Summary: The Church has always been in need of reform, and the Holy Spirit empowers true reformation rather than revolution.
Thirtieth Sunday in Course 2015
Last Sunday in October
Reformation or Revolution? Today, the last Sunday in October, is called “Reformation Sunday” by Protestants. In two years, they will celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s dissent. As we today remember the moving story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus, it might be good for us to start with some stories of Reformation and Revolution, and to make a distinction between the two in the history of the Church.
Many activists consider Jesus to have been a revolutionary. After all, Our Lord came to us as an agent of change. But He always insisted that He was not here to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And He certainly was the fulfillment of the Law. Consider His moral code. He taught us to love one another as He had loved us. That means to do good for others, even and especially our enemies, as He did. That means do good to the point of giving up our life for others. That not only obeys the Ten Commandments; it goes miles above the Ten Commandments. Don’t just avoid killing other human beings–stand outside abortion clinics and pray for the men and women who are murdering children inside those clinics. Don’t just resist the temptation to steal–work for organizations that help the poor and elderly file income tax returns, and run your business in such a way that you can pay a family wage to all your employees. The Pharisees, who thought the way to please God–and build wealth–was to follow all 600 plus dictates of Torah while finding loopholes to enable them to fleece the poor–they were the true revolutionaries. Jesus considered them to be fellow-travelers of the original revolutionary, Satan.
Now the Church has needed reformation from time to time, and until Luther, the Church had been reformed by the actions of saintly popes, bishops and lay religious. There are several salient examples. By the late sixth century, as the Roman empire deteriorated in the West, the liturgy, clergy and charities of the Church had also declined. St. Benedict of Nursia had already arisen with his followers to build a scaffold of preservation, learning and worship in the Benedictine monasteries of Europe. Our Lord then raised up in the hierarchy Pope Gregory the Great, who in fewer than fifteen years began reforms that made the seventh century a time of growth and devotion.
After the decline in the twelfth century, a similar dynamic gave us the reform of the thirteenth. At the start of the century God’s gift was Pope Innocent III, whose list of reforming actions is huge. Perhaps the most important of these was his recognition of the charisms of St. Dominic and St. Francis, whose religious orders revived orthodox Catholicism throughout Europe, and later spread the faith to the Americas.
In every age, when the weakened minds and consciences of men have brought the Church to a nadir, the Holy Spirit has raised up clerics and religious and laity who have led the Body of Christ to a renaissance of spirit, learning and art. Consider that the Dominicans have given us St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest mind of the last millennium, and Fra Angelico, whose art continues to inspire hundreds of years later. The Franciscans, of course, were the core of the missionaries who evangelized the Southwest and Mexico, and left us the missions of San Antonio, recognized even by secularists as world heritage sites.
Contrasted with these saints, these heroes of Christ’s Church, are revolutionaries like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the other self-styled reformers of the sixteenth century. Whereas their Catholic predecessors like Benedict, Gregory, and Thomas had subjected their writings to the discernment of their superiors, when they had them, and had carefully used both Scripture and Catholic Tradition as they crafted their writings, the revolutionaries did neither. It is without doubt that the Church was in a mess in 1517. The global cooling we now call the “Little Ice Age” had weakened Europe terribly in the 1300's, and its effects, like the Black Plague, lasted into the 1400's. Imagine a time when between one-third and one-half of Europe died. Monasteries and universities were particularly decimated. Scholarship declined; religious life deteriorated. Fourth-rate students became priests and bishops and popes. Head the gallery of mediocrity and degeneracy with the name “Borgia” and you set the stage for the Lutheran, Calvinist and Zwinglian revolts. These revolutionaries were largely successful because of the backing of political figures who used religious revolution to further their ambitions to power, to weaken the Holy Roman Empire, and to rob monasteries of land and income.
How did Jesus change the world? Not by might, not by power, not by revolution, but by the working of the Holy Spirit. St. Luke tells us just prior to the story of Bartimaeus that Jesus resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem, where He knew he would be opposed by the Jewish elite, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He foresaw that His reform of the Jewish faith would end in His arrest and execution, but He knew as the Word of God that the reform would not end there. He would rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, and send the Holy Spirit as the gift that would ignite the hearts of His disciples and muster the most powerful spiritual army the world had ever seen. This was the Holy Spirit that time after time inspired true reform in His Church. And in the wake of the Protestant Revolt, that same Spirit filled the hearts and minds of men and women of true reforming intent: Robert Bellarmine, Ignatius Loyola, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Pope Pius V.