When we last tended to business on this stream two weeks ago, I put forward the rudiments of how the various Protestant movements—the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist—celebrated sacraments or sacred signs. At the risk of a very broad generalization, the common thread was minimalism. Believing that Catholics were too enamored with bells and whistles--from indulgences to crucifixes to feast days to complex rituals—the general sacramental sign of Protestant worship was simplicity to the point of austerity. A number of denominations held out for two sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist—on the argument that biblically speaking Jesus had only instituted these two in the Gospel. Nor did Protestants and Catholics believe the same things about even these two sacraments. For example, Roman Catholics maintained belief in Transubstantiation: that the bread and wine was truly changed into the actual body and blood of Christ; other denominations—those that maintained communion at all—put forth other explanations for observing the worship meal, such as fellowship or recalling Christ’s command.
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.
When the Council of Trent ended in 1565, the Catholic Church had tightened its discipline on the proper celebration of sacraments, and it clarified sacramental theology with a series of universal teachings on the meaning and celebration of sacraments that would be incorporated into its official books, such as the Roman Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, the official Mass Missal and sacramental rites, and the manuals for confessors. By contrast, although we use the word “Protestant” as a generic, Protestantism was no monolith. Martin Luther’s goal was a reform of the Catholic Church, radical as his proposals might be. He maintained belief in Transubstantiation, i.e., the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass.
Successive waves of the Reformation produced John Calvin, who held that God had predestined individuals for salvation or damnation in advance; while preaching from the Gospel was frequent and church attendance mandatory, and carefully scrutinized by religious elders, Calvin’s thought had no room for a complicated sacramental theology, since the issue of salvation was already resolved in the mind of God. Calvin, incidentally, held the belief that good works and worthy personal conduct were signs that an individual was likely one of the “elect,” who numbered 144,000 in Calvinist theology in an obvious reference to Biblical writing.
The third wave came to be called the Anabaptists. Both the history and modern day scholarship about this diverse movement are too complicated to describe here, but in actuality it can be said that the Anabaptists rejected outside church authority, either by a clergyman or a king. Very strict fundamental readers of the Bible, the Anabaptists could find no evidence for infant baptism, and thus denied the validity of such baptisms. Only mature adults could become candidates for baptism. The name Anabaptist translates roughly into “baptized again,” since their converts had been previously baptized in infancy in both Roman Catholic and the other Protestant churches.
There is a significant school of thought in multiple disciplines that the Anabaptist movement made a major contribution to the development of Western thought, particularly in the United States. Anabaptist responsibility for baptism rested upon the belief of the individual, without coercion of church (Catholic, Lutheran) or state (Calvinist or Reformed.) This is a true religious freedom of conscience, or at least the first time the idea was formulated in a potent fashion.
Anabaptists were severely persecuted later in both Protestant and Catholic countries as religious and civil threats to order and discipline. It is no surprise that many sought refuge in North America. Though limited in number—the Amish and the Mennonites are direct descendants—the idea of freedom from church interference in making critical personal religious determination would eventually morph into the question of the potency and necessity of religions in general, and then to the evolution of the “secular citizen” and the secular state. This trend of thinking was adopted by the Colonial Fathers in writing our seminal documents in the late 1700’s. The United States was founded without an established religion and on the principle of personal conscience and determination—in contrast to other major countries like Catholic France or Anglican England.
Getting back to the specific matter of sacraments and worship, the divisions between religious groups and their sacraments was much more nuanced than I just made it sound. Anabaptists certainly worshipped differently from, say, Roman Catholics, but in much of Europe clear cut differences between the churches on worship and practice was not always evident. England is a familiar example: Henry VIII was an ostensibly practicing Catholic. As I seem to recall, he went to Mass on weekdays when he hunted, for there was a strong popular belief that death would not befall someone who gazed upon a newly consecrated host on that day. Henry’s flash point, so to speak, involved the Sacrament of Marriage, but for multiple reasons, the foremost being his failure to conceive a son (and successor to his throne) with his valid wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Henry petitioned Rome for an annulment; Rome was reluctant to grant it in view of the fact that Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a powerful ally supportive of the papacy. Henry then announced that he, and not the pope, would be the final arbiter of matters religious in England, and a majority of English bishops did his bidding (except the famous martyred bishop, St. John Fischer.) This evolution of events began a century of contention and bloodshed over English religion that produced such characters as “Bloody Mary” and Oliver Cromwell.
It is hard to say what Henry VIII intended his Church of England to look like liturgically, or whether he even gave it much thought. What we can say is that having broken from Rome, there was significant disagreement among bishops and laymen about the style of worship that continues, I believe, to the present day. One block favors retention of most of the Roman Catholic rites, a style called “high church” because of its pageantry. Another block favored the turn to worship austerity similar to the practice of Calvin and his Reformed movement in Geneva, Switzerland. At some point in my first years of priesthood I was invited to preach at the local Episcopal cathedral during the Sunday Mass for some occasion that escapes me now. Anglican-Episcopal Cathedrals are high church in design and liturgy, and I felt like I was being carried back to the 1950’s high church style of the post-Tridentine Catholic Mass.
Reformers from Luther forward would be surprised at the depth of popular affection and attachment to Catholic practices where Protestant leadership and worship were in the ascendancy. People loved their churches whatever their other religious dispositions might be. Sadly, there were countless episodes—some spontaneous, some sponsored by religious leaders and civil authorities—of iconoclasm, the smashing and destruction of statues, pictures, sacred vessels, vestments, and any other vestige of Catholic sacraments. The historian Carlos N.E. Eire reports that during one such incident of mob violence, children were heard to cry out “no more baked God.” [The reference is to Real Presence in the Eucharist.]
Sacramental theology in the century or so after the Reformation was indeed a dangerous business.