Reforming Activity of the Popes


St Charles Borromeo The Council of Trent had accomplished the work for which it was called. Though it failed to extinguish the rising flames of heresy or to restore peace to the Christian world, it had swept away most of the glaring abuses that had proved the main source of Luther's success, and rendered impossible for the future any misunderstanding about the doctrines that had been called in question. The Catholic Church, purified by the severe trials through which she had passed, stood forth once again active and united under the leadership of the Successor of St. Peter, still face to face it is true with a powerful opposition, but an opposition on which the disintegrating influence of private judgment was already making itself felt. Thus the foundations of the great Catholic Counter-Reformation were laid securely, and a movement was begun which stayed the further advance of Protestantism, secured the allegiance of individuals and nations that were wavering, and won back many who had been seduced from the faith during the early days of the religious upheaval.

But if the labors of the Fathers of Trent were to be productive of the good results that might be anticipated, earnest, religious, energetic Popes were required to give a lead to their spiritual children, whose courage had been damped by over thirty years of almost uninterrupted defeats, to put into force the valuable reforms that had been planned with such minute care, and above all to make the court and city of Rome an example for the princes and people of the world. Here, again, the providence of God watching over His Church was manifested in a striking manner. Pius IV. deserves to be remembered with gratitude by all future generations for the part that he took in bringing to a successful conclusion the Council of Trent in face of almost insuperable difficulties, for having taken such energetic and withal such prudent action to secure the acceptance of its decrees and their reduction into practice, and for having given to Rome and to the Catholic Church so gifted, so saintly, and so disinterested an ecclesiastic as his nephew, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo.

On the death of Pius IV. the conclave, mainly through the exertions of Cardinal Borromeo, elected Cardinal Ghisleri, who took the title of Pius V. (1566-72) in memory of his predecessor. In his youth the future Pope joined the Order of St. Dominic, and for years had acted as professor of theology, master of novices, and prior. He was noted specially for his simplicity and holiness of life, a holiness which it may be remarked had nothing in common with the morose rigor of Paul IV., for his humility, his love of silence and meditation, and for his kindness towards the poor and the suffering. As a man of good education and of conservative tendencies he was summoned to assist Cardinal Caraffa, then president of the Holy Office, and when the latter became Pope he was created cardinal and appointed Grand Inquisitor. After his election Pius V. followed still the strict life of fasting and prayer to which he had been accustomed as a Dominican friar. He did not seek to create positions, or to carve out estates from the papal territories for his relatives. Anxious to promote the temporal as well as the spiritual welfare of the people in his temporal dominions he took steps to see that justice was meted out to poor and rich, banished women of loose character from the streets, put an end to degrading amusements, enforced the observance of the Sunday, and, backed by St. Charles Borromeo and the princes of Italy, he changed the whole face of the capital and the country. Rome was no longer the half-pagan city of the days of Leo X., nor yet did it partake of the savage rigor of Geneva.

Pius V. was most anxious to enforce the decrees of Trent, and it was for the accomplishment of this object that he had prepared for the instruction of pastors the Catechism of the Council of Trent. In compliance with the wishes of the bishops he published also a revised edition of the Roman Breviary and of the Missal. With the Catholic princes of Europe he maintained very friendly relations. He furnished supplies to Charles IX. of France in his struggle with the Huguenots, and to Philip II. of Spain in his wars against the Calvinists of the Netherlands. He encouraged the Emperor, Ferdinand I., and Maximilian of Bavaria to stand firm against the further encroachments of the Lutherans, and sympathized actively with the unfortunate Queen of Scotland. Having realized that Queen Elizabeth was lost hopelessly to the Church and that she was making every effort to involve the whole English nation in heresy, he directed against her a Bull of excommunication and deposition. But though he endeavored to cultivate friendly relations with the Catholic rulers he had no intention of abandoning the rights of the Church or of yielding in the slightest to the increasing demands of the civil power. Against the wishes of some of his advisers and to the no small annoyance of the Catholic princes he republished the Bull, known as the In Coena Domini, because he commanded that it should be read in all churches on Holy Thursday.

Like his great namesake Pius II. he had especially at heart the defense of Europe against invasion by the Turk. Owing to the religious controversies and the eagerness of some of the princes to ally themselves with the Sultan the followers of Islam had grown bolder, and had shown that they dreamed still of overcoming Western Europe and of planting the crescent even in the very city of the Popes. Pius V. appealed to the rulers of Europe to close up their ranks against their common enemy. He granted generous subsidies to the Knights of Malta and the rulers of Venice and Hungary upon whom the brunt of the struggle must inevitably fall. When on the accession of Selim II. in 1570 the danger was pressing, the Pope succeeded in bringing about a Christian confederacy composed of Spain, Venice, and the Papal States with Don Juan of Austria in command of the Christian forces. For the success of the enterprise the Pope ordered that public prayers and particularly the Rosary should be recited in the churches throughout the world. The decisive struggle between the two forces, as a result of which the Turkish fleet was almost completely annihilated, was fought in the Bay of Lepanto on Sunday, 7th October 1571. In memory of this great victory the Pope instituted the Feast of the Holy Rosary to be celebrated for ever on the first Sunday of October. While he was engaged in making arrangements to follow up his success by driving the Turks beyond the Bosphorus he was called to his reward. Even by his contemporaries Pius V. was regarded as a saint. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that one hundred years after his death he was beatified, and forty years later, in 1712, he was canonized formally by Clement XI.

When the cardinals met in conclave, mainly by the intervention of Cardinal Granvelle, viceroy of Philip II. in Naples, Cardinal Buoncompagni was elected almost immediately, and proclaimed under the title of Gregory XIII. (1572-85). He had been a distinguished student and professor of law at the University of Bologna, where he had the honor of having as his pupils many of the ablest ecclesiastics of the age. Later on he was sent as confidential secretary to the Council of Trent. On his return from this assembly he was created cardinal, and appointed papal legate in Spain. At the time of his election to the Papacy he had reached his seventieth year. As a young man his life was not blameless from the point of view of morality, but after he became a priest nothing could be urged against his conduct even by his worst enemies. Though it must be admitted that he was not of such an ascetic and spiritual temperament as his predecessor, he was a man of irreproachable character, not over anxious to promote his own relatives, and determined to strengthen the Catholic Church by raising the standard of education and by appointing to the episcopate none but the most worthy ecclesiastics. Hence he drew lavishly upon the funds of the Holy See to erect Catholic Colleges in Rome and in several countries of Europe. He founded the magnificent Collegium Romanum for the education of students from all parts of the world, and placed it under the administration of the Jesuits, in whom he reposed the most signal confidence. As the circumstances that led to the establishment of the Collegium Germanicum had not improved, he conferred on it more generous endowments, and united it later on with the college which he had founded for the Hungarians. Owing to the persecutions in England and Ireland and the suppression of institutions for the education of the clergy, Gregory XIII. founded an English College (1579) and provided funds for the erection of an Irish College. The money intended for this latter institution was spent in assisting the Irish in their wars against Elizabeth. In addition to this, more than twenty colleges situated in various parts of Europe, amongst them being the Scotch College at Pont-a-Mousson, owe their origin in whole or in part to his munificence. He was, also, very determined that none but the most worthy men should be appointed to episcopal sees, and with this object in view he took pains to inquire personally about the merits of distinguished ecclesiastics in each country, and to prepare lists of them for use as vacancies might arise. He was equally careful in the appointments which he made to the college of cardinals. In order to keep touch with the progress of affairs in Germany he established a nunciature at Vienna in 1581, and another at Cologne in the following year. The results of this experiment were so successful that in a short time nunciatures were established in nearly all the Catholic countries.

Like his predecessor he was determined to continue the war against the Turks, but the circumstances were unfavorable in France and in the Empire, while Venice and Spain, the former allies of the Holy See, concluded peace with the Sultan. In England and Ireland neither by peaceful measures nor by the expeditions fitted out by him in connection with the Desmond Rebellion was he able to achieve any lasting results. His legates succeeded in inducing John III. of Sweden to abjure heresy and to return to the bosom of the Catholic Church, but, unfortunately, the conversion lasted only until political circumstances demanded another change. In Russia his representatives arranged a peace with Poland, and put an end for the time to any active persecution of Catholicism within the Russian dominions. In all parts of Europe, where Catholic rulers found themselves in difficulties, subsidies were sent by Gregory XIII. to their assistance. Charles IX. in France, Philip II. of Spain, Austria, the Knights of Malta, and the Catholics of England and Ireland shared largely in his munificence.

He issued a new edition of the Roman Martyrology in 1584, and directed that it should be used to the exclusion of all others. His predecessor had appointed a committee of jurists to prepare a revised edition of the Decrees of Gratian. He had been a member of that commission, and as Pope he brought the work to a successful conclusion. But the achievement for which he will be best remembered is undoubtedly the Gregorian Calendar. The errors of the calendar had been noticed by many, but how to correct them and prevent them for the future was the problem that was still unsolved. Gregory XIII. appointed a body of experts to examine the subject, the most prominent of whom were the Jesuit Father Clavius and Cardinal Sirleto. The committee had the advantage of having before them the papers of the Italian scientist, Lilius, and the suggestions of the Catholic universities. In 1582 the Gregorian Calendar was published, and was accepted generally in all the Catholic countries of Europe. But for a long time the Protestant countries, believing that nothing good could come from Rome, remained attached to the old style. It was only in 1700 that the Gregorian Calendar was accepted in Germany and Holland, and at a still later period (1752) England consented to the change. The following year Sweden followed suit, and by 1775 the use of the new calendar had become general outside Russia and the other countries involved in the Eastern schism, in which the old style is followed till the present day.

The immense sums expended by Gregory XIII. in endowing colleges and subsidizing Catholic sovereigns proved too great a strain on the resources of the papal treasury. To raise funds the Pope was obliged to increase the taxes, to impose tariffs on imports and exports, to curtail the privileges of certain sections of his subjects, and to recall many of the fiefs granted to feudal proprietors. These measures led to grave discontent among all classes. Secret societies were formed, in which the dispossessed nobles encouraged their poorer followers to acts of violence. Robber bands led by some of the younger barons made their appearance in all parts of the Papal States, so that even in the very streets of Rome the lives of the papal officials were not secure. Gregory XIII. was too old to cope with such a serious situation. Before order could be restored he passed away leaving his successor a very difficult task.

After a conclave lasting only four days Cardinal Felice Peretti, better known as the Cardinal di Montalto, secured the required majority of votes, and ascended the papal throne under the name of Sixtus V. (1585-90). He belonged to a very poor family in Italy, had joined the Franciscans as a boy, and had risen from office to office till at last in 1570 he was created cardinal. At the time of his election he was practically unknown, partly because he was not a scion of one of the leading families of Italy, partly, also, because during the reign of Gregory XIII. with whom he was in disagreement he lived a retired life, devoting himself almost completely to the preparation of an edition of the works of St. Ambrose. Throughout the Catholic world the news of his elevation was received with joy. He was a man of strict life and tireless activity, more inclined to act than to speak, unwilling to burthen his spiritual or temporal subjects with new laws, but fully determined to enforce those already made, and almost unchangeable in his views once his decision had been given.

The restoration of order in the Papal States and the suppression of the robbers who terrorized peaceful citizens were the first work to which he directed his attention. Nor was it long till the severe and almost extreme measures he adopted, and in which he was supported by the Italian princes, produced their effect. The bankrupt condition of the papal treasury necessitated a close revision of the papal finances, and so well did Sixtus V. succeed in this respect that he was able to bequeath to his successor immense reserves. Though very careful about expenditure for his own uses or on the papal court he spent money freely on the erection and decoration of churches, and on the improvement of the city of Rome. He extended the Vatican Library, in connection with which he established a new printing-press, provided a good water supply (Acqua Felice), built the Lateran Palace, completed the Quirinal, restored the columns of Trajan and Antoninus, erected the obelisks of the Vatican, St. Mary Major, the Lateran and Santa Maria del Popolo, and built several new streets to beautify the city and to prevent congestion.

His administrative ability manifested itself in the establishment of various congregations, to each of which was committed some particular department of work in the administration of the Church and of the Papal States. Hitherto most of this work had been done by the auditores or the penitentiarii according as it belonged to the external or internal forum, or else in consistories of the cardinals. The idea of Sixtus V. was not entirely a novel one. The Congregation of the Index (1571) and the Holy Office (1588) had been established already, as also a commission to watch over the execution of the decrees of the Council of Trent (1564). By the Bull Immensa Aeterni Dei (11th Feb. 1588) Sixtus V. established fifteen different congregations, the most important of which were the Congregation of the Index, of the Inquisition, of the Signatura, of the Council of Trent, of Rites and Ceremonies, and of Bishops and Regulars. By means of these various bodies the work was done better and more expeditiously without impairing in the slightest the authority of the Pope. In 1586 he issued the Bull, Postquam verus by which he fixed the number of cardinals at seventy, namely, six cardinal-bishops, fifty cardinal-priests and fourteen cardinal-deacons. He had prepared and published a new edition of the Septuagint (1588) as a preparation for the revised edition of the Vulgate, which was brought out later, and was of so faulty a character that it was necessary to withdraw it from circulation.

Sixtus V. had great hopes of inducing the princes of Europe to form an alliance against the Turks, and, indeed, it was with a view to some such struggle that he laid aside such immense reserves, but his hopes were doomed to disappointment. In England no progress could be made, more especially as the defeat of the Spanish Armada served only to strengthen the throne of Elizabeth. The condition of affairs in France was calculated to cause the Pope great anxiety. The murder of the Catholic leaders and the alliance of Henry III. with the Calvinist King of Navarre compelled the Pope to espouse warmly the cause of Spain and the League. But towards the end of his reign Sixtus V. began to realize that Spain's intervention in favor of the League was not nearly so disinterested as it might seem, and that the aim of Spanish statesmen was the union of the two countries in one great empire, an event which, were it to come to pass, might be as dangerous for the Holy See as for the succession of Henry of Navarre. He was, therefore, more inclined to compromise than to fight.

After the death of Urban VII., Gregory XIV., and Innocent X., who followed one another in rapid succession, a large number of the cardinals, determined to put an end to the dominating influence of Spain, put forward as the candidate of their choice Cardinal Aldobrandini, whose election had been vetoed twice before by the Spanish representatives. Notwithstanding the opposition of Spain they succeeded in their effort, and Cardinal Aldobrandini was proclaimed under the title of Clement VIII. (1592-1605). The character of the new Pope both as a man and an ecclesiastic was beyond the shadow of reproach. He was the special disciple and friend of St. Philip Neri who acted as his confessor for thirty years. As Pope his choice of a confessor fell upon the learned and saintly Baronius whom he insisted upon creating cardinal. His activity and zeal were manifested soon in the visitation which he undertook of the churches and institutions of Rome, and during the course of which he suppressed many abuses.

The situation in France was sufficiently delicate. Henry IV. was beginning to recognize that notwithstanding his victories he could never reign as a Calvinist over a united France. Clement VIII. was very decidedly in favor of a solution that would put an end to the war and would prevent France from degenerating into a Spanish province. Hence as soon as the conversion of Henry IV. was proved to be genuine the Pope acknowledged his title as king of France, and exhorted French Catholics to receive him as their ruler. Such a course of action was of necessity displeasing to Spain, but a few years later the Pope had the happiness of putting an end to the struggle between these two countries. During his term of office Clement VIII. founded at Rome a national college for providing priests for the mission in Scotland, issued a revised edition of the Vulgate (1598), of the Breviary, the Missal, the Ceremonial and the Pontifical, and instituted the Congregatio de Auxilis to investigate the matters in dispute between the Thomists and the Molinists. He presided personally at many of its sessions though he never issued a definite sentence. It was also during his reign that the infamous ex-monk Giordano Bruno was condemned by the Inquisition, handed over to the secular power, and burned at the stake (17th Feb. 1600). In his youth Giordano joined the Dominicans, from which order he fled because definite charges of heresy, the truth of which he could not deny, were brought against him. Later on he was excommunicated by the Calvinists of Geneva and the Lutherans of Germany, and refused permission to lecture by the professors of Oxford when he visited that seat of learning. Many of his writings are strongly anti-Christian, and some of them thoroughly indecent. He was condemned to die solely on account of his denial of the Divinity of Christ and other heretical views and not, as is said by some, because he defended the Copernican system.

Leo XI. succeeded, but survived his election less than a month. The choice of the conclave then fell upon Cardinal Borghese who took as his title Paul V. (1605-21). He had been a distinguished law student of Bologna and Padua, a papal legate in Spain, and under Clement VIII. cardinal-vicar of Rome. He was a man of great energy and zealous for the promotion of religion. During his reign he canonized St. Charles Borromeo and issued a decree of beatification in favor of Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Philip Neri, provided generous subsidies for the advancement of the missions, endeavored to bring about a re- nion with some of the separated religious bodies of the East, and spent money freely on the decoration of the Roman churches, notably St. Peter's, which he had the honor of completing. Like his predecessors he was desirous of continuing the war against the Turks, but the state of affairs in western Europe rendered such a scheme impossible of realization. With France and Spain he preserved friendly relations, tried to put an end to the rivalries that weakened the House of Habsburg and the Catholic cause in the Empire, and dispatched supplies of both men and money to the assistance of Ferdinand II. in his struggle with the Protestants. He wrote to James I. of England (1606) congratulating him on his accession and his escape from death and asking for toleration of the Catholic religion, in return for which he promised to induce the Catholics to submit to all things not opposed to the law of God. The reply of the king to this overture was the well-known Oath of Allegiance, that led to such ugly controversies among the Catholic body.

As an earnest student of canon law Paul V. was too inclined to maintain all the rights and privileges of the Church as they were expounded in the decretals of the Middle Ages. This attitude of mind brought him into a prolonged and inglorious conflict with the republic of Venice. This latter state, regardless of the privilegium fori imprisoned two clerics without reference to the ecclesiastical authorities, and about the same time gave great offence by passing laws rendering it difficult for the Church to acquire ownership of landed property, to build new churches or monasteries, or to found new religious orders or societies. Paul V. lodged a solemn protest against these innovations. When his demands were not complied with he issued a sentence of excommunication against the Doge, Senate, and Government, and later on he placed Venice under interdict (1606). The quarrel was so bitter that at one time it was feared that it might end in separating the republic from the centre of unity. Cardinals Baronius and Bellarmine entered the lists in defense of the Pope, while the notorious ex-Servite, Paul Sarpi (1552-1623), undertook to reply to them on behalf of Venice. The government forbade the promulgation of the interdict, and threatened the most severe punishment against all clergy who should observe it. With the exception of the Jesuits, Capuchins, and Theatines who were expelled, the clergy both secular and regular took no notice of the interdict. It was feared that in the end the issues could be decided only by war in which Spain was prepared to support the Pope, but through the friendly intervention of Henry IV. of France peace was concluded without any very decisive victory on either side (1607). The clergy who were expelled for obeying the interdict were allowed to return except the Jesuits. These latter were permitted to settle in Venice again only in 1657.

On the death of Paul V. Cardinal Ludovisi ascended the papal throne under the title of Gregory XV. (1621-23). The new Pope had been educated by the Jesuits, and had risen rapidly in the service of the Church. At the time of his election he was old and infirm, but by the appointment of his nephew Ludovico to the college of cardinals he secured for himself an able and loyal assistant. To put an end to several abuses that had taken place in connection with papal elections he published the Bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem (1622), in which were laid down minute regulations about conclaves, the most important of which were that the cardinals should vote secretly, that they should vote only for one candidate, and that no elector should vote for himself. In providing funds for the assistance of the Catholic missions Gregory XV. was very generous as was also his cardinal-nephew. The success of the missionaries had been so great, and the conditions of the various countries in which they labored so different, that proper supervision of the new provinces of the Church was by no means easy. Gregory XIII. and Clement VIII. had appointed commissions to look after the spiritual wants of particular districts, but it was reserved for Gregory XV. to establish a permanent congregation, De Propaganda Fide (Bull, Inscrutabili, 1622) to superintend the entire field of Catholic missions. He had the honor, too, of canonizing St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Philip Neri, and of approving the foundation of several new religious orders.

During the Thirty Years' War he afforded every possible assistance to Ferdinand II., and helped to secure the Palatinate for Maximilian of Bavaria on the expulsion of Frederick. In return for this favor Maximilian presented the Pope with a goodly portion of the library of Heidelberg. By the judicious interposition of Gregory XV. war was averted between Spain and Austria on the one side and France, Venice, and Savoy on the other regarding the possession of the Valtelline, while in England, though the Spanish Match which he favored was broken off, he succeeded in securing some respite for the persecuted Catholics.

In the conclave that followed upon the death of Gregory XV. Cardinal Barberini received the support of the electors and was proclaimed Pope as Urban VIII. (1623-44). The new Pope was a man of exemplary life whose greatest fault was his excessive partiality towards his relatives, though it must be said that some of the relatives on whom he bestowed favors were by no means unworthy of them. As a native of Florence he seems to have caught up something of the spirit of classical learning for which that city had been so renowned, as was shown unfortunately too clearly in the Breviary that he published in 1632. He issued the Bull, In Coena Domini in its final form, founded a national college in Rome for students from Ireland, and issued a series of strict and minute regulations on canonization and beatification, many of which remain in force till the present time. The interests of the foreign missions were specially dear to the heart of Urban VIII. To provide a supply of priests for them he established the celebrated Collegium Urbanum (1627), and established there a printing-press for the use of the missionaries. He reduced the number of holidays of obligation, opened China and Japan, till then reserved for the Jesuits, to all missionaries, and forbade slavery of whatsoever kind in Paraguay, Brazil and the West Indies.

For many reasons the political policy of Urban VIII. has been criticized very severely. Too much money was wasted by him in fortifying the Papal States and on the disastrous war with the Duke of Parma (1641-44). He has been blamed also for his failure to support Ferdinand II. more energetically during the Thirty Years' War, but in reality this hostile view is based largely on a distorted view of the war itself and of the policy of the Pope. It is not true that the Pope sympathized with Gustavus Adolphus or that he grieved over his death. Neither is it true that he procured the dismissal of Wallenstein from the imperial service. It is a fact undoubtedly that he did not take energetic measures to prevent the French from assisting the Protestant princes and the Swedes against the Emperor, but it remains to be proved that any remonstrances from the Pope, however strong, would have proved effectual in the circumstances. In the later stages at any rate the war could not be regarded at first sight as a religious one, but at the same time it is to be regretted that Urban VIII. did not recognize that the triumph of the enemies of the Emperor meant a triumph for Lutheranism. In the war between Spain and Portugal consequent upon the proclamation of the Duke of Braganza he endeavored to preserve an attitude of neutrality by refusing to appoint to episcopal sees in Portugal the candidates presented by the new king. The policy of Urban VIII. in regard to England and Ireland will be dealt with under these countries.

When the conclave met to elect a successor to Urban VIII. it was soon discovered that some of the cardinals wished to elect a Pope friendly to Spain, wile others favored a pro-French Pope. At length, as neither party was sufficiently strong to ensure the required majority for its nominee, a more or less neutral candidate was found in the person of Cardinal Pamfili who took the title of Innocent X. (1644-55). He was a man of advanced years, who had served in many offices with success, and who possessed many of the qualifications required in a good ruler of the Church. Unfortunately, his flagrant nepotism did him much harm and gave occasion to ugly rumors utterly devoid of truth. Finding the papal treasury empty after his election and believing that the relatives of the late Pope were responsible for this, he took steps to secure a return from them; but they fled to France, where they placed themselves under the protection of Cardinal Mazarin, who succeeded in bringing about a reconciliation. Innocent X. restored order in the Papal States, punished the Duke of Parma for his crimes, especially for his supposed connection with the murder of the Bishop of Castro, and maintained friendly relations with Venice, which he assisted against the Turks. He was deeply pained by the terms of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) against which his representatives had protested in vain, and which he condemned in the Bull Zelus Domus Dei, published in November 1648.
 

 


 

 

Original text by James MacCaffrey, edited and revised by William Mackis - this text 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


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Reforming Activity of the Popes