Thoughts on Christian Unity 500 Years After the Reformation

Let us rely on Our Lady of the Rosary to draw us closer to her Son and to unity among all Christians.

St. Peter at the Vatican (Pixabay)
St. Peter at the Vatican (Pixabay) (photo: Screenshot)

As we approach Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, this is the second installment – of three total – of my reflections on Christian unity five hundred years after the Reformation. You can read my first installment here

Let’s talk about the papacy and the Counter-Reformation.

As a high school theology teacher, one of my favorite exercises is to show my students the list of popes provided by New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia. Each linked entry is replete with biographical information, and can lead you to a far deeper understanding of the extent of the papacy (and, for the [fortunately] authentic theological nerds, if you have a few hours, you can discover an entirely new level of trivia).

The starting point for discussing the papacy is found in Jesus’ words to the disciple Peter, our first pope: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). From Peter to Francis, the Church has shown great respect for the role of the pope in serving as the focal point of unity for the global Church. At the same time, contrary to perceptions, we Catholics do not hold the pope to be the Church’s “leader” per se, since that title belongs to Christ alone: “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

Of the hundreds of popes from Peter to Francis, there are the proverbial good, bad, and ugly. However, fortunately for the Church and for humanity by extension, the good popes easily outpace and eclipse the bad: ninety-five have been canonized, beatified, or are in some stage thereof. There is no shortage of “good” popes. It is not simply because I was recently received into the Order of Saint Dominic as a Lay Dominican that I now focus for a moment on one: Saint Pius V [O.P.] (1504-1572, and served as pope 1566-1572). The current or aspiring Church historian will readily note that Pius V is the only pope who is either a Saint or a Blessed over the course of nearly three hundred years, between Blessed Urban V (pope 1362-1370) and Blessed Innocent XI (pope 1676-1689). He was a “light of the world” (see Matthew 5:14) when the Church needed one greatly. When we look at the relatively brief (nearly six and a half years) pontificate of Pius V, we see his multiple contributions. In fact, it is advisable that the faithful of our times acquire a certain knowledge of, and devotion to, this holy figure.

Pius V is easily regarded as the foremost figure of the Counter-Reformation, which addressed not only how various of the Church’s initiatives leading up to the Reformation of 1517 were misinterpreted (and have frequently been misanalysed since), but likewise how the Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation necessitated a revision of some pastoral approaches in order to ensure that such a rupture does not occur again. It is worth noting, for instance, that two now-prominent Saints of the era – Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola – undertook semblances of reforms (emphasis on the lowercase “r”) that significantly strengthened the Church without leading to an internal fissure. Yet, this is a digression. Regarding Pius V specifically, we count his contributions – including prior to becoming pope, but particularly afterwards – among the most impressive of his era: a literal shepherd as an adolescent (perhaps giving him an insight into the later role that he would fill); a leader among his fellow Dominican friars; a professor of philosophy and theology; publisher of the Roman Catechism; editor of the Roman Breviary and the Roman Missal; popularizer of the Rosary and subsequent victorious head of the opposition to the Turks at Lepanto; spokesperson for the Catholic faith in numerous regards. Yet, what does this have to do with Christian unity in the midst of 500 years since the start of the Reformation?

Although much of the 16th century was marked with tragic rancor between Catholicism and nascent Protestantism, it is vital to recall that it is possible in the 21st century to foster and maintain dialogue and peaceful accord without inquisitorial predispositions. Catholics must recall the contributions of other holy figures from the era of the Counter-Reformation, in addition to the three already mentioned: Saint Charles Borromeo, Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Jane de Chantal, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Louise de Marillac, Saint Peter Canisius, Saint Robert Bellarmine and Saint Vincent de Paul, among others. Each one of these holy men and women used their devotions to serve humbly and nobly, attempting to promote unity, even when it was not ultimately achieved.

Saint Pius V’s popular devotion to the Rosary (which, as a Dominican, he was very familiar with, since Saint Dominic was inspired to formalize the Rosary via the encouragement of Mary) was a blessing to the Church, both before and after Lepanto. Pius V’s role as pope, in light of the Rosary, draws us to our final consideration here: that it is through meditating upon the key moments of the Gospels – via the four sets of the Mysteries of the Rosary – that we allow the Blessed Virgin Mary to take us on a tour of the life of her Divine Son. Let us rely on Our Lady to draw us closer to her Son and to unity among all Christians. Many Catholics have deepened their faith, and many converts to Catholicism from other Christian groups, and even non-Christian religions, have come to know Christ better through devoting themselves to daily recitation of the Rosary. An objective and useful guide is this free resource from the USCCB: “How to Pray the Rosary.”

The next piece, which is the third and final installment of this three-part series of reflections leading up to five hundred years since the Reformation, will address how Mary, who was chosen by God to bring the Lord Jesus Christ into the world, is subsequently the Mother of all Christians.