The 16th Century’s Saintly Six
Catholic Reformers’ Efforts, Often Hidden, Changed the Church From Within
With the Protestant and English reformations, and colonization of the New World in the foreground of the 16th-century landscape, six Catholic saints worked behind the scenes on significant reforms and innovations that continue to impact the Church today.
“They were in for the long haul, and they were clearing forests and planting new fields and they were tearing weeds out of gardens, planting new seeds, not fanfare,” said Christopher Blum, academic dean at the Augustine Institute who developed and is the presenter in a new video series: True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation.
The idea for the series came from Tim Gray, Augustine Institute’s president. A book of the same name, written by Jerome Williams, complements the video series.
St. Thomas More, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales all played uniquely important roles in the Church in the 1500s. All had deep interior and prayer lives, responded to the Holy Spirit’s inspirations and showed great creativity in establishing new ministries, qualities we can emulate today, said Blum.
This year, as many commemorate the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, it’s also important to recognize these Catholic saints, who helped reform the Church from within.
“In most of these cases, the impetus for reform came from deep inside the Church — in fact from inside the souls of these holy men and women — and had essentially nothing to do with what was going on in Germany,” said Blum, who has taught about the Reformation era for more than 20 years.
“There are a lot of great saints out there, but these six in particular seem to be both well-known and also offer the accidents of history, such that we possess a certain kind of privileged look into their souls,” he said. “That’s not true of every saint.”
Distinct as they all were, these six Catholic reformers all led lives of prayer that inspired their work, Blum said. “They’re all remarkably attentive to the Holy Spirit, and what we see manifested in their lives as a result is a really astonishing creativity.”
They also made the practice of charity and justice a high priority in their work, and they had great hope, he said. “They were not optimistic or progressive, as the world prefers,” Blum said. “They were instead anxious to do God’s work and to bring souls to heaven. They were filled with supernatural hope — they were not looking for good things on this earth; they were looking for life of the world to come.”
The holiness, responsiveness to the Holy Spirit, creativity and love of the Church makes the Catholic reformers role models whom we can imitate today by recognizing the primacy of the interior life and of service and by setting our hope in heaven, he said.
“We have a real problem today, not only of losing control of our interior lives and staring at our iPhones all the time, but also of admiring celebrities more than we should,” he said. “What these saints show is that the people who really changed the world are not celebrities. They are people who hide themselves, not for the sake of hiding themselves, but precisely by offering their lives in service to others.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.
St. Thomas More, born in London in 1478 — five years before
Martin Luther — was a critic of his German contemporary
as well as a deeply Catholic thinker who promoted
reform both of Catholic thought and the clergy and hierarchy.
A talented lawyer and public servant, he went on
to become lord chancellor of England and a close adviser
and friend to King Henry VIII. In 1535, he was martyred for
adhering to the truth of the Catholic faith after the king
seceded from the Church and established the Church of England.
Born in Spain in 1491, St. Ignatius of Loyola experienced
conversion on his path to sainthood that eventually led
him to Rome, where he worked for the establishment of
the religious order he founded, the Society of Jesus or the
Jesuits. Ignatius developed teachings on prayer and the
spiritual life based on his own experience, which revolutionized
spirituality far beyond his order. The Jesuits,
an apostolic community grounded in love for Christ and
animated by Ignatius’ spiritual vision to help others and seek God in all
things, became one of the most influential in Church history.
Another Spaniard, St. Teresa of Avila, also profoundly
impacted religious life, prayer and spirituality in the
16th century. St. Teresa was born in 1515 and entered a
Carmelite convent at age 20. After years of struggle she
had a conversion in her prayer and was moved by God
to reform the lax standards of the order. St. Teresa went
on to establish 16 new convents under the reform of the
Carmelites. St. Teresa had numerous mystical prayer experiences.
Now a doctor of the Church, her extensive writings on contemplative
prayer and spirituality are widely read.
St. Philip Neri was born in Italy the same year as St.
Teresa. Known as the “apostle of joy,” St. Philip brought
Romans in all walks of life to share in his life of prayer and
discipleship, first as a layman and later as a priest. The
oratory he developed drew priests, bishops, cardinals,
aristocrats and even well-known musicians. An especially
effective confessor, he is known as a reformer of
Though born much later in Milan, Italy, in 1534, St.
Charles Borromeo was a close friend of St. Philip. Appointed
cardinal of Milan at an early age, St. Charles
spent many years adroitly and justly managing the affairs
of the Church both in Milan and Rome, instituting major
reforms and supporting religious orders and ministries.
He played an active role in the final session of the Council
of Trent, revitalizing the council’s work and assembling
and presenting all its decrees in understandable form.
St. Francis de Sales was born in 1567 in what is now the
French province of Savoie and the Italian region of Piedmont,
an area especially in turmoil by the Reformation.
As a young priest he took an assignment to restore the
Catholic faith in a diocese then controlled by Protestants.
Through his effective missionary work during four years
there, two-thirds of the population returned to the Catholic
faith. As bishop of Geneva he instituted many reforms,
and as a gifted spiritual director and confessor, he assisted many laypeople
and religious. He co-founded the congregation of the Visitation Sisters and
is a doctor of the Church.
— Compiled by Susan Klemond from True Reformers book
- augustine institute
- st. charles borromeo
- st. francis de sales
- st. ignatius of loyola
- st. philip neri
- st. teresa of avila
- st. thomas more
- susan klemond