History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

The True Reform

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame

I. Movement Towards Reform in the Church

It is impossible to study at all closely the story of the sixteenth century without coming to the conclusion that, deep as was the corruption of these days, there are many redeeming features which chequer the darkness. All was not unmitigated evil, but hidden away in many a humble home there was a strong Christian spirit still to be found —there were being formed by the Holy Spirit of God saints whose noble aspirations were not unworthily seconded by pious parents, by simple priests and monks and nuns whose names have not reached us, but whom we meet casually in the stories of the great servants of God. This is specially remarkable in the lives of the Spanish saints, each of whom is represented as springing from a more than ordinarily holy family and being surrounded by fervent Christians. For instance, one has only to recall the names of St. Lewis Bertrand, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis Borgia, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa and her saintly companions, to be convinced of this fact. Nor is this feature confined to Spain. The early days of blessed Canisius of Nimeguen; of blessed Peter Favre, a Savoyard—not to speak of others—bear the same testimony. In England similar examples may be found. Memory at once suggests the names of the holy Countess of Richmond and her chaplain, blessed John Fisher, and the centres which they influenced. Blessed Thomas More's household presents one of the loveliest pictures in our history. The Jesuits, Brouet and Salmeron, in the days of Henry VIII., are loud in the praise of the Irish people and of their fidelity to the Church and the Holy See, and Luther himself is our witness for Germany. He often draws the contrast between the behaviour of the people after the preaching of the New Gospel and that witnessed before. For instance, in speaking of the decay of almsgiving, he says: "In the days of papistry everyone was compassionate and benevolent, giving freely with both hands," and then goes on to reproach his disciples with their avarice. Anyone at all familiar with Luther's writings could multiply passages. The legate whom the Pope sent to the Worms Diet in 1521, Jerome Aleander, bears the same testimony when he compares what he witnessed then with what he had seen eleven years earlier, when but a celebrated exponent of Greek in the northern Universities; and the histories of all the northern nations—notably Norway, Sweden, and their dependencies—have a similar tale to tell. The fact is forced home that, whatever the faults were which marred the fair fame of the Church at this lamentable period, they were immensely and universally aggravated by the religious revolt.

But the violence of the evil proved its own remedy. There was a reaction as beneficial in its instincts of results as the excitant which occasioned it was disastrous, and this movement towards reform which was already at work in the Church produced a marvellous outburst of fervour, culminating in the heroism of a veritable multitude of saints. The annals of the seventeenth century are as glorious as those of the sixteenth century are deplorable.

Even before the rupture from the Church, which was instigated by Luther, there had been holy men at work sanctifying themselves, and striving to raise the moral tone of those around them. It was as though the great needs of the times called out the best efforts of saintly-minded men. Thus was inaugurated, in silence and unpretending humility, the great work of reform which followed the Protestant revolution. Among others may be mentioned the Dominicans, Blessed Matthias Carrieri of Mantua, who reformed several convents of his order in the middle of the fifteenth century, and Blessed James of Ulm, who died in 1491, a lay-brother of the same congregation, who had great influence in Bologna. Contemporary with both these was another saintly Dominican, Venerable Yves Mahyeuc, Bishop of Rennes, 1462-1541, who was confessor to both Anne of Brittany and her husband, Charles VIII., and whose diocese amply repaid his zeal. Blessed John Angelus Porro, a Servite, who died in 1506, caused piety to flourish in all the country between Siena and Florence. The Italian Camaldolese reformed themselves about 1522.

The reform of the Benedictines began in the fifteenth century. It was the work of St. Justina of Padua. To cut at the root of the evils which had brought about the degradation of monasticism, he introduced the custom of triennial appointments of abbots and other superiors, thus making the possession of a benefice for life an impossibility. All the Benedictine houses adopted St. Justina's reform, and when the patriarchal house of Monte Cassino joined the movement, Pope Julius II. called the whole Italian reformed body of Benedictines the Cassinese congregation. In Spain a reform on similar lines was inaugurated, and the famous Valladolid congregation was the result. German Benedictines ranged themselves under the Bursfeld Union, which in 1502 numbered ninety houses. The movement did not reach France till the seventeenth century.

Another widespread renovation of fervour was due to St. Cajetan of Thiene and his colleague, Cardinal Caraffa, afterwards Pope under the title of Paul IV. St. Cajetan, born in 1480, when still young, attracted great attention in Rome by his ability and holy life, and was named one of the Protonotaries Apostolic. He was, therefore, a member of the papal court, into which he introduced an unwonted spirit of piety and order. He also reawakened the religious element in the ancient confraternity of the Love of God. Similar fruits of zeal followed in Venice, whither his director bade him go for a time. On his return to Rome, he found that a considerable number of eminent men were formulating plans for the reform of clergy and laity with more zeal than success. Among these was Caraffa, in whom Cajetan recognized a kindred spirit, and, with two associates, they succeeded in carrying into effect the desires of the others. This was in 1524. The Pope gave the four ecclesiastics leave to renounce their benefices, and to found an institute of regular clerks, whose object would be to train model priests, who, in absolute poverty, should devote themselves to realizing the sanctity of their state, and to rousing a corresponding fidelity in the people committed to their care. The members of the new institute soon became known as Theatines, for Caraffa was Bishop of Theatin. Their fervour was contagious, and a wonderful improvement began to manifest itself in those quarters of Rome where their influence was felt. The good work was abruptly interrupted' ,by the terrible sack of Rome in 1527. The narrative of the sufferings of the Theatines during this awful visitation is simply appalling. When liberated from their persecutors, they fled to Venice, where they set to work in the same devoted way. Another foundation was made at Naples, where St. Cajetan had great difficulty in preserving the poverty of his institute intact. He rendered great service to Naples by striving to control the excited populace. who were driven to excesses of all kinds by the attempt of the Spaniards to impose the Inquisition. The troubles were appeased on the very day of his death in 1547.

Meanwhile Caraffa had been created cardinal, and on the death of Pope Marcellus (1555), he was elected to the vacant throne. As Paul IV. he worked hard to spread his Order. Many Theatines joined the work of foreign missions, and evangelized Eastern Asia and part of the East Indies, notably Sumatra and Borneo. This brief sketch has taken us into the days when many another work of zeal was renovating the face of the Church.

The Capuchin branch of the Franciscans was reformed in 1528. The movement originated in the Order itself, and quite a number of saintly members, especially lay-brothers, have left their mark on their Order. Of these, St. Felix of Cantalice, the friend of St. Philip Neri, was one of the most noted.

The first project of general reform was due to Pope Paul III. in 1536. He named a congregation composed of the most holy and learned among the cardinals and prelates who surrounded him. These good men seem to have taken a most gloomy view of the situation. Indeed, the picture they drew of the evils of the times is about as unfavourable as that given by the Church's enemies themselves; and the measures they proposed were most drastic in character: for instance, they would have had all religious Orders of men extinguished, by forbidding them to receive novices. But God was watching over His Church, and reform was already inaugurated; but, to take wide expansion, it needed the authorization of the supreme power on earth, and when the time was ripe this was forthcoming.

II. The General Council of Trent

It will be remembered that in 1522–23, at the Diet of Nuremberg, the papal legate, in the name of his Holiness Adrian VI., had proposed that a General Council should be held on German soil. Though the proposition was met with a demand for redress of grievances, the authority of the Church and the Holy See was fully recognized. The Convocation was fixed for the following year. But the social war had broken out; the Orders of the German Empire were at strife; hostility was strong between France and the Empire. The Protestant party repeatedly appealed to a General Council against decisions which trammelled their action; but their object appears to have been either to gain time or to harass the Catholic party in Germany, whose relations with the Holy See, through the conduct of Charles V., were at this time exceedingly strained. At Rome there was also some hesitation as to holding the Council in the domains of a sovereign who seemed disposed to carry things with a high hand, and time after time the project was adjourned. The Council was actually convened for 1537, and Mantua was the place named for meeting. But Francis I. declared against it, and gave his support to the Smalkald League, which also opposed the project, and attempted to convene a counter-council. Dissensions amongst the Protestant divines frustrated the endeavour. At length, in 1544, the Peace of Crespy terminated the long hostilities between Charles V. and Francis I., and Pope Paul III. immediately profited by the tranquillity thus granted to Europe to call the much-desired Council. He assigned Trent, on the frontiers of the Austrian Tyrol, as the meeting-place, and May of the next year as the date.

Trent in Tyrol


This time the effort was successful. The Fathers were at their post by December 13, and the great work was taken in hand. They must have needed superhuman courage to face the problems that lay before them. There were the sad records of twenty-five years of the unbridled licence of Protestantism, with its consequent perversion of the doctrines of faith, together with the disciplinary abuses which had existed in the Church itself previous to that time—a prospect that would have appalled any but those who were the guardians of the divine deposit of truth. But, strong in our Lord's promise of abiding help and presence, they manfully set to work to build anew the shattered fabric of discipline, and to promulgate in clearer terms the infallible teaching of the Church.

Practically the most important points to be settled regarded thy relative rights of the popes and the sovereigns, and the popes and the bishops; for the action of ecclesiastics in preceding times had confused the sphere of the spiritual and temporal authorities, and men were uncertain whether papal authority was of Divine or of human right. Again the question had been raised: Was the Pope above or subject to Canon Law? Also the duties of bishops to their dioceses, and of priests to their parishioners, and the reform of religious Orders had to be settled and enforced. In the domain of doctrine the field to be covered was a no less vast one, as it embraced every tenet attacked or repudiated by the new sectaries. In short, the principal points were—Sin, Justification, Grace and Free-will, Prayer and the Seven Sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice, Indulgences, Purgatory, and Prayers for the Dead.

As usual, the earliest sessions of the Council were devoted to settling the method of procedure, and it was determined that questions of doctrine and discipline should go hand in hand, the same matter being treated from the double point of view. The mornings were to be set apart for seeking out the sources of the evils complained of, and for finding suitable remedies; the evenings were to be devoted to the explanation and definition of the Church's teaching, and to meeting the objections of her opponents. One cannot fail to be struck with the very important services rendered to the Council by the papal theologians, Salmeron and Laynez, members of the newly-founded Society of Jesus. To the former was given the task of formulating the topic to be introduced, and to the latter the very momentous duty of sifting all the opinions, reducing the mass of evidence into logical sequence, and of summing up the whole matter under discussion. Later on Laynez was also charged with the stupendous labour of searching out the erroneous statements of heretics on the points in question, and he performed his task to the satisfaction of the Fathers of the Council.

The Council had sat from December 13, 1545, to March 11, 1547, when an epidemic broke out in Trent. Ten sessions, or series of sittings had been held, and the subjects treated of had been those named above, down to the Sacrament of Confirmation exclusively. An interruption at a time when such an important work was proceeding so smoothly seemed to all most inopportune. The majority of Fathers therefore decided, with the approbation of the President, to adjourn to Bologna. But the Spanish and German prelates, instigated probably by Charles V., their sovereign, refused to go, as they would no longer be on imperial territory. The War of Smalkald had broken out between the Protestants and the emperor, who was again on unfriendly terms with the Pope.

The Bologna assembly, therefore, had no general sessions, but smaller assemblies or committees met, in which the question on Penance was completed, and that on the Holy Eucharist prepared. While the Fathers still sat at Bologna, Pope Paul III. died, and the Council was prorogued. After the election of Pope Julius III. the Council entered on its second period at Trent.

In September, 1551, the Fathers again assembled. Six more sessions were held, during which the great question of the Blessed Eucharist was treated. Early in 1552 the Protestants asked to be received, and work was suspended awaiting the arrival of their deputies. Several German towns and the States of Wittenberg and Saxony sent representatives, but none of their theologians appeared. At this juncture Maurice of Saxony, now in open hostility to the emperor, rapidly swept across the intervening provinces, seizing towns by the way. The emperor narrowly escaped, but the victorious general sat down at Innsbruck in perilous proximity to Trent. The bishops were dispersed, and Julius III. suspended the Council (1552).

Eleven years passed. Marcellus II. had succeeded Julius III. Neither this Pope nor the next in order—Pope Paul IV —recalled the Council. It was not till the end of his reign that Pius IV. again summoned the Fathers. Events fraught with immense importance to the Catholic world had been taking place, and when, in 1562, the Pope reassembled the Council at Trent, the Fathers met under far different auspices from those which had greeted the first assembly. Time had smoothed away many of the difficulties surrounding the earlier sessions. Several of the prelates, who might from personal motives have shown some opposition to measures of reform, were dead. A spirit of deep religious earnestness pervaded the new assembly; in spite of religious and political troubles, a notable amelioration in the state of Christendom was making itself felt, and experience had shown the Fathers the way of acting that would win without wounding. The remaining work of the Council was carried through rapidly, but thoroughly. The topics of the Holy Sacrifice, of Holy Orders, of Matrimony, of Purgatory, and Prayers for the Dead were treated. Then came the questions relative to the authority of popes and bishops, and that of the reform of the clergy. On the first point, contrary to the desires of the Sorbonne, it was declared that the Pope is above a General Council. The decrees promulgated on the latter point did little more than solemnly approve the system already working such marvels under the direction of the great men to be hereafter noticed.

The sessions closed on December 4, 1563. It was a momentous occasion, and the Fathers of the Council felt all its import. The highest authority on earth had traced out the paths to be trodden, the doctrines of the faith had never before been so ably defended or so clearly defined, and never had it been more evident that the Spirit of God was at work in His Church. They who had been the Fathers of the Council, cardinals, bishops, heads of religious Orders, dispersed to carry far and wide the decrees of the great assembly, and to strive by every means in their power to put them into practice. The finishing touch was given to the labours of the Council when the Catechism of Trent was published three years later.