The Counter-Reformation

THE Counter-Reformation tried partly to reform the Roman Church from within, and partly to fight the spread of Protestantism. It began with the formation of new religious orders, the most im­portant being the Society of Jesus founded in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), a Spaniard. It became a powerful teaching and missionary society; the first and most famous of its missionaries was Francis Xavier, who worked from 1541 to 1552 in the East. The Council of Trent stated once and for all where Roman Catholic­ism differed from Protestantism, and drew up an important ‘Pro­fession of Faith’ for everyone to follow. The Roman and Spanish Inquisitions were developed to destroy heresy; and the Papacy was reformed and modernised to give the Church a new dynamic leadership.

Lainez, one of Loyola’s original companions, spoke of his Ignatius qualities of leadership: ‘Great knowledge of the things of God, and Loyola great devotion to them, and the more metaphysical these matters were, and over our heads, the better he knew them; great good sense and prudence in matters of business; the divine gift of discretion; great fortitude and magnanimity in tribulation; great guilelessness in not judging others and in putting a favourable interpretation on all things; and great skill in knowing how to set himself and others to work for the service of God (101).

Another follower, Ribadeneira, was impressed by Loyola’s calmness: ‘Often and often we have seen him, in perfect calmness and with all the sweetness of manner that can be imagined, order someone brought before him for punishment; and when the offender came into his presence, it seemed as if he was transformed and all afire; and then, after he had finished speaking and the offender had gone, immediately, without the slightest interval of time he returned to his former serenity and blitheness of countenance, as if nothing had happened. It was clear that there had been no irritation what-ever within, and that he had made use of that sudden look as a mask, putting it on and laying it aside at will . . . (102).

Ribadeneira attributed this calmness to Loyola’s saintly self-control: ‘And though his bodily condition had its ups and downs, for his health was inconstant, nevertheless his soul was invariably of an even temper. What I mean is that if you wished to ask for something from Father Ignatius, it made no difference whether he was on his way from mass or had had dinner, or whether he had just got out of bed, or had been at prayer, whether he had received good news or bad, whether things were quiet, or the world upside down. With him there was no such thing as “feeling his pulse”, no “taking a reckoning by the North Star, no steering by a sea chart”, as is the usual way of dealing with men in authority, for he was always in a state of calm self-mastery (103).

From the diary of one who knew Loyola, we know that Loyola was very frugal: ‘His table was always resplendent with parsimony and frugality, but it had nevertheless a savour of gentle usages. There were two or three brothers to wait upon it, more especially when outsiders were invited to dinner. The wine glasses were served with elegance; it could not have been better done, or more attractively, in a palace (104).

Ribadeneira has another recollection: ‘I have often seen him, in his old age, standing out on the balcony, or on some place of vantage where he could look at the sky, fix his gaze upwards and remain motionless, lost in thought, for a long time, and then, overcome by emotion, shed tears of joy. And I have often heard him say: “How contemptible the world seems when I look up at the sky” (105).

Ribadeneira told a story which showed how Loyola insisted upon men total obedience among his followers, an obedience which was to make the Jesuits both admired and feared: ‘Father Ignatius and I were strolling about together after supper, and a good many others were walking about and talking of one thing or another at a little 62 distance off. While we two were discussing spiritual matters, Father Ignatius paused, and stepping up to one of the brothers said: “Go, see who those are walking over yonder”. The brother came back and said it was one of our priests talking to a novice. Ignatius called the priest up and asked, “What were you talking about to the novice?” The priest replied: “Father, we got on the topic of humility and mortification, and I was telling him what I had seen myself, or had heard, in those respects, about Brother Texeda [who was not a member of the Society of Jesus] in order to encourage the lad to follow his pattern”. Father Ignatius said: “Are there no examples to be found in the Society, that you go seeking them from outsiders? Who gave you permission to talk to novices, when you have not sense enough? Go to the minister and bid him strike your name off that list, and don’t speak again to a novice without leave from me” (106).1) Ignatius Loyola In the Constitution (rules) of the Society of Jesus, Loyola set out what obedience should mean: ‘And let each one persuade himself that they that live under obedience ought to allow themselves to be borne and ruled by divine providence working through their Superiors exactly as if they were a corpse which suffers itself to be 63 borne and handled in any way whatsoever; or just as an old man’s stick which serves him who holds it in his hand wherever and for whatever purpose he wish to use it . . . (107).

The first of the Rules for Thinking with the Church in the Spiritual Exercises drawn up by Loyola for the Jesuits, reads: ‘Always to be ready to obey with mind and heart, setting aside all judgement of one’s own, the true spouse of Jesus Christ, our holy mother, our infallible and orthodox mistress, the Catholic Church, whose authority is exercised over us by the hierarchy (108).

Jesuits were also told to encourage devotion to the Church among Roman Catholics: ‘To commend to the faithful frequent and devout assistance at the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the ecclesiastical hymns, the divine office, and in general the prayers and devotions practised at stated times, whether in public in the churches or in private (109).

An account is given by the surgeon of the ship on which Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary, sailed to the East. It is a vivid picture of a great saint: ‘I came out from Portugal on the same ship as Father Francis and I often watched him at his charitable occupations and whilst he taught Christian doctrine. He used to beg alms from other passengers for the poor and sick persons. He took personal charge of such as were ailing or prostrated by illness. From this work of mercy, and from his hearing of confessions, he allowed himself never a moment’s respite, but cheerfully accomplished it all. Everybody held him for a saint, and that was my own fixed opinion. At Mozambique the Father gave himself so completely to the service of those who were taken from the five ships who were already ill, and to those who fell ill afterwards during the winter spent on the island, that only forty or forty-one of the sufferers died. Everybody regarded this as a marvellous thing, indeed as a real miracle due under God to the devotedness and goodness of the Father. He fell sick himself in consequence of his crushing labours, and I took him to my lodging to take care of him. So bad did he become that I had to bleed him nine times, and for three whole days he was out of his senses. I noticed that while in delirium he raved unintelligibly about other things, but in speaking of the things of God was perfectly lucid and coherent. As soon as he was convalescent, he resumed his former labours with all his old enthusiasm (110).

A fellow-Jesuit who saw Xavier at work in India shows how well Xavier worked among ordinary people: ‘He went up and down the streets and squares with a bell in his hand, crying to the children and others to come to the instructions. The novelty of the proceeding, never seen before in Goa, brought a large crowd around him which he then led to the church. He began by singing the lessons which he had rhymed and then made the children sing them so that they might become the better fixed in their memories. Afterwards he explained each point in the simplest way, using only such words as his young audience could readily understand. By this method, which has since been adopted everywhere in the Indies, he so deeply engrained the truths and precepts of the faith in the hearts of the people that men and women, children and old folk, took to singing the ten commandments while they walked in the streets, as did the fisherman in his boat and the labourer in the fields, for their own entertainment and recreation (111).

The Council of Trent (1545-63) was set up to try to sort out the religious confusion now felt by many people. As its starting point, it gave equal authority to Scripture and Tradition: ‘Following the example of the orthodox Fathers, this synod receives and venerates, with equal pious affection and reverence, all the books both of the New and the Old Testaments, since one God is the author of both, together with the said Traditions, as well those pertaining to faith as those pertaining to morals, as having been given either from the lips of Christ, or by the dictation of the Holy Spirit and preserved by unbroken succession in the Catholic Church . . . (112).

The Council also refused to ban the practice of indulgences. The reason was: ‘Since the power of conferring indulgences has been granted to the Church by Christ, and since the Church has made use of this divinely given power even from the earliest times, the holy Synod teaches and enjoins that the use of indulgences, which is greatly salutary for Christian people and has been approved by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church …(113).

Finally, it supported the age-old veneration of images in churches: ‘And the bishops shall carefully teach this: that, by means of the stories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings and other representations, the people are instructed and confirmed in the habit of remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the Saints and their salutary examples are set before the eyes of the faithful; that they may give God thanks for those things, may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the Saints; and may be excited to adore and love God and to cultivate piety (114).

From 1564, the clergy had to make a public statement of their beliefs, to avoid confusion. Here is an extract from this statement, known as ‘the Tridentine Profession of Faith’: ‘I recognize the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church as the mother and mistress of all churches; and I vow and swear true obedience to the Roman Pontiff, the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles and the representative [vicarius] of Jesus Christ (115).

But all these measures did not stop the growth of Protestantism. A Swiss traveller wrote in 1599 of how an obstinate Protestant would be treated by the Spanish Inquisition: ‘If he refuses to be converted, he is sent to a large town to be burned on the pyre, perhaps alone, perhaps with others like him. Wearing a gown on which are pictures of devils pulling him into hell and tormenting him in a thousand ways, he is thus put to death in the most atrocious manner, and his picture is exhibited in the cathedrals to perpetuate his shame; but for the martyrs this death is glory, as indeed it is thus to suffer persecution and death for the true religion of Jesus Christ (116).

At the same time, the papacy did do much to modernise itself. The Conclaves, for example, at which the Cardinals elected a new Pope, had been filled with intrigue and scandal, but as a Cardinal wrote in 1579, Pope Gregory XIII had improved matters: ‘I can say with truth that I have never seen, in any of the Conclaves at which I have been present, any Cardinal or member lose control of himself; I have indeed seen very few of them grow warm. It is rare to hear a raised voice or to see an angry face. I have often tried to find some difference in the look of those who had just been defeated, and I can say with truth that, with one single exception, I have never found any. So remote is even the suspicion of those revenges with which Italy is usually wrongly charged, that it is even common enough for an opponent to drink at dinner the wine which the candidate whom he has defeated that morning has just sent him. In a word, I dare say that there is nothing more wise or grand than the ordinary scene in a Conclave. I know well that the procedure practised there since the Bull of Gregory contributes greatly to regulate it; but it must be admitted that only Italian& are capable of observing this order with as much decorum as is necessary (117).