Faith Alive

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    The story of the Catholic Church at the time the 16th-century Catholic Counter-Reformation began is multidimensional.

    What today may escape notice are the efforts in the 1500s by new religious orders and congregations to renew Catholic life.

    As a response to the Reformation, the Council of Trent was convened by Pope Paul III in 1545 to make clear the church's teachings. The council, which met in 25 sessions over a period of 18 years, presented its teaching in direct response to the teachings of the reformers.


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    The Council of Trent

    By Joseph F. Kelly

    Catholic News Service

    Although Catholics generally banded together during the Reformation against the Lutheran threat and the growing number of Protestant dissidents, popes and bishops did recognize that the church had to respond to this crisis and, with humility, acknowledged that some reform was necessary.

    In general this reform would be carried out by the popes, but there were other reformers, such as Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish priest who in 1540 founded a men's religious order, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to respond to the Protestants and to strengthen the Catholic Church. Some Jesuits enjoyed considerable success, but clearly the reform of the church had to be carried out in Rome.

    Most of the hierarchy of that era came from wealthy, noble families, and they moved in high clerical circles. They were not always aware of the problems facing the church. But that all changed with the 1534 election of Pope Paul III (1534-1549). He recognized the Protestant threat and weakness of the Catholic response.

    Pope Paul III acted quickly and decisively. He approved the foundation of the Jesuits, sent numerous bishops back from the Roman court to their dioceses, and, most important of all, he called an ecumenical council to deal on the highest level with the Protestant challenge.

    He convened the council for Trent, a city in northern Italy. The council would last from 1545 until 1563, although the council was twice interrupted by political issues, which delayed its work. No fewer than five popes reigned during this time, and this naturally made the council's work difficult.

    The bishops at Trent concluded early on that the central problem was not Protestant teaching but rather the lack of clarity in Catholic teaching, an optimistic view that proved to be correct. This sensible approach, clarifying Catholic teaching rather than debating with Protestants proved very fruitful.

    For example, Protestants claimed that the Bible does not mention seven sacraments, since the word "sacrament" does not explicitly appear in Scripture, but the Tridentine (an adjective for Trent) bishops responded in part by clarifying teaching on Scripture and tradition.

    The council stated that "the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us, having been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or from the apostles by dictation of the Holy Spirit" contain "all saving truth."

    Trent's response was a careful exposition of what the sacraments are and do.

    The bishops acknowledged that for all seven sacraments there may not have been a specific biblical verse mentioning each sacrament but the practices went back to the apostolic era. Catholics could accept some notion of development, but strict Protestants demanded a direct scriptural reference. The issue of sacraments clarified how Catholics and Protestants approach different issues.

    Naturally the bishops wondered why so much Catholic teaching was so poor, and the answer was a poorly educated clergy. Training of priests varied from diocese to diocese, and in rich, sophisticated ones priestly training was often good, but in poor rural ones it was very weak. The council's solution was the establishment of the seminary system to guarantee that all priests had a sound education for their pastoral work; the system is still successfully used today.

    Trent also responded to some Protestant critiques, such as the veneration of relics. The bishops realized that such veneration could lead to superstitious practices, but they wisely defended the veneration relics while addressing the problems. More and more the bishops saw the strong need for clarity and modesty in so much of the church's teaching.

    Trent was a marvelous council but also a marvelously difficult one. The bishops had to face Protestant critiques and a constantly changing membership because in the course of 18 years, in addition to five popes, there were hundreds of bishops, many of whom could attend only some of the session, due inevitably to some deaths and many illnesses.

    The bishops were also hampered by supposedly loyal Catholics. Catholic nobles and monarchs, especially the kings of France and Spain, constantly interfered, even to point of preventing bishops from going to Trent.

    In retrospect Trent accomplished a great deal, yet there was still work to do. The council wanted teaching clarified, but only after the council did theologians and papal officials put together a good, clear catechism based upon solid doctrine. The council could insist on seminaries, but the diocesan bishops faced the difficulties of funding them, building them and attracting priestly candidates to attend them, and so much more.

    The Council of Trent closed in 1563; the next ecumenical council, the First Vatican Council, did not meet until 1869, more than three centuries later -- the longest period ever between two councils. That Trent met the church's basic needs for such a long time testifies to its greatness.

    (Joseph F. Kelly is retired professor at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.)


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    On giving life to each Catholic's faith: The Counter-Reformation

    By David Gibson

    Catholic News Service

    The story of the Catholic Church at the time the 16th-century Catholic Counter-Reformation began is multidimensional.

    Rarely forgotten are the denunciations that marked this time of unfamiliar new divisions in the Christian world. But what today may escape notice are the efforts in the 1500s by new religious orders and congregations to renew Catholic life.

    The Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri was one new religious community. It was known for its renewed spirituality, ongoing formation both for clergy and laity, and care for the poor.

    St. Philip Neri, the oratory's founder, had an inviting personality. Apparently he was pretty humorous.

    Certainly he does not fit any stereotypical image of a Catholic leader of Counter-Reformation times -- dour, defensive and busy shoring-up walls of division between Catholics and the new followers of Martin Luther, John Calvin or others.

    The American Catholic theologian Doris Donnelly once remarked that St. Philip lived amid "the excitement and turmoil of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and responded to the needs of the church in unconventional ways." Donnelly is professor emerita at Jesuit-run John Carroll University in Ohio.

    It is notable that the oratory St. Philip founded allowed amply for hearing laymen's voices. When its members, including St. Philip, listened to talks, they all sat informally on benches, Donnelly noted.

    The Beliefnet website on faith observed that St. Philip's "appealing personality" won him friends "from beggars to cardinals." A group of laity gathered around him in Rome, meeting for prayer and discussions, and serving the poor.

    Donnelly said that St. Philip once considered becoming a missionary to Asia. But a monk-friend said, "Rome will be your India."

    St. Philip would become "the kind of missionary the church most needs, then and now: one who helps convert Christians to Christianity," she commented.

    The Ursuline Sisters have 16th-century roots too. Their founder, St. Angela Merici, is known for promoting the education of girls and women. Education for girls may be taken for granted in many places now, but not so much in the 16th century.

    The first Ursulines hoped to support the well-being of families by educating girls, most of whom expected to fulfill future roles as wives and mothers.

    Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, Canada, once included St. Angela on a list of Catholic saints who directed their educational endeavors to "the poor, the humble and the marginalized."

    The Capuchin Franciscans also arose during these times. Tracing their founding to 1528, the Capuchins' goals included a rededication to the ideals of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi.

    The first Capuchins lived simply, sought a life of prayer and attempted to preach as St. Francis did. They are known for offering care to people living on society's margins.

    This calls to mind a famous remark by Pope Francis in "The Joy of the Gospel," his 2013 apostolic exhortation. "I prefer a church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he wrote.

    It isn't surprising that new and renewed religious communities came to the fore during the Counter-Reformation. One possibility for the church in times of dispute and division is to adopt a defensive stance. Another possibility is to follow St. Philip Neri's lead by helping convert church members to the faith they profess.

    St. John Paul II talked about this in "The Church in America," his 1999 apostolic exhortation. At a time when other denominations in Latin America and other places were attracting many Catholics as members, he urged local Catholic communities to make "personalized religious care" available to all their people.

    The kind of renewal he encouraged requires taking steps to "give new life to every Catholic's faith."

    (Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.)


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    God's grace through the sacraments

    By Daniel S. Mulhall

    Catholic News Service

    In 1517, when Martin Luther went public with his 95 Theses or proposals against the selling of indulgences, he expected a reasoned debate similar to others he had encouraged with previous proposals. Little could he have dreamed or expected that he would unleash a religious maelstrom that is today known as the Reformation.

    Reformers throughout Europe, fortified by their personal reading of the Bible, began to challenge all aspects of Catholic belief and practice that could not be found specifically mentioned in the Bible. One of the areas challenged most aggressively was that of the sacraments.

    As a response to the Reformation, which both challenged the Catholic Church's beliefs and practices and brought political turmoil and violence to most of Europe, the Council of Trent was convened by Pope Paul III in 1545 to make clear the church's teachings.

    The council, which met in 25 sessions over a period of 18 years, presented its teaching in direct response to the teachings of the reformers. For example, Canon 1 from the seventh session reads as follows:

    "If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord; or that they are more or fewer than seven that is: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, order and Matrimony; or that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; anathema sit."

    Here, for the first time, the church sets the number of sacraments at seven and names them specifically. Prior to Trent the number of sacraments would vary both in number and name over time.

    In addition to naming and numbering the sacraments, the Council of Trent also stated that the sacraments were instituted by Jesus himself, that they were a means for salvation, and that God's grace is offered through them regardless of the intention of the priest or the recipient. These teachings have not changed.

    Two of the sacraments, baptism and Eucharist, were almost universally accepted by the reformers, although differences arose over the age when one should be baptized (some argued that one must choose to be baptized as an adult, making infant baptism invalid) or whether the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ. Questions were also raised about the validity of the other sacraments. The bishops at Trent answered these questions and many more.

    The teachings of Trent, written as they were in response to challenges raised by various reformers, remained the teaching of the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). No longer faced with a world on fire with religious zealotry, the bishops at Vatican II could take the time to return to the ancient sources and to even consider some of the suggestions proposed by the original reformers.

    Many of these, especially those raised by Martin Luther, found their way into the thinking of the council members, which has led to a call for Christian unity and mutual dialogue (ecumenism) between the Catholic Church and the reformed Christian Churches.

    (Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.)


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    St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) stands out among the figures of the Counter-Reformation.

    A faithful and serious man, Charles displayed his devotion to the church at a young age when he received a clerical tonsure at only 12. He was given custody of the Benedictine abbey in Arona, Italy, his hometown, and he ensured that the revenues of the abbey be allotted for the poor.

    After his uncle, Gianangelo, became Pope Pius IV, he made 21-year-old Charles a cardinal and appointed him as administrator of the See of Milan. Under Pope Pius, the previously suspended Council of Trent reconvened, thanks in part to Charles' effort and influence, and Charles assisted with the drafting of the catechism and reform of liturgical books and church music.

    Yet Charles longed to return to his diocese. This was itself a sign of renewal, as bishops at the time rarely lived in their dioceses. After the death of his uncle, Pope Pius V allowed him to return to Milan. He began implementing reform, establishing seminaries, arranging retreats for priests and directing parish priests to hold public catechism classes.

    When famine struck Milan, he fed thousands daily. After the plague, he arranged care for the sick, burial for the dead and food for thousands. He founded a society of secular priests, the Oblates of St. Ambrose.

    At a prayer vigil at World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI named St. Charles Borromeo among other saints who were "true reformers." In contemplating such saints, we learn "what it means to live according to the measure of ... Jesus Christ and God himself," Pope Benedict said.

    (Source: "Butler's Lives of the Saints")


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