March 25, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: Finally reacting to the Reformation

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

It took the hierarchy of the Catholic Church a long time to try to repair the damage done by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. It’s true that Pope Adrian VI, who succeeded Pope Leo X, admitted that blame lay primarily with the curia of the Church and that reform was needed, but he lived only 20 months in office.

When Paul III became pope in 1534, the disintegration of the Church seemed near. Much of Europe, especially Germany, Switzerland and England, had broken with Rome. Christians had followed Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers because the Church leaders in many places were, frankly, corrupt.

In his personal life, Pope Paul, too, was hardly exemplary. Before he became pope, his mistress bore him three sons and a daughter, and after he became pope he made two of his grandsons cardinals at the ages of 14 and 16.

To his credit, though, he realized the gravity of the religious situation and started a thorough cleansing of the Church and its members. He stopped the granting of indulgences in return for money, prohibited arbitrary sentences of excommunication, and appointed cardinals (other than his grandsons) known for their piety and ability.

In 1536, Pope Paul established a commission of four cardinals and five other prelates to study the question of Church reform. On March 9, 1537, the group made its report, saying, in effect, that much of what Martin Luther had been complaining about—at least in terms of Church practice—was true. It gave the pope a blueprint for reform. It included plans for a general council.

First, though, Pope Paul did something that proved to be extremely important: he approved the constitutions of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540.

The Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, was born in 1491 in Spain and died in 1556. A military man, he had his leg shattered by a cannon ball. While recovering, he read a life of Christ and lives of saints. He then made a pilgrimage to Mary’s shrine at Montserrat, near Barcelona, and stayed for almost a year at nearby Manresa. He began to write his greatest work, The Spiritual Exercises.

He spent the next 11 years studying in various European universities. Then, in 1535, at age 33, he and six others formed the Society of Jesus, offering themselves to the service of the pope. After Pope Paul approved the society, Ignatius remained in Rome overseeing the new venture. He also founded the Roman College and homes for orphans, catechumens and penitents.

His society was to play a prominent part in the Counter-Reformation, and would eventually become the largest religious order of men in the world. (However, the several separate religious orders that trace their origin back to St. Francis of Assisi are larger when their numbers are combined.)

Meanwhile, when Pope Paul III announced that he would convoke a general council, beginning on May 13, 1537, the idea didn’t go over well with some of the secular powers. After failing to reach agreement, the pope postponed the council. It was eventually convened in Trento (Trent), Italy on Dec. 13, 1545. †

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