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.)