I’m going in October with a group from St. Mary’s, Colts Neck, NJ, on a river cruise on the Rhine. This river was a path Christian missionaries took to bring the gospel to all nations. We’ll visit cities like Strasbourg and Geneva, places connected to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
In his book “Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era”, Harvard University Press, 2000, John W. O’ Malley, S.J. says that historians today are wary of using the words Reformation and Counter-Reformation to describe these historical periods. Recent historical research indicates the names don’t altogether fit the reality of the two movements.
“Reformation” means reform, the reform of something broken or in need of new life. In the case of the Catholic Church, it implies it was in shambles because of superstition and abuses of power. But recent social research indicates that the Catholic experience at the time was still quite vital, for the most part. True, the papacy was in need of reform, other abuses were present as they always are, but ordinary Catholic life was far from lifeless.
“Counter-Reformation,” or “Catholic Reform” usually mean that reform of the Catholic Church took place mainly through the efforts of the Council of Trent and a renewed papacy. But recent research questions the determining part played by the council and the popes in the life of the church at the time.
Historians in the past tended to see the Catholic Church then only in terms of the papacy and council bodies like Trent. They didn’t see its complexity exemplified by its confraternities, religious orders, saintly mystics and patterns of devotion. Social historians today are aware of the vitality in the Catholic Church that existed in its ordinary fabric. Its renewal didn’t just come from above, but from below.
The medieval cathedrals at Strasbourg and Cologne, which we’re going to visit, are examples of the profound faith of the medieval church. They weren’t built to satisfy the vision of a powerful bishop or ruler; they expressed the faith of a dedicated people. We can read what they believed and how they thought about life in those great cathedrals.
One of the O’Malley’s insights I liked was his comment on the lecture on the Counter Reformation by H. Outram Evennett, an English historian, some years ago at Trinity College. Rejecting the thesis that the Reformation was solely a reaction to a decayed medieval church, Evennett opined that both the Reformation and Counter Reformation “were two different outcomes of the same general aspiration towards ‘religious regeneration’ that pervaded the 14th and 15th centuries.”
Does this indicate that both Catholicism and Protestantism are moving in sync towards a place together in the modern world? I hope so.
This Sunday we listen to one of the parables of the kingdom, the Workers in the Vineyard, from Matthew’s gospel. Like the workers, squabbling among themselves, we’re often blind to the larger patterns of God’s plan unfolding in history. In a post-modern society of questioning and doubt it’s also difficult to believe in a plan for the world. There’s a harvest on its way and it’s an abundant one. My homily’s on that.