- Working in the Vineyard of the Lord: Jesuit Confraternities in Early Modern Italy
Revealing the complex dynamic that existed between religious institutions and the laity represents one of the richest veins that scholars have mined in recent works that explore early modern Catholicism. Lance Gabriel Lazar's book offers a fine addition to this growing body of literature. Taking as his main focus three early, signal Jesuit confraternities in Rome that worked with reforming prostitutes, their "at risk" daughters, and for the conversion of Jews, respectively, Lazar examines how the Jesuits fostered "the active engagement of the laity in pious devotions"(p. 30). While the Marian congregations became the characteristic form of Jesuit confraternity, especially after the 1560's, Lazar argues successfully that these earlier confraternities represented important, exportable models for translating the Jesuits' "way of proceeding" into concrete examples of charitable activity.
Lazar structures his book thematically, beginning with a useful introduction to Jesuit ministries within the broader context of early modern Catholic charitable activities, and spending the next three chapters exploring key features of each of the representative confraternities. A final chapter demonstrates how the Jesuits expanded these model confraternities beyond their Roman base and synthesizes the interpretive conclusions of the study.
While Lazar wisely decides to follow the lead of his archival documents in filling out the portrait of each confraternity, focusing on important themes such as membership composition, the motivations of the recipients of charitable activity, and strategies for conversion employed by the Jesuits and their lay associates, respectively, this approach leads to some unanswered questions and a certain imbalance among Chapters Two through Four. For example, while Chapter Two provides a fascinating exploration of the evolution of S. Marta, an early Jesuit confraternity that sought the reform of Roman prostitutes, through a close examination of the composition of confraternal membership, it leaves questions of motivation underdeveloped. Lazar does a good job of showing how Ignatius Loyola inspired the development of this institution though his long-term interest in working with "fallen women," and introducing the key players among the Roman élite who helped to found and finance the confraternity and its (literal) charitable structures. Nevertheless, while Lazar highlights the central role played by élite female patrons in supporting this endeavor, he [End Page 317] says precious little about their complex motivations. Although he cites secondary literature that has begun to round out the picture of the gender dynamics of early modern reform, he provides a far too cursory discussion for this reader, given the tantalizing questions that his material raises (p. 60).
Chapters Three and Four are more successful. In the third chapter, for example, Lazar offers an excellent discussion of the entrance process for "at risk" young girls at the charitable house run by the S. Caterina confraternity, the kinds of inmates that the institution attracted, and key personae who supported its growth and financial stability. Chapter Four offers some fascinating case studies to demonstrate the strategies that the Jesuits employed to effect the conversion of Jews through their Catecumeni houses in Rome and beyond. Here, Lazar argues incisively that these houses offer a window onto the broader conversion strategies that the Jesuits employed in future apostolic activities.
Aside from some minor critiques of the book, Lance Lazar's Working in the Vineyard of the Lord offers a valuable new piece to the complex puzzle that is early modern Catholicism. Clearly written, well-researched, and cogent, the book illuminates another dimension of early Jesuit institutional history, while also offering an important view of the nuts and bolts of lay reform activity in early modern Italy.