Luke Wadding and his Rome legacy

The Irish founder of St Isidore's College arrived in Rome 400 years ago.

Luke Wadding, an Irish Franciscan priest, arrived in Rome on 17 December 1618. He came as theological adviser to a royal delegation sent by Philip III of Spain to convince Pope Paul V of the need to define the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.*

Born the southern Irish city of Waterford in 1588, Wadding departed for Lisbon in 1602. After a short spell in Lisbon's Irish College, which had been established in 1590 to train diocesan priests, Wadding joined the Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1613. His arrival in Rome five years later must have seemed like the pinnacle of his career to the young friar. However, Wadding’s career was really only starting. Though the Spanish royal delegation failed in its mission and its members returned to Spain, Wadding was to remain in Rome for the rest of his life, rendering sterling service to his order, country and the universal church.

S. Pietro in Montorio

Residing in the Spanish Franciscan convent of S. Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum, Wadding was commissioned in 1619 to undertake a history of the Franciscan order, leading to the publication of eight volumes of the Annales Minorum between 1625 and 1654, a work that covered the history of the order from the birth of St Francis in 1182 until 1540.

Wadding’s interest in Franciscan history went back a long way. During his early years in Spain he had been stung by an account of a sermon where the preacher said that he loved learned saints but had no devotion to simpletons like St Francis of Assisi. Even during Wadding's novitiate, a well-meaning friend wrote to him deploring the fact that he was burying his talents in an order that had shown no aptitude for scholarship. These misguided comments provoked a powerful reaction in the young Irishman, and he resolved to spend his life demonstrating both the positive attitude of St Francis to learning and the learned tradition developed by his order. Little wonder then that his first major work was a critical edition of the writings of St Francis, published in Antwerp in 1623.

St Isidore's

In 1622 a group of Spanish discalced Franciscans founded the convent of S. Isidoro where it still stands, not far from Trinità dei Monti. They encountered a number of difficulties, however, and were soon forced to abandon their uncompleted and debt-ridden home. Wadding stepped into the breach, offering to take over S. Isidoro on condition that he could turn it into a seminary to train young Irish Franciscans for priestly service on the home mission in Ireland. The new community took up residence in 1625. Setting about his new task with energy and enthusiasm, within five years Wadding was able to collect 22,000 scudi from wealthy benefactors, including Pope Urban VIII, the Spanish ambassador and a number of Hispanophile cardinals. This enabled him to pay off the debts accumulated by the previous Spanish incumbents, complete the church and enlarge the original convent from one that housed 12 friars to one that was capable of hosting 60 people.

The Pontifical Irish College today

Wadding also founded the Pontifical Irish College in Rome in 1628 for the training of Irish diocesan clergy. He followed this up in 1656 with the foundation of an Irish Franciscan novitiate in Capranica, about 70kms north-west of Rome, which remained open until 1983. During his historical research, Wadding managed to build up a library of 5,000 volumes, not to mention a great quantity of precious manuscripts. This library at St Isidore's remains to this day an indispensable tool for researching early Franciscan history. 

Roman artists

With the aid of his Spanish patrons, Wadding hired the best Roman artists of the time to decorate the college church. In 1626 he commissioned Andrea Sacchi to paint the altarpiece for the college church. Giovan Pietro Bellori, the great art theorist of his age, was apostolic syndic (in charge of St Isidore's financial dealings) from 1653 to 1684 and, encouraged by Wadding, he grasped the opportunity to use the church as a laboratory for putting his aesthetic ideas into practice.

Yet, despite his patronage of Roman artists, Wadding never forgot his Irish roots. At his insistence, St Patrick was included in the new universal calendar of the Church that was drawn up circa 1630. Henceforth St Patrick was a saint whose feast-day had to be celebrated all over the world.

St Patrick's Day

Francis Harold, Wadding’s nephew and biographer, said that St Patrick’s Day was celebrated with particular solemnity in St Isidore’s and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it was here that St Patrick’s Day first became Ireland’s national festival. The distinctive Irish character of St Isidore’s was proclaimed in the portico of the church. On each side of the main entrance there are life-size murals of Patrick and Bridget, Ireland’s principal patron saints. 

St Isidore's College today

The presentation of Ireland as a country with its own saints and its own language was a powerful demonstration of national identity, announcing to the citizens of Rome that the Irish had come to town.

Wadding always retained an interest in the subject that brought him to Rome in the first place: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In 1639 he published the complete works of John Duns Scotus in Lyons in 16 volumes. Scotus was the mediaeval Franciscan who first developed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Under Wadding’s direction, St Isidore’s not only became an important location for the training of young Irish Franciscans, but also the leading European centre for Scotistic studies in the 17th century. By the time of Wadding’s death in 1657, in addition to educating over 200 Irish Franciscans, the college had supplied 70 professors in Scotistic philosophy and theology to universities all over Europe.

War in Ireland

When war broke out in Ireland in 1641 between the English and the Irish, the supreme council of the Irish Catholic Confederates appointed Wadding as their agent in Rome, supplying arms and ammunition to aid the struggle against the English administration and military. He also prevailed on Pope Innocent X to send GianBattista Rinuccini to Ireland as papal nuncio (ambassador) in 1645. Rinuccini, however, was not astute enough to deal with the complex Irish situation.

The nuncio’s mission was little short of a disaster, with Wadding himself taking some of the blame. Seen by Rinuccini’s supporters from Gaelic Ulster as pandering to the interests of anglicised members of the Leinster and Munster elites, Wadding became a source of contention not only in Ireland but also amongst the members of his own Franciscan community in St Isidore’s.

Wadding’s involvement in the French Jansenist controversy about original sin, grace and predestination was to cause him yet him more grief. Determined as he was to ensure that Jansen’s views got a fair hearing in Rome before the pope pronounced on their orthodoxy, Wadding nonetheless acquiesced to the papal condemnation in 1653. Just like the Irish situation in the 1640s, Wadding’s attempts at being even-handed only drew upon himself the wrath of both sides. These two issues, far removed from the world of scholarship where he felt most at home, blighted the years leading up to his death in 1657.

Four centuries after his arrival in Rome, Wadding would surely be pleased to know that young Irish Franciscans continue to be trained in St Isidore’s. He would equally be pleased to know that the college also functions as an international research centre for Franciscan studies. St Isidore's also welcomes Irish couples travelling to Rome to get married and hosts the St Patrick's Day Mass for the city's Irish community.

By Mícheál MacCraith

Fr Mícheál MacCraith OFM is the former Guardian of St Isidore's College on Via degli Artisti 18. The church is open for Sunday Mass each week at 10.00. For information see website.

*The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was only pronounced as infallible papal dogma two and a half centuries later in 1854. It is still celebrated as an official feast day by the Roman Catholic Church on 8 December.

This article was published in the December 2018 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.

Cover image: Detail of Luke Wadding portrait by Carlo Maratta

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Luke Wadding and his Rome legacy

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Wanted in Rome is a monthly magazine in English for expatriates in Rome established in 1985. The magazine covers Rome news stories that may be of interest to English and Italian speaking residents, and tourists as well. The publication also offers classifieds, photos, information on events, museums, churches, galleries, exhibits, fashion, food, and local travel.
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