Summary: The reformers of every age have pointed to the words of Jesus to His first disciples: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road,” as a call to poverty.
Thursday of 26th Week in Course 2017
Reformation and Revolution
The rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, which the prophet Haggai had commanded, was accompanied by a rebuilding of Jewish identity and worship in the community of returned exiles. We must never forget that God does not act politically. He does not bring us to good conduct by force. That’s the way of politicians–to command obedience to their human law. Ezra and his associates read the Law of Moses, and the people started to weep. There’s probably two reasons for this: they had not heard the Law, maybe ever in their lifetimes. So these were sometimes tears of joy that their heritage was being recovered. But they also realized that they had not been following the right path, and they repented. Both of these sentiments are good, as long as they lead to a true renewal of right living and worship. God’s will is for all of us to live in this way: loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. It is vitally important that this be true of both Christian citizens and Christian leaders.
And in every age there have been both. In the aftermath of the barbarian invasions that destroyed the old Roman Empire–pushed it into the enclave we call the Eastern empire centered in Constantinople–there arose the monastic movement. St. Benedict is credited with organizing monasteries of piety, learning and agriculture. Monks from Ireland like St. Columbanus spread the movement east to England and eventually all of Europe. Barbarian rulers were Christianized in two ways. First, they married Christian women, and these raised Christian children. Second, they realized the value of education and sent many to the monasteries for their letters and learning. And this is the way Christendom was built up until the Ice age started, when war and plague and short crops enfeebled the Christian institutions and philosophies like that of William of Occam poisoned learning. Heresy and conflict were bound to follow.
A product of this enfeebled scholarship was the Englishman John Wycliffe, born early in the fourteenth century. Today we think of Oxford as a noble academic institution, but in the 1300s it was also a center of not so reputable activities. Look up the St. Scholastica Day riot in Google, something that happened while Wycliffe was at the university. He was much influenced by an outbreak of the plague in 1348. It caused him to believe that the Black Death, not to mention the Hundred Years war then raging between England and France, were God’s judgement against sin, particularly the sins of the clergy. He wrote a short book called The Last Age of the Church, where he predicted that the end of the 14th century would be the end of the world. In other words, he was not an optimist. It’s a judgement against the university that this gloomy, half-educated academic was made master of Balliol College in 1361.
Four years later there was an incident that helps us understand his rebellion: the Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of England, put him in charge of educating twelve seminarians. But when the archbishop died a year later, his successor Simon Langham, who was also the Chancellor of England, replaced him with a monk. Wycliffe appealed to Rome, and Rome took four years to decide against him. It is my opinion that since he had for years been railing against an undereducated clergy–of which he was a prime example–this was a major cause of his break with the Church. During the next decades, he also learned that he could gain powerful allies in the politicians if he used his half-baked theology in support of the state seizing the property of the Church and its clergy. Ultimately, this kind of action became very important to the Protestant revolutionaries, because it was a source of funding for the rulers who supported them.
The Church had become rich over the fifteen hundred years of her existence. Nobody disputes that. The reformers of every age have pointed to the words of Jesus to His first disciples: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road,” as a call to poverty. Thus we have St. Benedict and St. Francis and St. Faustina, the saint we celebrate today. But all these reformers worked within the Church to effect their reformation, and worked with the other clergy and bishops. It’s a message that failed to attract adequate attention in the 16th century, and one that we must not fail to heed today. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”