A message from Father Nick 73

Where does Christianity begin?

In a letter to his friend Katherine Asquith on 23rd December, 1935, the writer Evelyn Waugh makes a telling observation on his Catholic faith. He was staying in Jerusalem, and the eventual fruit of his visit, published in 1950, would be the beautiful little novel Helena, about Constantine’s mother (she, of course, is honoured as the finder of the “true cross”). Musing on his stay in the Holy Land, Waugh writes:

“Gradually getting the smell of the Daily Mail out of my whiskers. Spending four days penance for the shame of the last four months in intense discomfort at the Franciscan Monastery. Moving to hotel on Xmas day. Tomorrow night at Bethlehem. I half hate Jerusalem. For me, Christianity begins with the Counter-Reformation.”

It is the last sentence that stands out: “For me, Christianity begins with the Counter-Reformation.” Waugh is stating an opinion held by many other people, who often do not realise its implication. He, of course, knows exactly what he is saying. But what does he mean? And what is the Counter-Reformation?

In our weekly messages, we have barely mentioned the Reformation, let alone the Counter-Reformation. During the Church’s time of power in the so-called Middle Ages, a number of believers had prayed that it might be renewed in the spirit of the Gospel – among them people like Francis and Dominic and Catherine of Siena. But the era of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli brought a much more existential threat. With them came an impulse for “reform” which questioned its whole history and shook the foundations of Christendom.

We have been following week by week a mystery unfolding in the lives of very different kinds of people. We had a little glimpse of early Christian faith and the part played by Constantine and Helena (“heroine” of Waugh’s book). We noted the diversity of cultures and the richness of artistic inspiration in some highly unusual believers. And we realised – I hope – that we are all part of this wonderful, continuing story.

At first the Reformation seemed to have rewritten that story. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church was deeply traumatised by its effects. But gradually a new kind of vitality emerged from within. What we call the Counter-Reformation – what Evelyn Waugh saw as the “beginning of Christianity” – was a genuine acknowledgment of the Church’s own need to reform itself.

And the means were there: people like Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri, and Pope Paul III ensured both spiritual renewal and a high degree of organization. The Council of Trent, today seen ironically as a symbol of unchanging firmness, was a real force for positive change. There were now seminaries to educate priests. The printing press too, so well used by Protestant reformers, came to serve the Church’s needs as well. In time, there would be a translated Bible, while a Missal, Catechism and Code of Canon Law would ensure almost complete consistency of practice. Baroque art gave us images and an emotional language which filled our holy pictures and shaped a great deal of our thinking. For many people, even today, this quite simply is Catholicism.

Yet, it is still only part of the ongoing story, which long predated it and which continues still, breathed on by the Holy Spirit. May we always be alert to its variety.