Among other things, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, an event-or series of events-that split Western Christianity into a series of factions, denominations and ecclesial communions.
While targeting real abuses and errors, the reformers ended by
radically altering core Christian beliefs on issues ranging from the
Canon of Sacred Scripture to the nature of the Church to the number and
meaning of the Church’s sacraments.
The Church responded with her own “reformation,” which has been
called variously the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Reformation and
the Catholic Revival.
Culminating in the Council of Trent (1545-1563),
the Catholic reform curbed abuses, clarified doctrine, purified
practices, unified the Church and found new ways to present the beauty
of Christian teaching.
In his address
to the Roman Curia on December 22, Pope Francis once again centered his
words on the need for continuous reform, and while he was speaking
first and foremost of the reform of the Curia, he extended the scope of
his words to the reform of the Church herself.
Reform, Francis said, “is first and foremost a sign of life, of a
Church that advances on her pilgrim way, of a Church that is living and
for this reason semper reformanda, in need of reform because she is alive.”
Or as the Second Vatican Council taught,
“Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns
here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is
an institution of men here on earth.”
One of the key principles of reform is the idea of return, or
rediscovery. To reform is not to change one’s nature or alter one’s
identity, but to return to the truth of oneself that may have become
distorted or atrophied over time.
For Catholics, this anniversary year offers a sterling opportunity to
reevaluate and come to a deeper appreciation of the way the Church
herself responded successfully to the need for reform 500 years ago, and
in this way to draw out lessons for the ongoing reform required by the
Of the many important characteristics of the Catholic revival, five
stand out as particularly crucial as well as immediately applicable to
the present historical context.
The centrality of the sacraments
Martin Luther’s rejection of a number of the traditional seven
sacraments led the Church to reaffirm the importance of each of the
sacraments and their centrality in the Christian life as visible signs
instituted by Christ to give grace.
In this flourishing of sacramental theology, the Church asserted that
the sacraments are not mere symbols or empty rituals, but actually
bring about what they represent. The holy water employed in baptism
didn’t just symbolize washing; it really cleansed the soul from original
sin and regenerated the person as a son or daughter of God.
The words of absolution don’t just help a person to appreciate God’s
merciful love; they really bring about true reconciliation with God and
Nowhere is the reality of the sacraments more evident than in the
Eucharist. The Council of Trent taught that Jesus is “really, truly,
substantially present” in the consecrated bread and wine, and not just
figuratively or symbolically represented.
Contrary to Protestant criticism, the 13th session of the Council
reaffirmed and defined the doctrine of Transubstantiation as “that
wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread
into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood.”
The Catholic reform saw a burgeoning of Eucharistic devotion in
various forms. Eucharistic adoration by the laity, for instance, was
born in the 13th century but experienced widespread growth during the
16th and 17th centuries, and emphasized the doctrine of the “real
presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.
One of the greatest examples of Eucharistic art from this period is Peter Paul Rubens’s 1625 painting, The Defenders of the Eucharist.
Produced during the Church’s Reformation efforts to defend and reclaim
her Eucharistic doctrine, Rubens assembled seven outstanding saints
known for their Eucharistic witness in one scene.
In this moving work, Rubens featured St. Jerome, St. Norbert, St.
Thomas Aquinas, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose,
and finally St. Augustine.
Saint Peter and the papacy
The work of the Protestant reformers and their rejection of the pope
gave Catholics the occasion to rediscover the gift of the papacy and its
importance for Christian unity.
Devotion to Saint Peter prospered
during this period, which also saw the completion and consecration of
Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1626.
The papacy had suffered a loss of esteem during the years leading up
to the Protestant Reformation, due to a series of scandals and a general
spirit of worldliness that had taken hold of the papal office.
popes of the period of the reform-St. Pius V, Gregory XIII and Sixtus
V-each contributed in his own way to the much-needed Catholic revival
following the Council of Trent.
Pius V gave the personal witness of a life of heroic virtue, and was
proclaimed as a model of penance, asceticism, and prayer. Though known
especially for the reform of the calendar, Gregory XIII was a great
patron of the missions and of Catholic education, and founded the
German, English, and Greek colleges in Rome while also sending out
missionaries at his own expense to various parts of the world.
Sixtus V carried the Catholic reform over into the renewal of the city of Rome itself.
In his five and a half years as pope, Sixtus completed St. Peter’s
Basilica and erected the obelisk of Nero in front of it, built the
Vatican Library and its wing in the papal palace, practically
reconstructed the Quirinal and Lateran Palaces, created straight streets
for pilgrims connecting the major basilicas, built the Aqua Felice
aqueduct and the Via Sistina, and established the hospital of San
Great saints, mystics and martyrs
True Christian reform is above all spiritual in nature and is
exemplified and shepherded by the saints.
The Catholic reform of the
16th and 17th centuries provides a magnificent example of this, with a
proliferation of holy men and women of all stripes, from mystics to
missionaries to martyrs to saints given over to charitable works.
As emeritus Pope Benedict wrote
many years ago: “Saints, in fact, reformed the Church in depth, not by
working up plans for new structures, but by reforming themselves. What
the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is
holiness, not management.”
At this time, St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus
(the Jesuits), who took up the banner of the Counter-Reform with great
vigor, bolstering the faithful and sending missionaries like Sts.
Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci and Peter Claver to the far corners of the
Later during the revival, St. Philip Neri, the great preacher and
apostle of Rome, founded the Congregation of the Oratory and St. Vincent
de Paul founded the Daughters of Charity and the Vincentians, who
dedicated themselves to missions and works of charity.
Meanwhile, the holy Franciscan bishop of Geneva and patron of
journalists, St. Francis of Sales, was revitalizing the local Church in
innovative ways, with a special outreach to lay spirituality with his Introduction to the Devout Life.
This spiritual reform of the Catholic revival included a reform of
religious life, which in many areas had fallen into every sort of decay
and languor. Spearheading the reform of the Carmelite order were two
mystics, St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, who championed a
Christ-centered spirituality suffused with love for the person of
Martyrs, too, came in many forms in this period. Some, like Paul Miki
and his 25 companions in Japan, or at the end of this period the great
French Jesuit martyrs Jean de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues in northern New
York State, gave their lives for Christ while preaching him to those who
had never heard his name.
Others, like the Englishmen John Fisher and Thomas More bore witness
to the Catholic faith at the hands of an absolute state that demanded
they betray their faith, and later Edmund Campion, who died at the hands
of a Protestant reform run amok.
Evangelization and mission
The rediscovery of the richness of the Catholic faith inspired a zeal
to share this faith with others, and indeed to carry it to the ends of
As we have seen, the Jesuits sent missionaries to the
farthest reaches of the earth: China, Japan, Africa, North, Central and
The Catholic reformation coincided with the exploration and
evangelization of the new world, which had only been discovered a few
Along with the Jesuits, other orders such as the
Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians carried the Catholic faith to
faraway lands, setting up schools, hospitals and missions.
The founding of the Roman Congregation “De Propaganda Fide” in 1622,
with its organized missionaries, gave a great impetus to the Church’s
evangelizing outreach and helped missionaries extricate themselves from
overly close ties to national governments and secular ambitions.
As Pope Francis wrote in his first teaching letter, Evangelii Gaudium
(“The Joy of the Gospel”), “we cannot forget that evangelization is
first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know
Jesus Christ.” This was the driving force behind the enormous missionary
outreach of those years.
“All of them have a right to receive the Gospel,” Francis continued,
and “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding
The Blessed Virgin Mary
The Protestant reformers often saw Catholic devotion to the saints as
a lessening of Christ’s unique mediation between God and man. Martin
Luther himself came to consider the Roman Catholic practice of offering
intercessory prayers to Mary and the saints to be idolatry, and John
Calvin oversaw the destruction of Marian images and paintings of the
While condemning abuses, the Council of Trent strongly reaffirmed the
veneration of saints and relics, and particularly the veneration of the
Blessed Virgin Mary.
The period of the Catholic reform saw Marian
devotion thrive and expand, especially during the pontificate of the
Dominican Pope St. Pius V.
On October 7, 1571, a coalition of southern European Catholic
maritime states sailed from Sicily to engage a materially superior
Ottoman fleet at Lepanto. Knowing that the Christian forces were at a
distinct material disadvantage, Pope Pius summoned all of Europe to pray
the Rosary for victory, and he personally led a rosary procession in
Rome for this intention.
To commemorate and give thanks for Mary’s intercession, Pius
instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victory (later changed to Our Lady
of the Rosary), which is celebrated on October 7, and this brought the
rosary into the General Roman Calendar.
As much as the world has changed in the intervening centuries, much
has remained the same.
In many ways, the world today remarkably
resembles the world of the Catholic reformation.
The challenges of
doctrinal confusion and ambiguity, diminished religious practice,
radical Islam and worldliness are every bit as acute today as they were
500 years ago.
More importantly, the reform of the Church always requires a return
to what is central in Catholic belief and practice. The gospel itself,
though 2,000 years old, will always be “good news” for all generations.
Looking through the keys to the great Catholic revival, it isn’t hard
to discover a program for the reform of the Church today.
A renewal of
appreciation for the seven sacraments and our active participation in
them is critical for true reform, as is a focusing on sanctity as the
goal of our lives, gratitude for the unique gift of the papacy, loving
veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and fervent evangelizing outreach.
The beauty of this program of renewal is that no one needs to wait
for others to take the lead-it is within the grasp of every man, woman