By the time the Catholic Council of Trent began to wind down its deliberations and adjourn in 1563, its bishops endorsed an overhaul of sacred worship to be undertaken by the pope. This overhaul was disciplinary, not doctrinal. Nothing of the essence of the sacraments was changed. All the same, the practices and denunciations of Catholic worship from Protestant voices prompted the Church to look at its present-day worship in a new light. The overarching goals of Church reform were unity (in the face of a fractured European religious landscape) and centralized authority—that the control of worldwide Catholicism in its worship and devotion would be carefully scrutinized and legitimized by Rome.
It is rather amazing, looking back today, on the lack of centralization in Catholic worship and life. For starters, there was no “big red book,” the large prayer book that sits on the altar of your parish church at every Mass with the official prayers of the Mass for that day. The red book is officially called the Roman Missal, and appropriately so, for it is a descendant of the Missal of Pope Pius V after the Council of Trent. Pius V’s Missal is also known as the “Tridentine Mass” (from the Council of Trent) and a fair number of Catholics hold that Pius V’s text should remain in place even today, arguing that the Mass of Vatican II (1970) is rife with serious errors.
Although difficult for us to imagine today, by the time of the Reformation it seems that every diocese, religious community, and locale had its own formula for Mass. The essentials were generally observed, most notably the formula of the priest in consecrating the host, “hoc est corpus meum” or “this is my body.” [The slang term for magic, “hocus pocus,” is derived from this consecration phrase by detractors of the Church.] But each entity of the Church had its own way of celebrating Mass, and given the limitations of travel at the time, each locale’s sacramental rites would become imbedded over time in a particular matrix of favorite saints and devotions, not to mention shrines and cathedrals. There was little control of the liturgical calendar; one of the reforms of the Missal of Pius X was limiting the number of saints’ observances to about 160 per year. The major liturgical seasons would get lost in the flurry of local observances.
A unity of worship was a sign of cohesive belief among Catholics, an effective rebuttal to the disunion among the various streams and stages of the Reformational church communities. Another very effective “sign” in reforming the Catholic Church in the face of attack was emphasis upon the very things that Protestant reformers had attacked. For example, Luther and Calvin were in general agreement that man, by his efforts, could not win salvation. So the Catholic Church—by the power of the new printing presses and the act of canonization—put considerable emphasis upon publicizing the great men and women of the age whose lives of courage and charity indeed won for them a place in heaven. There was no shortage of such men and women—from Teresa of Avila to Ignatius Loyola to Francis de Sales. The seventeenth century thus became the golden age of the Lives of the Saints.
Given that there had been excesses in the cult of saints, Rome exercised considerable care and vetting into the historical and spiritual candidates for sainthood. In fact, after the Council of Trent the Inquisition gradually converted into the Holy Office, one of the significant Vatican bodies in the pope’s cabinet, so to speak. Employing the tools of the Renaissance historians, the Holy Office, to the best of its power, attempted to separate the historical from the hysterical. An interesting example of this is the case of a religious sister companion of St. Teresa of Avila, who claimed that the Blessed Mother had appeared to her on many occasions and had dictated her autobiography. The good sister was never canonized. The canonization process was strict, calling forth numerous witnesses and demanding proof of miracles, a protocol that is still in place today.
Another “sign” or optic of the time was the emergence of religious devotions in a sort of contradiction to Protestant attack. Often these new devotions were inflamed by the unique mystical experience of a particular individual. Perhaps the most famous example is St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the visionary who experienced visions of Jesus in the persona of his suffering heart. This is the origin of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, a title very closely related to the Eucharistic Presence. It is from St. Margaret that the novena of First Friday Communions survives today. Similar new devotions to the Holy Eucharist and the Virgin Mary developed in the years after Trent, though the Church was cautious to examine any claim to mystical visions for the orthodoxy and content of the message.
In a very real sense the post-Reformation Catholic Church brought unity and reform to the sacramental rites, and a much needed oversight to local excesses and aberrations. That said, the new denominational challenges brought a fresh piety and energy to the Church. In this sense, the entire Church as “sacramental sign” took up new color.