10 Other Reformers Who Helped Stem the Tide of Protestantism
Here are 10 canonized men and women of the 16th century who fought back for the Church
I recently picked up a book entitled True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (2006, Augustine Institute) by Jerome K. Williams. The title refers, of course, to those self-styled “False Reformers” who were really nothing more than heretics (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et al.) and the subtitle, naturally, is a lead-in to a list of the canonized men and women of the 16th century who fought back for the Church. All those you’d expect to find are there: St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Thomas More, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Pius V, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Francis de Sales. So far, so good.
The book is indeed worth reading, but since any author (and editor) must make cuts (unless they are writing in the infinite real estate of the internet), a text can only contain a finite number of people (and pages). Which made me think: what of those other saints who stemmed the tide of Protestantism and the Wars of Religion but didn’t make it into Williams’s otherwise excellent book? Namely:
1. St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. (1542-1621): A Cardinal and Doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine took all and every argument of the Protestants (whom he always called “The Heretics”) and demolished their agenda in a colossal collection of his sermons and writings known as Controversies of the Christian Faith, recently translated into English by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. and reviewed here. St. Robert Bellarmine was a star by any standard and a constant thorn in the sides of the collective heretics—so much so that Anglican courses were taught at Oxford and Cambridge on how to argue against Cardinal Bellarmine!
2. St. Peter Canisius, S.J. (1521-1597): Known as “The Second Apostle To Germany” (St. Boniface was the first), St. Peter Canisius had the delicate and unenviable task of marching right back into the maelstrom of the “Protestant Reformation”—and recapturing as much of the Germanic lands as possible. Hand-picked by St. Ignatius Loyola for the job, St. Peter traveled from Vienna to Prague, Augsburg to Innsbruck, Ingolstadt to Freiburg in an attempt—and here he differed from his Jesuit confrere and polymath St. Robert Bellarmine—to reach compromises with the Lutherans. However, he soon found this approach useless (it’s difficult to reason with heretical zealots), and concentrated instead on better education for the schools, colleges and seminaries he founded, or in the case of the University of Freiburg, co-founded. Finding the pen mightier than the sword, he composed no less than three Catechisms. Like St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Peter Canisius, too, is a Doctor of the Church.
3. St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria, C.R.S.P. (1502-1539): In Italy he was simply known as “THE Reformer” and though he died young (at age 37), St. Anthony Mary made the most of his brief time. Originally he studied to be a physician in Cremona, but came to realize that what people of that parlous time needed was a physician of souls. Filled with “The Light of Christ and The Lightning of St. Paul,” St. Anthony Mary founded the Clerks Regular of St. Paul (aka “The Barnabites”), the Angelic Sisters, and in an important outreach to the laity, a Barnabite lay movement for married couples. Stationed in Milan, he traveled Italy admonishing the clergy, checking abuses of clericalism, and shoring up and educating the laity. He died all too soon, exhausted by his intense labors for the survival and revival of the Faith in Italy.
4. St. John of Avila (1500-1569): Another glory of the Church from Spain, John of Avila was in his day a huge and ongoing influence on nearly everyone who was serious about getting the Catholic Church back on track. He was friends with a clutch of Carmelites (Sts. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila), a couple of Jesuits (Sts. Ignatius Loyola and Francis Borgia), and the famous Franciscan, Peter of Alcantara, and the founder of Order of Hospitalers, St. John of God—all of whom sought his wise counsel. It is due in no small part to St. John of Avila that Catholicism was cemented in the Iberian peninsula and was never seriously threatened by “the Reformation.”
5. St. John Fischer (1469-1535): His more famous co-martyr, St. Thomas More, usually gets the credit of standing up to King Henry VIII, but St. John Fischer, who was killed along with St. Thomas, deserves more than passing mention. While St. Thomas represented the laity of England (albeit the aristocracy), St. John Fischer, as the Bishop of Rochester, was the official face and voice of the Catholic Church in England versus King Henry VIII. Like St. Thomas More, he was true till the end and shares his feast day with his friend.
6. St. Jane Frances de Chantal (1562-1641): Founder of the Order of the Visitation nuns, St. Jane Frances (whom you can read more about here) if nothing else did one incredibly important thing: she implored St. Frances de Sales to publish his writings (which he did, and in doing so helped the Bishop of Geneva win back parts of Switzerland). But the reason she was so instrumental in the fight against heresy is that she took her nuns out of the cloister and, literally, out into the streets ministering to the sick, the poor and the marginalized. No one who saw such active works of Mercy could deny that the Church was doing Christ’s work here on earth. After the death of her husband, then her spiritual director (St. Francis de Sales), St. Jane Frances was allied with St. Vincent de Paul (more on him below).
7. St. Joseph Calasanz, Sch.P. (1556-1648): St. Joseph’s first mission in life was to revive religion and reform the clergy by the Bishop of Urgel, Spain. He did such a phenomenal job that he was appointed Vicar General of that diocese. However, he resigned to travel to Rome where he designed a plan for free schools for the neediest of children—and while he was at it, busied himself by fighting the plague which was ravishing Rome at the time. His was an effulgent witness to the faith by taking Christ’s words to heart, “and he that receiveth one such child in My Name receiveth me.” Reinvigorated Catholic education by founding the Piarist Fathers — despite the raging Wars of Religion. St. Joseph was proof that the Catholic Church was, regardless of what Luther, Zwingli and Calvin said — was concerned with not only saving souls, but cultivating minds, especially young (and needy) ones.
8. Ven. Louis of Granada (1504-1588): One of the most underrated but important Churchmen of the 16th century. But don’t take my word for it. Of him St. Theresa of Avila said, “A man given to the world by God for the great and universal good of souls.” St. Charles Borromeo—a Cardinal busy combating Luther, Zwingli et al.—said of Louis’s book The Sinner’s Guide: “Of all those who up to our time have written on spiritual matters… no one has written books… of greater selection and profit than Louis of Granada.” A Spanish Dominican, Venerable Louis wrote and preached for and to the common men and women of his day. His ascetic lifestyle (he successfully declined a couple of bishoprics and a Cardinal’s hat), combined with his ability to practiced what he preached radiated out from Spain to the rest of Christendom, which was then in the throes of attack from heresiarchs. Pope Gregory wrote to him saying, “Your sermons and writings, filled with sublime doctrine and practical piety, are unceasingly drawing souls to God.” This is just as true today as it was during the Counter-Reformation.
9. St. Camillus de Lellis, M.I. (May 1550 – July 14 1614): He was an soldier and an inveterate gambler who lost literally, everything. He suffered from a leg wound that so noisome and awful he was turned out of a hospital. However, St. Camillus turned his life around (he had in the meantime taken St. Philip Neri as his spiritual director) and started The Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (now simply called “The Camillians” and founded hospital after hospital ministering to any and all sick people—while refusing to have his leg mended. He was a huge man—over 6-1/2 feet tall—but emanated humility in all his ministrations. No one—Protestant or otherwise—could argue with his work among the sick.
10. St. Vincent de Paul, C.M. (1580-1660): The man who, gently, put the fork in the back of the “reformation.” However, Monsieur Vincent (as he was known), founder of The Congregation of the Mission, did all and everything with charity and God’s grace. He helped France keep the Huguenots (the painful Protestant minority) in check, but more importantly established a Missionary Congregation whose focus was on serving the poor, the sick, the needy and most especially, children. A friend and contemporary of many other late-Counter-Reformation saints (especially St. Jane Frances de Chantal), St. Vincent showed by his example to the weakest among us how Christians should act: with kindness, and charity—and not by razing churches and murdering those who remained true to the One Catholic and Apostolic faith.