Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lectio Divina - Part 3

Theological Foundations
          We have already come a long way in our introduction to lectio divina, but we must now turn our attention to some specifics regarding the theological foundations that undergird this ancient practice. Lectio divina is not merely an ephemeral, airy technique that leaves its practitioners floating dreamily somewhere up in spiritual space. Instead, it is firmly grounded in solid theological concepts, a few of which we will look at briefly in the discussion to follow. We will organize this presentation around three important, “journalistic” questions (what, who, and why) that will serve to provide us with both the theological foundations of lectio divina and further insight into its nature.

What is the proper subject matter for lectio divina?
          At first the answer to this question seems self-evident; during lectio divina we read the Bible, of course! But we must ask ourselves if we really know what the Bible is. Let us take a few moments to reflect on the important theological principles of Divine Revelation and Sacred Scripture. God reveals Himself and His will to human beings. He does so, as Dei Verbum tells us, through deeds and words. (19) Throughout the history of the world, God has shown Himself to His people through historical events. We may think, for example, of the Exodus from Egypt. God revealed His loving care for His people as He split the Red Sea in two and let them cross on dry land and as He stayed with them in a column of cloud or fire. These events also show us that God has a plan for His people, a will for their salvation. This plan, this divine economy as it is called, culminates in the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in Jesus Christ. God reveals Himself fully in Jesus; He shows us His own face. We will return to this fullness of revelation in a moment, but we can already see from our discussion the basic principles of Divine Revelation; God comes to meet human beings and shows them something about Himself and His plan for them. These events, these deeds of God, had to be remembered. At first they were passed down orally through the generations, but over time, written accounts began to appear. These written accounts were collected into what we now call the Bible or Sacred Scripture.
          The Bible is like no other book on earth because it has God as its Author. Dei Verbum asserts that “The divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Scared Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (20) The Bible did not, however, just drop out of the sky. Both its Old and New Testaments were composed by human authors who, as true authors, “made use of their powers and abilities” to write exactly what God wanted them to write. Here we have both the theology of inspiration and the theology of divine accommodation. God, in inspiring the Scriptures, accommodated Himself to humanity by using human language to communicate divine realities. Further, because the Scriptures have God as their Author, they are inerrant. In other words, they do not teach error. Already we have a solid basis for lectio divina, a text that tells us about God and His plan for humanity and that is uniquely and inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit. (21)
          We can, however, move further in our discussion of the theology of Sacred Scripture, for the Bible is not merely an inspired and inerrant history book that describes past events. Instead, Scripture is a living Word that puts us in touch in a very real way with the divine realities it describes and contains. (22) The Holy Spirit Who inspired the text remains present in it. Mariano Magrassi explains, “He is present on every page, still speaking to us and revealing His power from beginning to end...” (23) Sacred Scripture, he continues, “is a living Word because it is animated by the Spirit of life.” (24) We can, then, actually meet God in the pages of the Scriptures. His is present in the Bible in a very real way, mysteriously certainly, and only accessible through the “signs” of words and events, but still really and truly present. (25) When we read the Bible in lectio divina, then, we are not merely interacting with words that narrate deeds; we are interacting with God Himself, the God Who gives life to both the Bible and to us. (26)
          We often hear this life-filled, Spirit-animated Biblical text referred to as the Word of God. This brings us to our next point, namely, because the theology of the Sacred Scriptures is so closely intertwined with the theology of the Word, we can say that when we read the Bible, we are in fact reading Christ. Let us look more closely at this. St. John's Gospel begins with the verse, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (27) Who is the Word John speaks of here? Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. In His very Person, Jesus is the Divine Word, the Logos, Incarnate. He is, as many theologians have said, the only Word ever spoken by God, the One Word that sums up, or recapitulates, every bit of Divine Revelation, that gives it all its meaning. (28) He is, Magrassi explains, “the final realization of what God intended to do; He is the final expression of what God intended to say.” (29) As such, Jesus is often said to be the “concise Word,” the “Word abbreviated,” or the “Word concentrated.” (30) So how does this relate to the Bible? Masini tells us: “Christ is at the same time the Word which speaks in the Bible and the Word of which the Bible Speaks. He not only brings the truth, but is the Truth.” He goes on to quote Henri de Lubac to clarify the point further: Christ “is at one and the same time the messenger and the content of the message, the Revealer and the revealed: the Revealer whom we must believe, and the personal Truth revealed in which we must believe.” (31) In the Bible, then, in a sacramental way, through the signs of human language and historical events, we are reading Jesus Christ, the One Word of God. Christ has become our Book, as Dom Jean LeClerq says. (32) Further, when we practice lectio divina, we are not just reading the words of a book, we are seeking Someone, reading Someone, the Divine Word spoken by God for all eternity, translated into our language, made human like us, Jesus Christ. (33)
          We can take this discussion on the proper subject matter of lectio divina one step further to notice that when we read the Sacred Scriptures and, in them and through them, the Book of Christ, we are also reading the very mind of the Blessed Trinity. This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but we know that the deeds recorded in the Bible, the oikonomia or divine economy, offer us a glimpse into the theologia, the inner life of God. (34) Further, we know what Jesus told Philip in John 14:9 after Philip asked Him to “show us the Father.” Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (35) Is it too much to say after this strong declaration that when we read Christ the Book during lectio divina, we are accessing the mind of the Father through the mind of Christ and in the Holy Spirit? Could we not agree with LeClerq when he tells us that lectio divina is “essentially an experience of Christ, in the Spirit, in the presence of the Father, as Christ Himself is united with Him, is face to face with Him, is oriented towards Him, penetrating into Him and penetrated by Him”? (36) Can we really believe that as we read the Sacred Scriptures, as we read Christ, that we stand with Him in the very presence of the Blessed Trinity?

19. Second Vatican Council. 
20. Ibid.
21. For further discussion on the theology of Divine Revelation and Sacred Scripture in relation to lectio divina, see Masini, 30, 36, 54; Magrassi, 24; Casey, 44-46, 52
22. Magrassi, 28.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid., 29; Masini 9.
25. Casey, 45; Masini, 22; Magrassi, 35.
26. Magrassi, 29.
27. John 1:1 NAB (New American Bible).
28. Magrassi, 45.
29. Ibid.; Masini, 18
30. Magrassi, 45, 48-52; Masini, 18; Casey, 43.
31. Masini, 16; see also Magrassi, 50.
32. Jean LeClerq, “Lectio Divina” Worship 58 (May 1984): 240; see also Magrassi, 27; Masini 18-19.
33. Magrassi, 52.
34. Catechism (see #236).
35. John 14:8-9 NAB (New American Bible).
36. LeClerq, 248.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lectio Divina - Part 2

The Dimensions
          We have already seen how Guigo, and others before and after him, divided lectio divina into four dimensions (or steps or elements or times, depending upon the author's choice of terminology): lectio or reading; meditatio or meditation; oratio or prayer: and comtemplatio or contemplation. For now, we will only define these terms and briefly discuss their interrelations; part 2 of our study will offer instructions for their practice.
          Lectio or reading begins the process of lectio divina. This dimension involves a careful, attentive reading of the Scriptural text. Keeping an open mind and an open heart, the reader slowly reads and savors each word, making sure he or she understands its meaning and the way it relates to the words, phrases, and sentences surrounding it. The reader may read the text aloud and repeat it a number of times, gradually solidifying it in the mind. Also at this point, the reader may find it helpful to turn to a Bible dictionary or commentary to clear up any confusion about the text (we will speak more on this in part 2). At any rate, the first stage of lectio divina thoroughly scrutinizes the text itself, working on the “outside,” as Guigo says, and providing the reader with “food” for the next stage of lectio divina, the meditatio. (5)
          According to Guigo, meditatio “chews” the food taken into the mouth (the mind) through lectio. (6) In meditatio, the reader moves deeper into the text, going to “the heart of the matter,” examining the text from a variety of angles, pondering all the possible meanings that it might hold, and trying to assimilate it and see how it resonates in his or her own life. (7) This is the time for a “theological-spiritual development of the subjects that arise from the lectio.” (8) The reader may ask, “What are the deeper meanings of the text?” or “How does it show me Who God is?” or “What do these words tell me about my own life of prayer or activity?” The possibilities are endless, and in fact, the meditatio stage of lectio divina is often the most time-consuming. Indeed, Mario Masini notes that meditatio “is the time to rest in the word, to inhabit it as one's own homeland, to put down one's tent in it. It is the time to live it with one's mind and heart, allowing it to descend from the mind which knows it to the heart which welcomes it.” (9) Here the Sacred Scriptures become the reader's very own possession, rooted deeply in the heart and the mind and made ready to blossom in the next dimension of lectio divina, the oratio.
          Oratio means prayer. During this time of lectio divina, the reader responds to God, Whom he or she has listened to in lectio and pondered in meditatio, echoing back to Him the words of the Bible as blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. (10) This “spontaneous and confident dialogue” springs from love aroused in the heart and flows out in love toward God, Who is the Source of all love. (11) Then, guided by the Holy Spirit, the reader rises up, if God so wills, through oratio and into the highest stage of lectio divina, the contemplatio.
          Contemplatio could be considered both a dimension of lectio divina and its goal. In contemplatio, the reader's soul moves beyond words and thoughts and into an intimate, loving, calm, and silent union with the Blessed Trinity. Let us listen for a moment to the prayer of mystic John of F├ęcamp as he attempts to capture his contemplative experience: “My spirit raises up to You, only God, a heart that is pure. Everything is still, all is calm, my heart burns with love. My soul overflows with joy, my memory with vigor, my understanding with light. And my whole spirit, inflamed with the desire to see Your beauty, feels itself enraptured by love of invisible realities.” (12) Swept up in a flood of love, the soul is drawn to God, glimpsing, as far as possible in this life, the realities of the beatific vision. Deep within what the Dominicans call the posterior soul, beyond the realm of cognition and sense, the reader meets God and basks in His presence. No one can achieve this blessed state on his or her own power. Contemplatio is a pure gift from God. (13) It is not earned by hard work. It is not achieved automatically as the result of a technical process. It is a gift of God that we must open our hearts to receive. Lectio divina helps us to do this. Through our lectio, meditatio, and oratio, we get to know God in His Word; we grow closer to Him; and we allow Him access to our deepest selves. Then, if God so wills, are we prepared to rest joyfully and calmly in His love, enjoying, we might say, a little foretaste of Heaven. (14)
           From this brief discussion of the four dimensions of lectio divina, we might come to the conclusion that the stages or steps always follow each other in a linear sequence, and often this is true. Guigo does, after all, refer to lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio as rungs on a ladder to Heaven and notes that “one precedes another, not only in the order of time but of causality.” He continues, “Reading comes first, and is, as it were the foundation; it provides the subject matter...for meditation. Meditation considers more carefully what is to be sought directs us to prayer. Prayer lifts itself up to God with all its strength, and begs for the treasure it longs for, which is the sweetness of contemplation.” Finally, contemplation “inebriates the thirsting soul with the dew of heavenly sweetness.” (15) There is, then, a sequential order to lectio divina, but like all things of God, the dimensions of lectio divina are much more complex in their interrelations then they first appear.
          Lectio divina must never be perceived as merely a recipe for spirituality with hard and fast steps to follow in order to achieve a desired outcome. The dimensions are never, as Cisterian monk Michael Casey warns, “rigid and prescriptive.” Instead, he maintains, lectio divina's stages “are more like colors of a rainbow than bureaucratic categories. The different moments ebb and flow; sometimes they overlap, at others they drift apart.” (16) In fact, lectio divina offers much space for flexibility. One might, for instance, begin with prayer; alternate swiftly between lectio and meditatio as the mind turns over the words of the text; practice oratio and then drop “back down” to lectio to be further inspired by God's word; or perhaps, if God so chooses, even be swept up into contemplatio at the mere sight of a word or phrase. This does not mean, however, that we are free to disregard one or more of the dimensions of lectio divina. In fact, Guigo cautions us against such an aberration with the warning that “reading without meditation is sterile, meditation without reading is liable to error, prayer without meditation is lukewarm, meditation without prayer is unfruitful, prayer when it is fervent wins contemplation, but to obtain it without prayer would be rare, even miraculous.” (17) Mario Masini further reminds us that the moments or dimensions of lectio divina constitute a united and “spontaneous flow of one into the other,” back and forth as God leads the reader on his or her journey through the Biblical text. (18) We must remain open and adaptable, following the Lord's lead as He guides us deeper into lectio divina and deeper into His presence.

5. Guigo II, 69; Masini, 28, 80-83; Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998), 105.
6. Guigo II, 69.
7. Masini, 53-54; Magrassi, 108-109.
8. Masini, 84.
9. Ibid., 54.
10. Ibid., 57, 90-91; Magrassi, 113; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, (accessed 27 June, 2009).
11. Magrassi, 115; Masini, 91.
12. Masini, 93.
13. Ibid., 94; Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Act of Lectio Divina (Ligouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1995), 58.
14. Ibid., 67, 94; Magrassi, 104; Guigo II, 86; Casey 58.
15. Guigo II, 79.
16. Casey, 58.
17. Guigo II, 82.
18. Masini, 71.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lectio Divina - Part 1

This paper was originally written for a class on lectio divina at Franciscan University of Steubenville. As always, I will post it in manageable sections with a bibliography following the final section. Enjoy!

An Introduction to Lectio Divina: Theological Foundations

The Call
          The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, calls all Catholics, clergy, religious, and lay alike, to immerse themselves in the Sacred Scriptures. Quoting St. Jerome, who said, “Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” the Council recommends “constant spiritual reading and diligent study” of the Bible so that all Christians will come to a deeper and “surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.” (1) While most Catholics would certainly agree with these sentiments, many still wonder how they are to do this. The Bible seems remote, long, and difficult, and potential readers might ask, “What does the Council mean by 'constant spiritual reading' anyway or by 'diligent study'?” or “How would I participate in something like that, busy person that I am?” The answer: the ancient practice of lectio divina.
          This small study is the first in a two part series that seeks to lay down both the theological foundations and the practical elements of lectio divina using the six “journalistic” questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how) as an organizing principle. We will begin by defining lectio divina as well as its four “dimensions” or “times,” lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. Then we will move on to examine the theology behind this ancient technique of prayerful reading. We will answer the question “What is the proper subject matter for lectio divina?” by looking closely at the theology of Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture, the Word of God, and the Trinity and examining theological principles such as divine accommodation and signification. Then we shall answer the question “Who performs lectio divina?” by delving into the theology of the body and the Church as well as various precepts from Christology and the theology of the Holy Spirit. Finally, we shall examine the effects of lectio divina in answer to the question “Why do we practice lectio divina?” Here we shall return to the the theology of the Word as well as concepts drawn from the theology of communion, soteriology, and moral theology. Of necessity, we shall be brief in these discussions, but they will at least provide a foundation for the further investigation and, more importantly, practice of lectio divina

The Definition
          Defining lectio divina is not an easy task. While Christians have practiced lectio divina since the days of the early Church, no one thought to systematically define the term or describe the technique's characteristics until Guigo II, a twelfth century Carthusian monk, offered a detailed account of monastic prayer in a letter to a fellow monk. Guigo declares that the monks' prayer is like a ladder by which they “are lifted up from earth to heaven” through the reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation of the Sacred Scriptures. (2) Since Guigo's time others have tried valiantly, with some success, to add to his basic definition. Scholars like B. Baroffio and P.J. Emery have defined the practice, respectively, as listening to Christ “Who speaks through the Scriptures” and trying to “taste God.” (3) C. Jean-Nesmy, while a bit less poetic, is more specific when he defines lectio divina as “An astonishing, contemplative reading in which the Word of God reveals to each one, personally, how his own special vocation fits into the convergence of all, toward the one salvation in Christ.” (4) In other words, lectio divina is a way of attentively and prayerfully reading the Bible in order to understand the the message of the written words but, more importantly, to personally encounter the Author of those words, God Himself.

1. Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, documents/ vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html (accessed 26 June, 2009).
2. Guigo II, Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, ed. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1979), 68.
3. Mario Masini, Lectio Divina (New York: St. Pauls, 1998), 27.
4. Ibid., 27-28.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Weekly Bookworm: Online Reading

As a dedicated bookworm, I like nothing better than to snuggle up in comfortable chair with book. No electronic reading gadgets for me! I enjoy the weight of a book in my lap, the feel of the pages, even the smell of the paper and binding. But even I am forced to admit the convenience of online books, especially for those of us who can't always get to an academic library and/or afford to buy paper copies of every book we want to read (as much as we'd like to).

I frequently visit the following websites, which offer a wide selection of Catholic classics and/or out-of-copyright volumes about every subject imaginable.

1. – Dr. Scott Hahn's St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology offers everything from online Bible study classes and audio lessons to a resource library packed full of interesting links to reading on Scripture, liturgy, and apologetics.

2. New Advent – Along with a full Catholic encyclopedia, New Advent provides a full edition of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, full-text works of the Fathers of the Church, and a library of Church documents.

3. The Vatican – The Vatican website offers full-text writings from popes, councils, and Vatican offices.

4. Free Catholic eBooks – This site features pdf downloads for quite a few Catholic classics, including St. Therese of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul.

5. Catholic Treasury – The writings of several saints and theologians are available here, including two books by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.

6. Catholic Spiritual Direction – This is another good website to discover spiritual classics like Jean-Pierre de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence.

7. Sancte Pater – Saints' writings, reference books, Scripture commentaries, meditations, and lots of miscellaneous spiritual texts are available as pdf downloads through this blog.

8. EWTN – Just go to the EWTN library to find lots and lots and lots of interesting reading.

9. Christian Classics Ethereal Library – Dozens Catholic and Protestant theological and spiritual classics are available here.

10. Internet Archive – This site features over two million, yes two million, digitized books on a huge range of subjects. It's actually pretty overwhelming.

11. Google Books – Google provides out-of-copyright books of all kinds in full-text editions.

There are many other websites that offer good reading material, but these are the best I've found. I still prefer a good hardcover or paperback book (it's hard to snuggle up with a computer), but online editions are convenient, cheap, and easy-to-access, so enjoy a good read! 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Not-So-Ordinary Time

We've just celebrated the Baptism of the Lord. We've taken down the decorations at Church and tucked them carefully away for next year. The Christmas season is officially over, and we're settling into the season of the Liturgical Year called “Ordinary Time”.

Ordinary Time” sounds dull, routine, and uninspiring, doesn't it? Actually, the word “ordinary” as it is used here comes from “ordinal,” which means counting. Ordinary Time simply means the counted Sundays between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent and between Pentecost and Advent.

Unfortunately, many Catholics still think of Ordinary Time as the somewhat boring stretch of Sundays between the year's spiritual high points. In reality, Ordinary Time presents many opportunities for spiritual growth. By following one or more of the ten suggestions below, Catholics can turn this liturgical season into a not-so-ordinary time of deepening and strengthening their relationship with God.

1. Spend some time meditating on each Sunday's readings. These are available at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website. Try to discover the connections between the readings, pick out common themes, take note of interesting images and ideas, and apply the Word of God to daily life. There are endless possibilities.

2. Read about each day's saint. Every day on the Catholic calendar is dedicated to one or more saints, who provide examples and inspiration through their lives and words. EWTN offers a calendar with a brief biography of a saint for every day of the year.

3. Try a new form of prayer. Look up a new chaplet (check out the Via Rosa website for ideas); meditate in front of an icon; or try praying at least one “hour” of the Divine Office (which is available online at Universalis).

4. Learn more about the special feast days that occur during Ordinary Time. Take some time to study Trinity Sunday, for instance, or Corpus Christi or even the Assumption of Mary. Really get to know what Catholics celebrate on these feasts.

5. Do more spiritual reading. Check out the Weekly Bookworm posts for ideas.

6. Make an effort to practice recollection. As Brother Lawrence says, practice the presence of God. Recall His presence and love often throughout the day and offer small prayers of love, thanksgiving, and praise.

7. Follow a daily devotional. There are probably hundreds of devotional books available. Check out Amazon or a Catholic bookstore for titles. Online, The Word Among Us website provides a daily reflection on the Mass readings, and Augustine Day by Day offers a short quote from Augustine and a prayer.

8. Meditate on familiar Catholic hymns. Don't just mumble through them at Mass; read them closely and try to grasp their meanings. Several websites, including Catholic Hymns and MJL Music, provide lyrics for many Catholic favorites.

9. Learn as much as possible about the Mass. The Mass is an extraordinary gift from God and the most perfect form of worship this side of Heaven. In fact, Mass is a little piece of Heaven on earth. Read books like Father Matthew Buettner's Understanding the Mystery of the Mass and Father Paul O'Sullivan's The Wonders of the Mass for a better grasp of this great blessing from God.

10. Try to attend daily Mass more often. Of course, it's hard with busy schedules and lots of activities to make it to Mass during the week, but there is no better way to grow closer to God than to receive Him in the Eucharist as often as possible.

Any combination of these suggestions can help turn Ordinary Time into an extraordinary experience of God's love.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Announcing...Catholic Commonplace Book

Scholars, readers, and writers have kept commonplace books for centuries to record and remember interesting facts, favorite book passages, and relevant ideas.  Keepers of commonplace books, including John Milton, Francis Bacon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, wrote down everything from scientific observations and mathematical calculations to poems and prayers. 

My new blog, Catholic Commonplace Book, is online version of a commonplace book will focus mainly on quotations, meditations, and prayers from a wide variety of Catholic sources, both ancient and modern.  I will add a new "entry" each day, so readers will always have something fresh to discover and ponder.  The Catholic Scholar blog will also remain active.  I'm having too much fun with it to quit now!

Please visit Catholic Commonplace Book, read, enjoy, and feel free to comment.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Weekly Bookworm: St. Francis de Sales

Last year I had the pleasure of studying St. Francis de Sales for my Christian Spirituality class at Franciscan University of Steubenville. In the process of researching and writing a 20+ page paper, I read several excellent books by and about the saint. The following are a few of my favorites:

1. An Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales

This is probably our saint's best known work. Writing to “Philothea” or the “lover of God”, Francis lays out a practical plan of spirituality for the lay person. Francis offers advice on everything from prayers and worthy reception of the sacraments to how to dress modestly and behave at parties. Even though our saint wrote in the seventeenth century, his recommendations are quite applicable to the modern age. This is a must-read for anyone who is serious about living the spiritual life.

2. Letters to Persons in the World by Francis de Sales

Henry Benedict Mackey, O.S.B., edited this collection of Francis' letters to lay men and women living in the world. Again, our saint provides useful guidance for practical spirituality in many different situations. A detailed table of contents will direct the reader to letters most appropriate for his or her circumstances, but it would also be beneficial to read straight through, focusing on a few letters per day.

3. Treatise on the Love of God by Francis de Sales

Be warned! This book is not an easy read. In fact, it is difficult and time-consuming but definitely worth the effort, for Francis guides his readers into the depths and wonders of divine love.

4. The Life of Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Prince of Geneva by Peter Hyacinth Gallitia

For me, this two-volume set is the definite biography for our saint. Pretty much everything readers want to know about Francis' life, character, and personal devotion is included in these books. Yes, they are long, but they are also fascinating reading for anyone interested in getting to know Francis de Sales. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Council of Trent Basics

When most Catholics think about ecumenical councils (if they do at all), Vatican II is probably the first and maybe the only one that comes to mind. Since Vatican II took place in the modern era (1962-1965), it is still fresh in the collective Catholic memory. Every once in a while, though, it is helpful and instructive to reflect on past councils, ones that have shaped the Church for generations and still do so today. In this post, I will offer a brief overview of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

By 1500, the Catholic Church was badly in need of reform. No one would deny that. Abuses were rampant, laity and clergy alike tended to be poorly educated, and prior attempts at reform (like those by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512-1514) were unsuccessful. Individual Catholics like Jimenez de Cisneros, John Colet,and Desiderius Erasmus tried to push the Church in the right direction through their writing and leadership, but it took the Protestant revolt to open Catholics' eyes to the state of affairs and spur them on to determined efforts at reform. The Church was threatened and challenged, and Catholics knew they needed to respond, to grasp their faith, and to figure out their true identity.

Pope Paul III understood that he had to take action to strengthen the Catholic Church against Protestant attacks, and this meant clearly defining Catholic faith and practice and curbing abuses. It took a while for him to call the Council, however. There were arguments about location. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V wanted the bishops to gather in Germany, but Paul was afraid that the Protestants would attempt a takeover. Then there was the problem of what kind of tone to set for the Council. Some Church leaders, like Cardinal Gaspero Contarini, preferred a conciliatory tone, while others opted for a more condemnatory and polemical style. Paul finally decided to call the bishops to Trent. The tone would have to develop as the Council progressed.

The Council of Trent was held in three sessions, 1545-1547, 1551-1552, and 1562-1563. Paul oversaw the first of these before his death in 1549. His successor, Julius III, led the second, and Pius IV supervised the third. The ten year gap between the second and third sessions was the result of the negative attitude of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) toward ecumenical councils. He believed that the pope should be the sole agent of Church reform.

The Council of Trent can be characterized by three words: doctrine, discipline, and devotion. It focused on defining doctrine, tightening up discipline, and encouraging proper devotion.

In terms of doctrine, the Council clearly defined many aspects of the Catholic faith, especially those challenged by the Protestants. For instance, the Council clearly defined seven sacraments; justification by faith and the works that flow out of faith as fruits of charity; Divine Revelation as consisting of both Scripture and Apostolic Tradition; the Mass as a representation and perpetuation of Christ's redemptive sacrifice; and the use of Latin in the Mass and the Latin Vulgate as the canonical text of Scripture. The Creed written and promulgated in the final session emphasizes these elements as well as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, transubstantiation, the veneration and intercession of the saints, the veneration of images, Purgatory, the role of the Church as Mother and Teacher, the authority of the pope, the power of indulgences, and the obligation of the faithful to obedience. The Council of Trent defined very clearly what it means to be Catholic and what all Catholics must believe. The Roman Catechism, printed a few years later, helped to spread the Council's doctrinal teachings.

The Council of Trent also worked to correct abuses in the Church by tightening up discipline. It abolished the office of indulgence seller and instructed the faithful on proper (i.e., not superstitious) veneration of the saints. The bishops also established a seminary system in which each diocese received a seminary to train young men for the priesthood. Students learned Greek, Latin, logic, Scholastic philosophy, and theology. They were taught how to study Scripture and preach. The goal, of course, was to create educated priests who were also prayerful, faithful, celibate, fervent, and pure-hearted and could pass these characteristics on to their parishioners. The Council bishops even gave themselves more responsibility and authority as they mandated that bishops should be true pastors to the faithful, live in their dioceses, and not hold more than one diocese at a time, a practice called pluralism.

Finally, the Council of Trent offered direction in the area of Catholic devotion. In the Middle Ages, devotion tended to be exterior and even superstitious. The Council emphasized the need for Catholics to grow in their interior spiritual lives and purify their minds and hearts. For example, the bishops called for more missals and devotionals so that Catholics could experience the Mass in their hearts. They also advocated the Rosary and other Marian devotions and Eucharistic worship including the 40 Hours Devotion and Benediction. They even recommended that all Catholics receive the Eucharist more often. In the years following the Council, God gave the Church many saints, including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, and Vincent de Paul, to guide the faithful toward a deeper and more meaningful experience of God.

Some historians have claimed that the Council of Trent created a “Fortress Church,” one that turned away from the world and shut out any opposition. Certainly, the bishops firmly and clearly defined Catholic faith and life and forcefully responded to their opponents. This was necessary to guide the Church through the difficult times of the mid-16th century and to proclaim and preserve its unique identity. In reality, the Council of Trent opened the door for the Holy Spirit to blow through the Church, invigorating it and spreading Christ's message of salvation to Catholics and non-Catholics in new and amazing ways.