Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Every thumb swipe you’ve taken and Catholic page you’ve browsed recently has probably had something to say about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when that page was turn in the history of the Church and of the world, but it’s generally agreed that the letter written from Martin Luther to his bishop on Oct. 31, 1517, was the start for his plans. The letter, known as the “95 Theses” for its 95 challenges to Church practices and ideas, was not a declaration of spiritual independence, but an engagement normative of the times for debate and dialogue.
It wasn’t until almost a half-decade later, though, that Luther took his final stand in ideological and doctrinal schism from the Catholic Church. By 1521, his ideas has metastasized beyond dealing with corruption and practices surrounding indulgences, and thwarted directly into ideas of faith, authority, salvation and scripture. And still, another half-decade later in 1526, he found himself in need of organizing his followers and varying congregations into a new church. And from there, “reformers” of all sorts and ideas came to the idea of further “reform” by starting their own congregations. Some lasted, some didn’t. What exists in mainstream Protestant churches today is nearly unrecognizable from the faith of the Catholicism which all the denominations had split from, even from Luther. No Mass. No Eucharist. No priests. No belief in real effects of baptism. No Mary. The list goes on.
So what happened among these Protestants and continues to happen with those of our time is the successive force of schism, and their celebration of the Reformation is a lot like celebrating a divorce.
Now, the Church was in dire straits for reform, but not the reforms of the Protestants. So as you scroll past these and perhaps click a few, perhaps you were wondering what the Catholic Church did to address the issues of corruption, poor education, and lack of discipline and virtue within her ranks. Well, the Church is a body, and that body urgently and decisively motioned for reform—true reform that would not create division in its body, but unity and personal holiness. There were numerous contributors to this movement known as the Counter-Reformation (or by some, as the Catholic Reformation) and they came in all shapes, sizes, nationality, and each with their own gifts and goals to help the Church reform correctly.
While Catholics are reflecting on the consequences of the Reformation and as they pray for unity, it would be useful to study the saints of the Counter-Reformation equally. For sure, our Church is in constant need of courageous believers, and each soul is in need of its own reform. This is why I wrote a new book titled Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation.
These saints were are diverse as the issues they were facing. There was a main thread, though, which each saint applied to all of their efforts: the desire for personal holiness.
The commonality of personal holiness was not something these people of the Church were born with. Indeed, St. Charles Borromeo was not born a cardinal and St. Philip Neri was not born with the idea of reforming the spiritual climate in Rome and founding the Congregation of the Oratory. And just as soccer players are not born with athletic skill, saints are not born with holiness; they had to work at it. Before they set out to reform the Church, and indeed during their reform efforts, they applied a constant struggle of reforming themselves first.
Just as diverse, then, as they were from each other, there was a wonderful variety of ways in which their personal holiness and self-reform took form. Here’s a look at a couple in introduce in my book:
St. Philip Neri. Known for his sense of humor, he is often called the “laughing saint.” Once, when asked for advice for the appropriate prayer concluding a wedding, Neri only replied, “a prayer for peace.” Yes, he was known for his sense of humor, but he was not known to be a dunce or a clown. He was known to be at the top of his class when studying philosophy and theology, and his humor was solemn as he used it to give joy to others, and also as a tool for promoting humility within himself. He might make himself look like a fool in order to remind himself to treat others as better than himself. He teaches us to use humor as a means true reform.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal. A mother, a wife, and a sole owner of an estate is not the sort of woman that can even imagine becoming a nun, founding a religious order, writing letters on spiritual mastery, and being best of friends with Archbishop Francis de Sales. But she did, and she didn’t even have to use her imagination. She teaches us the simple way of living the spiritual life: letting God be in control, not worrying, being okay with who we are, and praying simple prayers with simple requests. She is the simple saint and her life removes all the complexity we’re told we have to embrace to be good Christians.
St. Charles Borromeo. A man with high-visibility responsibilities in the Church, he was the Archbishop of Milan, which, in his tenure, required his silencing and dissolution of heretical and disobedient religious orders, excommunication of heretics, driving out a plague, and carrying out the full weight of the decrees and reform of the Council of Trent. You and I won’t be handling these sorts of tasks any time soon but we can learn from his incredible gifts for pastoral care and his special emphasis on the veneration of relics and public demonstrations of faith.
St. Pius V. New Catechism. New Divine Office and breviary. New Missal. New Catholic schools. New seminaries. United Europe to defeat the Ottoman Turks in the biggest naval battle in history. Standardized the Rosary and promoted its use on a monumental level. He was pope for only a few years but accomplished a truly astonishing amount of work. From Pius V we learn invaluable lessons on the dynamics of applying different leadership styles to differing circumstances and how to get the job done!
Each of the saints of the Counter-Reformation offer Catholics a different angle on how to reform, but they all remind us that we must reform ourselves first if we ever hope to reform the Church and continue to make it a bastion for souls in search of prayer, peace and faith. I invite you to check out my new book with Catholic Answer Press, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation available at shop.catholic.com. In the pages you’ll learn the secret to true reform from the lives of 10 powerful saints of the Counter-Reformation.