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Jan 18 - Council of Trent and the counter-reformation

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Today the third and final session of the Council of Trent opened. An ecumenical council as opposed to a local council it would prove momentous for Christianity. It would clarify Catholic doctrine, institute a partial reform and tragically cement the division between Protestantism and Catholicism ....


The Council of Trent was the 19th ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. An ecumenical council is a worldwide gathering of Bishops in contrast to a local council. As the church grew, the logistics of gathering bishops together became more challenging and ensured that ecumenical councils are rarely convoked, and can only be summoned by the Pope. Usually, they are called in response to a grave matter which affects the whole church or when there is a serious threat of Schism. Pope Paul III convoked the council in 1545 prompted by the Protestant Reformation. Trento in Northern Italy was chosen as it was under protection from Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor, and they could guarantee safe passage for any reformers invited to attend. Spreading over 18 years the council had gathered for three sessions. Today it reconvened for the final session after a 10-year break caused by the revolt of Protestant princes against Charles V. During the break, sadly, all hope of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants had vanished. Three different popes had overseen the council, with a fourth Pope, Paul IV, refusing to recall the council. January 18th saw the opening of the third and final session.

Previously, during the second session, the Protestants present had asked for a renewed discussion on points already defined and for bishops to be released from their oaths of allegiance to the Pope. When todays last session had started, tragically and sadly all intentions of conciliating the Protestants was gone. In fact there was the incentive to prevent the formation of a general council including Protestants, as had been demanded by some in France. The Council of Trent has since been described by historians as the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation. Its main objectives were to clarify Catholic Doctrine as it pertained to all disputed points with the Reformation. Just as important was to increase discipline or administration, this was long overdue. The obvious corruption in the administration of the Church was one of the causes of the Reformation.

Twenty-five public sessions were held, but nearly half of them were spent in solemn formalities. The chief work was done in committees or congregations where the liberal elements of the council lost out in the debates and voting. The council abolished some of the most notorious abuses and introduced disciplinary reforms affecting the sale of indulgences, the morals of convents, the education of the clergy, the non-residence of bishops, the careless use of censures, and forbade duelling. The consequences of the Council were also significant with regard to the Church's liturgy and practices. The Council made the Vulgate the official example of the Biblical canon and commissioned the creation of a standard version. A Roman Catechism and revisions of the Breviary and Missal were issued in the years following. These, in turn, led to the codification of the Tridentine Mass, which remained the Church's primary form of the Mass for the next four hundred years.


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