*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Almost five decades after Martin Luther launched the Reformation with Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Church, the Council of Trent — the exhaustive Roman Catholic response to his charges — concluded with a final session on December 4, 1563. With years of fighting amongst Christians and a widening divide, bishops from all over Europe gathered for an ecumenical council that would define the Counter-Reformation and Catholic practice for centuries to come.
Though Martin Luther had made his voice heard on October 31, 1517, it took 28 years for the Roman Catholic Church to convene a leadership council. German Catholics, hoping to weave Lutheran followers back into a unified group of faithful, had called for a meeting to reconcile differences in the months after Luther burned Pope Leo X’s Exurge Domine in public. (The document named more than half of the Ninety-Five Theses as heresy.)
With the Germans and French kings fighting constantly, not to mention a papal desire to avoid choosing sides and facing the wrath of one or the other — as happened when soldiers from the Holy Roman Empire sacked Rome in 1527 — scheduling a meeting became impossible. Some insisted on including the Protestants while others believed it would merely encourage further rebellion. Though an ecumenical council was set for the middle of 1537, it would be delayed by war.
When the group finally managed to get together in December 1545, Luther was very near death. Though the excommunicated monk had laid out the general principles of Protestant thought in the Smalcald Articles, the Catholics generally ignored the effort toward reconciliation in Trent. Despite a growing number of monarchs being turned over to such heretical teaching, the cardinals did not want to deal with those who had been so dismissive of the Church.
For a variety of reasons, the Council endured two separate stoppages — the first from 1549-51 and the second form 1552-62. During the decade between the second and third periods, for example, anti-Protestant Pope Paul IV refused to bring his “faithful” alongside the troublemakers. The Protestants, fed up with being marginalized, refused to attend the final set of meetings when Pope Pius IV opened the council in mid-January 1562. Christianity in Western Europe would be divided from then on.
As the final session came to order on December 4, 1563, some 255 members were there to sign the final decrees of the Council of Trent. Over the course of nearly two decades, Roman Catholic leaders had decided on a canon (meaning Catholics and Protestants would have different Bibles), weighed in on the subject of grace, affirmed the importance of the seven key sacraments and professed the holiness of the clergy. In the 25th and last meeting, the indulgences Luther had railed against were upheld, though they could no longer be sold.
The last ecumenical gathering for more than 300 years, the Council of Trent did much to curb the unchecked power of bishops, establishing strict penalties for violations. Fueled by a new emphasis on true piety for the sake of being the best example possible to the Catholic public, the clergy rebounded to emphasize proper education and individual piety. As a result, incidence of intrigue and immorality became far less prevalent.
Also On This Day:
1674 – French priest Jacques Marquette founds the mission that will become the city of Chicago, Illinois
1829 – Governor of India Lord William Bentinck bans the Hindu practice of sati — burning the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre — throughout British India
1918 – Woodrow Wilson becomes the first United States President to travel to Europe while in office, sailing across the Atlantic for negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles
1945 – The United States Senate approves US involvement in the United Nations
1992 – US President George Bush orders 28,000 Marines to intervene in the civil war in Somalia
4th December, 1930 – Vatican approves rhythm method for birth control.
4th December, 1619 – 38 colonists from Berkeley Parish in England disembark in Virginia and give thanks to God. Considered by many as the first Thanksgiving in the Americas.
4th December, 1791 – Britain’s Observer, oldest Sunday newspaper in the world, first published.
4th December, 1833 – American Anti-Slavery Society formed by Arthur Tappan in Philadelphia.
4th December, 1908 – The world’s ten leading maritime nations attend a Naval Conference in London; they agree on rules for blockade, convoys, and seizure of contraband.