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Reacting to the Reformation: The Council of Trent

Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534 and immediately came face-to-face with the Protestant Reformation. At first sight, Paul looked pretty much like his predecessors: born into a rich Roman family, bishop at 20, cardinal at 25. But then Paul had a midlife crisis and decided that if he was going to be a bishop and a cardinal, he ought to do it properly. So Paul went through the whole ordination process again, but this time for real, actually reading Augustine and Aquinas and saying his prayers as if he meant them. After becoming the Pope, Paul appointed reformers to important positions in the Church and set up a special commission to look into whether changes in the Church were needed.

Just about everyone in the Church agreed that reform was necessary, but they had very different ideas about what form these improvements should take.

Paul III finally decided to summon a General Council. Arranging this Council took some time because of all the fighting between the emperor and the king of France, but in 1542, Paul spotted a window and grabbed it. The Pope invited all the bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and universities of Europe to send representatives to a Great Church Council to be held at Trent in northern Italy.

Some historians call the changes following the Church Council the Catholic Reformation — the Church reforming itself. Others see this event as the time when the Church launched its counter-attack — the Counter-Reformation.

The Council had three sessions, with a rather important interruption in the middle:

1545–1547: First session: apologies, minutes, and matters arising. Basically, the Council said that everything the Church said and did was right, but they weren't so sure about whether bishops really ought to visit their bishoprics (a diocese) at least once.

1551–1552: Second session: still on agenda item 3. The Council sorted out the Church's position on Communion, but it still couldn't decide about those bishops and their bishoprics.

1555–1559: No Council: a four-year comfort break. In 1555, Cardinal Carafa (who had been in charge of the Inquisition) became Pope Paul IV. Paul IV thought there had been quite enough hot air spouted at Trent, and he did not reconvene the Council. Paul had a big drive on discipline and ensured that an increasing number of titles ended up on the Church's Index of Banned Books.

Paul IV genuinely wanted to reform Church abuses, and just went about it in a different way from Paul III. Paul IV died in 1559, and the reformers breathed a sigh of relief.

1562–1563: Third session: This third session summed everything up in the definitive Tridentine (meaning "from Trent") Decrees:

  • One single, uniform Latin Tridentine Mass for use throughout the world — and every Sunday, too, not just Christmas and Easter. The Tridentine Mass remained unchanged until the 1960s.
  • A new improved translation of the Bible.
  • Bishops should live in their bishoprics and check up on their clergy regularly. And the Vatican will be checking to see that they've done it.
  • Clergy should preach a proper sermon every week — and every diocese must have a seminary to train them in how to do it. (Preaching was the Protestants' trump card; thus, scoring well here was essential.)
  • BANNED: Selling relics, selling indulgences, priests' concubines.

The Tridentine Decrees were intended to make Catholicism a much more intense personal experience, instead of just a set of mechanical rituals. The Church started running off a printed Catechism, explaining what Catholics believe in an FAQ style; this text is still in use today. Catholics were to go to Confession more often and really make a clean breast of things. To help people confess, Carlo Borromeo, the charismatic Archbishop of Milan, designed the confessional box, with a screen so you weren't able to see the priest's face clearly and he wasn't able to see the penitant's.

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