religious, and to practise penance regularly. The age of reception to the hermitage is twenty, and the novitiate lasts two years. On admission to solemn profession, a religious may converse with her nearest relatives for one day, but must not expect to see them again. Their enclosure is of the strictest, and they hold no communication with anyone except those charged with supplying them with food, which is given to them through a turnstile. Their habit is of white cloth with a leather girdle, light blue scapular and mantle, black veil and wimple like other nuns (Bonanni, op. cit.). The building of the Hermitage was begun on 10 June, 1633, and completed in 1667. The rules of the Hermitesses and those of the Oblates were approved by Gregory XVI in 1623.

The Theatine Sisters, more particularly the Oblates, were under the government and spiritual direction of the Fathers of the Naples Oratory, by the request of the Abbot Navarro mentioned above, until 1633. In this year the Theatine Order, under pressing and insistent solicitation of important personages, among them Pope Urban VIII, undertook this charge, under the generalship of Padre Matteo Santomagno, who was the depositary of Ven. Ursula’s last wishes and desires. Oblates and Hermitesses practised fervent and incessant prayer to avert from mankind the terrible chastisements which Ven. Ursula by Divine Providence foresaw in her ecstasy. The life of the Oblates is active, that of the Hermitesses contemplative. These institutes — like many others which have not lived in touch with the world through schools, hospitals and the like — continued to live and prosper while the days were less evil than now, and their members were regarded with wonder as victims expiating with prayer the sins of humanity; but through the spoliation of monasteries they have now almost disappeared and are reduced to a shadow of their former greatness. Venerable Ursula’s rule and the pious practice of the Blue Scapular, which she introduced, are still observed.

MLA Citation

  • Franciscus Ragonesi. “Theatines”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 19 October 2013. Web. 1 August 2014. <>