Angelic Cardinal Reginald Pole - C. M. Antony




The General Council
1542-1547

In 1542 the long talked-of Council was at last called. The position was a critical one. Reforms, both internal and external, were terribly needed. Luther's heresy had overrun Germany, and called for definite action; while England, as the natural consequence of Henry VIII.'s schism was fast falling under the same dangerous influence. On the other hand, the discipline of the Church needed strong enforcement, especially in individual cases, and it was felt that a General Council could no longer safely be delayed.

In January, 1542, a Diet of the Empire was held at Spires, at which the Papal Legate moved the holding of such a council at Trent in the following November; and this was agreed to, in spite of strong opposition from the Protestant faction. Trent, situated in neutral territory, in Northern Italy, not too far from France or Germany, was admirably suited for the purpose, being healthy, and cool in summer, with a delightful climate.

The Pope sent three Legates, Cardinals Parisius, Morone, and Pole. They were charged to notify the Council publicly to all; not to enter into argument with heretics in the presence of the Council, or to permit such arguments; and not to open the proceedings until the proper number of representatives had arrived.

It was a position of grave responsibility, requiring infinite tact. Charles and Francis were now at war; and though the opening of the Council was announced for November i, All Saints Day, no French bishops appeared at all, and only a few Italian and Spanish prelates.

The Pope refused to allow the Council to be opened, and to the keen disappointment of Cardinal Pole, recalled the Legates early in 1543. He was still mourning the loss of his dear friend Contarini, who, on August 4, 1542, had died while on his way to the Emperor, as Papal Legate, to attempt to make peace between Charles and Francis; but his personal sorrow was whelmed in the intense grief which he felt at the apparent failure of the Council. He retired to his domain of Viterbo; and there, a few months later, learnt of the death of another close friend, Bishop Ghiberti of Verona This prelate had been one of the first to recognize and appreciate Pole's extraordinary gifts of mind and character, nearly twenty years before, and had sympathized with and encouraged him in all his troubles. A man of charming personality, and eminent sanctity, Ghiberti was known throughout Europe as a brilliant scholar, and his death was a terrible blow to Pole, who, within a few months, had lost two of his best friends. The next three years passed quietly at Viterbo; while in England, Henry, having by now squandered the revenues and possessions of the religious houses, proceeded to sequestrate and appropriate the collegiate churches, chantries, guilds, and even hospitals; so that nothing was now left untouched except the bishoprics.

In 1545, peace having been temporarily arranged between France and the Empire, the Council of Trent was again summoned. Pole, now Cardinal-Deacon of St. Mary in Cosmedin, was again chosen as Legate, together with Cardinal del Monte, Bishop of Palestrina, and the future Pope Marcellus II., Cardinal-priest di Santa Croce-in-Gerusalemme. Three other ecclesiastics were sent with them by the Pope, and all arrived at Trent in the beginning of March, except Pole, who appeared a month later. This was on account of a simple, but ingenious device by Henry VIII. to assassinate him, which made it necessary for him to travel incognito and by a circuitous route. The Bishop of Trent had written to warn him that two Italian ruffians, a certain Count Bonifacio, and the notorious Ludovico dell Armi, had been hired to murder him on the road.

A most interesting account of the exploits of the latter villain is given by the Venetian Government at this time to their secretary in England. He was the head of a band of thirteen hired assassins, maintained by Henry VIII. in Italian and Venetian territory, earning (the word is significant) a monthly pension of 200 crowns in time of peace, and 50 in time of war. At this very time he was outlawed for brawling and murder in Venice, and on repeating the crime at Treviso, he was sentenced to death in August, 1545. He escaped; was recaptured, and beheaded on the Piazzetta di San Marco, at Venice, between the two great columns, a couple of years later. The Venetian Government, anxious not to offend Henry, requested their secretary to represent these facts to the King—the English ambassador having told them that they would "greatly displease his Majesty," to which the Council of Ten replied with dignity that "the King's friendship could not suffer hurt from the misdemeanors of such scoundrels." Such were the tools which the King's conscience now allowed him to employ.

Pole, however, thanks to the warning, escaped unhurt, and came by way of Mantua, employing his enforced leisure in writing his celebrated "Treatise on General Councils," in which he shows that all have "proceeded on the plan of that held in Jerusalem." He insists particularly on the spirit of penance, which should animate all orders, and the reform especially needed amongst the clergy, adding that if these conditions were fulfilled the future Council might be compared not only to that of Nice, but to that first great Council held by the Apostles.

The Emperor had sent his ambassador, Mendoza, to excuse his attendance under the plea of illness. The King of France wrote a long letter to say that the French bishops were on their way. On December 13, 1545, the legates, with the bishop, made their public entry into Trent, and formally opened the Council. Having vested in full pontificals at the Church of the Holy Trinity, together with the other ecclesiastics, also fully vested, they sang the Veni Creator before forming in procession. The religious orders went first, next the collegiate chapters and the secular clergy; after whom came the bishops, the legates walking at the end, before the ambassadors of the King of the Romans. They passed through the town to the Cathedral of St. Vigilius, and there the chief legate sang pontifical High Mass, giving a plenary indulgence to all those present, and enjoining them to pray for the peace of the Church and the nations. An eloquent Latin sermon was preached by a Franciscan friar, the Bishop of Bitonto; after which certain prayers were recited, and the legate blessed the whole assembly thrice. The Litany of the Saints was then sung, and Cardinal del Monte, the President, asked if all were agreed that the Council was opened, to which all replied, Placet. He then asked them, whether, in view of the holy season of Christmas now close at hand, they would agree to fix the first session for January 7—the day after the Feast of the Kings. And all replied, Placet. After formal record had been made of questions and replies, a solemn Te Deum was sung; the legates unvested, and wearing their cardinals robes, preceded by the great silver cross at the head of the long procession of bishops and priests, proceeded to their lodging.

At this solemnity there were present besides the three legates and the Cardinal Bishop of Trent, four archbishops, twenty bishops, the generals of five religious orders, the auditor of the Rota, and the imperial ambassadors.

Great rejoicings took place in Rome, where Pope Paul III. published a Bull of Jubilee. During the suspension of the sessions at Christmas, the legates sent to ask his guidance as to the direction of the Council, and the manner of discussing the various questions. On January 7, 1546, after several informal meetings the first session was held, the Bishop of Castellamare singing High Mass, and the Bishop of St. Mark's preaching; after which the secretary read aloud, in the name of the legates, an exhortation written by Pole, chiefly on the necessity of preparing for the descent among them of the Holy Ghost by true contrition, compunction, and an exem plary life. The officiating bishop then read aloud the Papal constitutions and decrees, and the work of the Council was begun, it being henceforth declared sacred and ecumenical. At the fifth session, on June 17, two decrees were passed concerning Faith (in which heresies were condemned), and concerning Original Sin, in which great prominence was given to the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Cardinal Pole was engaged in a discussion as to the Filioque clause, which he said was not used before the first Council of Ephesus, and quoted St. Thomas Aquinas to prove that that Council declared that: "the third person of the Trinity proceeds from the Father and the Son"; and that the creed was first read with this addition at the first Council of Toledo, probably prior to that of Chalcedon. He wrote from memory, without books of reference.

A few days afterwards he fell ill, and was obliged to go to Trevilla, Priuli's villa between Padua and Venice, the climate of which always suited him. His illness appears to have been acute rheumatic gout, to which he was a continual martyr. He wrote to the legates to say that his left arm and shoulder were almost useless, and his eye gave him ceaseless pain. He was, however, better, he said, but two Paduan physicians had told him that he must take care lest he should have a "stroke of palsy;" and had advised his consulting Frascatorio, the great Veronese doctor. Later on he wrote to say that the doctors had warned him, as he was growing worse, that if he returned to Trent he would probably be lame for life; which, he quaintly adds: "can serve no purpose." In order that there should be no doubt at all about the question, he had sent, he says, his former messenger, Parpaglia, to Rome, in order to ascertain the will of the Holy Father as to his returning to Trent, or remaining where he was. It is necessary to dwell on this fact; as Protestant historians—and at the time his personal enemies—have not hesitated to affirm that he left the Council because he was not in agreement with it. One of the principal proofs of his sympathy is the fact that whenever possible he induced absentee members to return to the Council at once.

The Pope was now considering the advisability of transferring the Council to Bologna, a town in Papal territory. It was rumored that plague had broken out at Trent, and this created somewhat of a panic even among the ecclesiastics. The district swarmed, too, with Lutheran troops; and the Emperor, who considered himself politically slighted, was behaving in a domineering and disagreeable manner. However, in July 1546, the French delegates, who had been withdrawn, were sent back; and the Pope dispatched to Trent two of the first companions of St. Ignatius, Fathers Laines and Salmeron, S.J. On July 17 the decree concerning Justification began to be discussed. It was this particular discussion which Pole's enemies had said he was anxious to escape; some going so far as to accuse him indirectly of leanings towards Lutheranism on this question. In a dignified letter the cardinal explains his attitude on the subject; pointing out that St. Paul and St. James, the respective exponents of justification by faith and by works, are not to be privately interpreted, put in opposition to each other, or understood singly; but solely in the light and by the teaching of the Church which combines and unites their doctrine; an advantage only to be gained by submission to her authority, and reliance on that foundation which is the base of truth.

If his enemies needed a further refutation of their ridiculous charge they found it in the fact that the Council so missed the wisdom of the Angelical Cardinal in their deliberations that they sent a copy of their resolutions on the question of Justification to Pole, at Padua, for his criticism and approval. He was too ill to express an opinion at the time, but wrote a line of gratitude and acknowledgment; and four days later sent Priuli to Trent, to express his views on the subject; with which the Council declared itself satisfied.

A few weeks before, on May 29, 1546, Cardinal Beaton (whose unflinching courage and enthusiasm had caused Henry VIII. much uneasiness, as to the attitude of Scotland in his regard) was assassinated in the Castle of St. Andrews by the instigation and with the unfeigned approval of that monarch. The significance of this crime was by no means lost upon Cardinal Pole, who had foreseen it from the first.

On October 4 we have a charming letter from him to the Marchesa di Pescara, in the Orvieto Convent; expressing the pleasure it gave him to receive a visit from her son Lelio (a boy of sixteen), and describing, with a good deal of quiet humor, how the boy had scolded him for his want of return for all his mother's affection. He, Pole continues, said nothing, intending Lelio to draw his own conclusion; but he explains to his adopted mother that in some friend ships one has to be content, like him who bade the poor to a feast, to give, but not to receive, and "such love is not the least blessed." He speaks, too, of "Divine . . . Charity which, though not reciprocated by its object, does not, however, weary of continuing its goodness." Describing his happiness in Cardinal Bembo's palace, at Padua, where he was then a guest, he says he feels as if it were his father's house, and that here were "two things in which I have always greatly delighted, a study, and a garden; both of which I have found in such perfection here that to my taste I should be unable to find more beautiful anywhere."

The death of Cardinal Bembo, one of his oldest and dearest friends, a few months later, was a blow which he felt with the whole of his gentle, affectionate nature. But while he was mourning his loss, the Council of Trent, which had again met on January 13, to discuss the question of Justification and good works, requested him to draw up the decree on this doctrine; and this he did in his own handwriting. After this there can be little doubt in what light the Church regarded him.

And then a great event happened. On January 28, 1547, Henry VIII., tyrant, schismatic, heretic—whose last act was to "drink a great goblet of wine"; whose last awful words were: "Lost, lost, all lost!"—was called to appear before the Judgment Seat of God.