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The Catholic ‘Great Awakening’

Catholics had their awakening centuries before Protestant Jonathan Edwards popularized the term.

Today marks the three hundred and twentieth birthday of the American Protestant theologian and revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who is credited with unleashing the Great Awakening Protestant revival in the American colonies during the 1730s. Edwards preached a cycle of sermons to his congregation in Massachusetts, which he later published in the 1737 book A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.

Edwards’s preaching and book sparked a renewed interest in spirituality among colonial Protestant congregations in the 1740s. The movement spawned a market for revivalist literature and spread rapidly throughout parts of New England. Although there were many supporters of the movement, its focus on individual expressions of spirituality, as well as some of its teachings, clashed with the practices and doctrines of various Protestant groups. The extent of the Great Awakening’s impact is debated, but there is no doubt that the movement marked a significant historical event in the spiritual life of the American colonies.

Several centuries earlier, the Catholic Church underwent its own “awakening,” although the revival of Catholic life and spirituality in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is more aptly described as a renewal and authentic reform. The Catholic Reformation, undertaken mostly as a response to the Protestant Revolt unleashed by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others, was initiated by Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1549). Before his papal election, Alessandro Farnese had been a cardinal for forty years and was unceremoniously known as “Cardinal Petticoat” because he was the brother of Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), who created Alessandro a cardinal. Paul had been the oldest cardinal (sixty-seven years) in the college, and so expectations of his pontificate were not high, but he surprised his contemporaries with the longest pontificate, fifteen years, in a century.

Paul III focused his energies on providing the foundation for the most comprehensive and successful renewal movement in Church history, the key component of which was the calling of an ecumenical council that eventually opened in 1545 in the city of Trent. The first meeting produced doctrinal decrees concerning the role of Scripture and Tradition, the canon of Scripture, original sin and justification, and the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Reform decrees banning the practices of absenteeism and pluralism were also approved. However, the outbreak of plague dictated a suspension, which lasted four years.

Sadly, Paul III did not live to see the completion of the Council of Trent because he died during the suspension. It would take another sixteen years for the council to complete its work to undertake the necessary renewal and reform of the Church.

The Council of Trent was a key component of the Catholic Reformation, but the work of implementing the conciliar decrees and inculcating them into everyday Catholic life was undertaken by multiple saints and the establishment of a new religious order, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Jesuits focused their efforts for the Catholic Reformation on the sacraments, education, and missionary activity. Additionally, the Jesuits placed an emphasis on catechesis as well as higher levels of learning, and their educational work was expressed in the establishment and staffing of universities throughout Christendom.

The reform and renewal of Catholic life during the Catholic Reformation produced a Catholic “awakening” in individual piety, new religious orders, and renewed artistic expression. It also sparked one of the greatest evangelization efforts in Catholic history.

While the Protestant Great Awakening was ongoing in colonial America, the Church was moving toward the end of the Catholic Reformation, which had produced a period of growth and vitality not seen for centuries. After the death of Pope Clement XII and a tedious and long six-month conclave, the mid-eighteenth century witnessed the pontificate of compromise candidate Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-1758), an erudite scholar with interests in science and literature. As pope, Benedict made conciliation and concession the hallmarks of his pontifical policy concerning both internal and external issues. A peaceful and pious man, he eschewed conflict and division, and his actions increased esteem for the moral authority of the papacy among Protestant and Catholic secular rulers. As an example, Benedict deftly navigated the vexing question of mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants, which had impacted the Church for some time with different theological opinion and pastoral practice. In the 1748 bull Magnae nobis admirationis, Benedict XIV decreed the permissibility of mixed marriages under certain conditions, pre-eminent among them the raising and education of children from these unions as Catholics. Other pontifical actions included ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern churches, the renewal of Pope Clement XII (r. 1730-1740)’s prohibition of Catholic membership in Freemasonry, a revision to the Roman Martyrology, and the establishment of academies in Rome for the clerical studies in Roman and Christian antiquities and Church history. Benedict went to his eternal rest on May 3, 1758.

Pope Benedict XIV’s successors did not enjoy the time of peace present in his pontificate. The tranquility experienced by the Church at the time of the Protestant “Great Awakening” in colonial America and initiated by the earlier Catholic Reformation was shattered by the end of the eighteenth century. The vitality of Catholic institutions and missionary activity was sorely tested in the “Enlightened” age of absolutist monarchs, revolutionary elements, and the post-Christian world. By the end of the century, the Church faced attacks from secular rulers bent on controlling all aspects of national life, and from “enlightened” skeptics, who sought to diminish or eradicate the Church’s role in the public arena. The Society of Jesus, at the forefront of the Catholic Reformation and responsible for great missionary activity and a revitalization of lay Catholic piety, was attacked and expelled from most European nations and, eventually, suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Soon after that infamous event, the Church suffered the bloodlust of French revolutionaries, who dismantled Catholic life within the “Eldest Daughter of the Church.”

Although the attacks against the Church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from external and internal enemies were substantial, the “awakening” of Catholic living from the Catholic Reformation provided the solid foundation for the Church to weather the storms of the modern age.

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