The Saints of 1622: Holy People Have Holy Companions
COMMENTARY: Jesus founded a Church — an ecclesia, an assembly — so that we would not be disciples alone.
The greatest canonization in history took place 400 years ago on March 12,1622, with Pope Gregory XV recognizing at the same time the holiness of Isidore the Farmer (ca. 1070-1130), Francis Xavier (1506-1552), Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Philip Neri (1515-1595).
The latter four were towering figures of the Catholic Reformation of the 16th century following the division of the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
The saints of the Catholic Reformation (often called the Counter-Reformation) are not limited to the saints of 1622. To those we would add other towering figures, such as Francis de Sales (who died in 1622), Jane Frances de Chantal, Robert Bellarmine and Charles Borromeo.
Saints usually come in bunches; holy people usually have holy companions. That’s the way it should be. Jesus founded a Church — an ecclesia, an assembly — so that we would not be disciples alone.
Think of last year in Poland, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the heroic Adam Sapieha being made a cardinal, Blessed Stefan Wyszynski being consecrated a bishop, and St. John Paul II being ordained a priest; 1946 was a good year. Sapieha was the young Karol Wojtyla’s model and inspiration; later, as an archbishop, Wojtyla would form a formidable partnership with the Primate of the Millennium, Blessed Stefan.
We saw something of that in the 16th century. Teresa of Avila had a profound spiritual friendship with John of the Cross. It was a fascinating collaboration; John was Teresa’s spiritual director, but in leading the reform of the Carmelites, it was Teresa who took the lead.
It was as college roommates that Francis and Ignatius met. Francis was rooming with Peter Faber and had goals of a rather worldly sort. The much older Ignatius then joined their little household and began to share with them his spiritual wisdom. That changed the direction of both Francis and Peter’s lives. Both are canonized saints, a magnificent model for how friends help friends become holy.
That said, being a saint does not mean agreeing with other saints. Christians know that well; it is part of the revealed word of God. Moses and Aaron were in conflict at times, and, more famously, Paul “opposed Peter to his face” (Galatians 2). Still, many are surprised when more recent saints are in conflict with each other.
Peter and Paul were the first apostles of Rome. Philip Neri came to be known as the a second “Apostle of Rome,” and he too knew holy conflict. Ignatius lived just a short walk up the street from Philip in Rome, but they followed very different paths.
Ignatius, the former soldier, founded an elite battle corps of Catholic priests. He found the light-hearted picnics and pilgrimages of Philip Neri to be at least frivolous, if not foolish. Philip, the second Apostle of Rome, was wiser. The deep and seductive corruptions of Rome would not be conquered by force, but converted by, as St. John Henry Newman called Philip, “cheerful in penance, and in precept winning.” Ignatius had his company of Jesus; Philip offered a convivium.
A more severe figure was that of Pope Pius V, one of the great Catholic Reformation figures, known for being the first head of the Inquisition (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), promulgating the Tridentine Mass, the Roman catechism, excommunicating Queen Elizabeth and rallying Christendom in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks.
Pius V was skeptical of Philip’s ways and went so far as to restrict his ministry. It was a devastating threat to Philip personally, but also to his entire pastoral project, which we would now call the “New Evangelization,” even as Philip’s church in Rome is still called the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) more than 400 years after it was built.
What would Philip do if the Pope was against him? He considered going north, taking refuge in the Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, his great defender. In any event, Pius only reigned six years, so Providence took care of Philip, as Pius went the way of all flesh. Yet consider this: St. Charles was the principal force behind Pius V being elected pope and was a staunch supporter. Charles was allied with two saints who were at odds: Philip and Pius. For Philip’s part, he lived out his years undiminished in his veneration for Pius V, despite their conflicts.
The same John Henry Newman, who would write that his spiritual father Philip was the “saint of gentleness and kindness,” would express appreciation, too, for Pius V in an altogether different register:
“St. Pius V was stern and severe, as far as a heart burning and melted with divine love could be so. … Yet such energy and vigour as his were necessary for the times. He was a soldier of Christ in a time of insurrection and rebellion, when, in a spiritual sense, martial law was proclaimed.”
Soldiers of a saintly sort, reformers of a radical sort, companions of a challenging sort, friends of a fearless sort — these were the saints of 1622.