The Catholic Reformation and Missionary Movement

Jesus Christ Savior | “You should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” I Timothy 3:15

The Catholic Church reformed itself both through the positive work of renewal and through the impetus of the Protestant Reformation. Efforts at reform had already begun with the Oratory of Divine Love in Genoa in 1497. The strict order of the Theatines was founded in 1524 and made significant efforts at the reform of the parish clergy. The Capuchins were founded in Italy in 1528 to restore the Franciscan Order to its original ideals. St. Ignatius of Loyola began the Jesuit Order in 1534. Spiritual enrichment was kindled through the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

The major thrust at reform was the Council of Trent, begun by Pope Paul III in December 1545. The Council of Trent marked an important turning point for the Catholic Church, for it provided clarity on the beliefs of the Church, and ecclesiastical discipline was restored. Pope Pius IV, co-founder of the Theatines, confirmed the Decrees of the Council of Trent in January 1564. The doctrines established at Trent persist to this day.

The Council addressed three areas: doctrine, discipline, and devotion. Seven major areas were included in doctrine: that our justification was not just by faith alone, but also by hope and charity expressed in good works in cooperation with God’s grace. Both Tradition and Scripture were essential to the faith. The Latin Vulgate Bible was promoted as the only canonical Scripture. There was a clear definition of the seven sacraments. The Mass as a Memorial of the one Sacrifice of Christ was confirmed, and the Council reaffirmed Transubstantiation. The Mass, known as the Tridentine Mass, was given strict form and was celebrated only in Latin. The Latin Tridentine Mass provided unity for the universal Church, for it was the same Mass in every place and time. Discipline involved strict reform and the establishment of the seminary system for the proper and uniform training of priests. The office of indulgence seller was abolished, and doctrine on indulgences was clarified. A Bishop was allowed only one diocese and residence was required, begun by the reformer St. Charles Borromeo of Milan.

The Catholic Reformation coincided with the wave of exploration to the New World and the Far East. Catholic Missionaries accompanied the explorers on their journeys, such as Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Portuguese Vasco da Gama to Goa, India in 1498, and Ferdinand Magellan to the Philippines in 1521.

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) exemplified the missionary movement, and has been recognized as second only to the Apostle Paul in his evangelical efforts. The patron saint of missionaries, Francis Xavier sailed from Lisbon, Portugal and landed in Goa in 1542. His humble way had great impact on the local people, and he trained the young in the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. He was soon reported to have baptized 10,000 a month. He then headed to Cape Comorin, the southern tip of India, where he made many conversions of the fishermen there. Further travels took Francis Xavier to Malacca in Malaysia in 1545 and then to Japan in 1549.

Fr. Andres de Urdaneta and the Augustinian monks sailed to Cebu, Philippines in 1565. Upon discovery of Santo Nino (the Image of the Infant Jesus left by Magellan), they began the conversion of the Philippines to Catholicism.

The Missionary Franciscan Toribio de Benavente arrived in Mexico in 1524. He was a self-sacrificing man dedicated to protecting the natives, and received the name Motolinia for his life of poverty. He recorded in his book History of the Indians of New Spain the dramatic conversions following the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Dominican Bartholomew de Las Casas first went to the West Indies in 1502 as a soldier, but on viewing the horrendous enslavement of the native Indians through the Spanish encomienda system, was ordained as a Dominican priest in 1523, the first ordination in America. In his role as human rights advocate for the Indians, he is considered an early pioneer of social justice.

The Jesuits were also noted for early missionary efforts to North America, such as Father Andrew White, who accompanied the Calverts to Maryland in 1634, Isaac Jogues to Quebec in 1636, and Jacques Marquette to Michigan in 1668. Missionary efforts would continue to the New World for years to come.

Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.