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Saints and Heroes of the Reformation


The Jesuit order produced many of the greatest heroes of the Reformation era, and was renowned for its scholarly work in philosophy and theology, and for its preaching, missions, and service. Notable Jesuit Saints of the Reformation era include:

  • St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) — Former soldier who established rules for the order and served as first Superior General
  • St. Francis Xavier (1506-52) — Early Missionary who traveled throughout Asia and made thousands of Converts. Established missions in Japan, India, and China
  • St. Peter Faber (1506-46) — First priest and co-founder of the Jesuits order who emphasized reform. Traveled throughout Europe, especially to Germany helping to resolve religious disputes.
  • Francis Borgia (1510-72) — Spanish nobleman who renounced his titles and joined the Jesuits, eventually becoming Superior of the order.
  • Peter Canisius (1521-97) — Influential Dutch Jesuit who founded colleges in Germany and worked tirelessly to oppose the Protestant reformation.
  • Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) — Italian Jesuit, Theologian, and doctor of the Church. Renowned for his Catechism, extensive writings, and contributions to Catholic education.
  • Andrew Bobola (1591-1657) — Polish Jesuit missionary who preached in Belarus and Lithuania. Captured, tortured, and killed by the Cossacks.
  • Stanislaus Kostka (1550-68) — Patron of Poland and Jesuit novices.
  • Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-91) — Jesuit who died while caring for victims of epidemic. Patron of Christian youth and young students.
  • John Berchmans (1599-1622) — Flemish seminarian of exceptional character. Patron of altar servers.

Founders of Religious Orders

Many of the most notable saints of the Reformation era were known as founders of new religious orders, and their contributions are detailed elsewhere. Saints notable for founding religious orders are listed below.

  • Angela Merici (1474-1540) — Founder of the Ursulines, a teaching order dedicated to educating young women.
  • Cajetan of Thiene (1480-1547) — Italian priest who founded the Theatine order, composed mostly of nobility who donated their property and lived an austere life, exemplifying clerical virtue. Pope Paul IV was also a founding member.
  • John of God (1495-1550) — Founder of the Brother's Hospitallers order, dedicated to care of the poor and sick.
  • Anthony Maria Zaccaria (1502-39) — Founder of the Barnabite order of Clerics Regular.
  • Philip Neri (1515-95) — Founder of Oratorians, a congregation of Secular clerics
  • Teresa of Avila (1515-82) — Founder of Discalced Carmelites, a reformed contemplative order. Known for her spiritual writings and a Doctor of the Church
  • John of the Cross (1542-91) — Founder of the Discalced Carmelite order. Known for his spiritual writings and a Doctor of the Church
  • Joseph Calansanz (1557-1648) — Founder of the Piarist teaching order.
  • Jean Frances de Chantal (1572-1641) — Founder of the Visitation Sisters.
  • Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) — Founder of the Lazarists (Vincentians) and Daughters of Charity.

Notable Popes of the Reformation Era

  • Paul III (1468-1549) — Pope (1534-49). First Reformation pope to take active measures to combat Protestantism by convening the Council of Trent. Also known as a patron of the arts, and for authoring bulls that opposed slavery and established rights of the indigenous peoples of America.
  • St. Pius V (1504-1572) — Pope (1566-72). Dominican pontiff noted for implementing the decrees of the council of Trent, opposing Protestants, establishing the Tridentine Mass, and the Battle of Lepanto.
  • Gregory XIII (1502-1585) — Pope (1572-85). Served as a leading Cardinal and Papal Legate to Philip II before serving as Pope. Vigorously pressed the reforms of Trent, supported the Jesuits, founded Universities. Unlike many other prelates of the era, he led a virtuous personal life. He is most famous for commissioning the 'Gregorian' Calendar .
  • Sixtus V (1520-1590) — Pope (1585-90.) Energetic Pontiff who continued to press reforms in the Church, but sometimes lacking tact. Known for ex-communicating Elizabeth I of England and Henry Navarre, later King of France.

Other Well known Catholic Heroes of the Reformation (not known primarily as founders)

  • Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555) — Spanish friar known for his writings, sermons, and oratory. He was a missionary in Mexico and the bishop of Valencia in Spain.
  • John of Avila (1499-1569) — Spanish theologian revered for piety and preaching. Rector of the University of Baeza, Declared a Doctor of the Church recently.
  • Juan de Ribera (1532-1611) — Reforming archbishop of Valencia, known for his preaching. Responsible for the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain.
  • Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) — Cardinal-nephew of Pope Pius IV and bishop of Milan renowned for his effective reforms who played an important role in implementing decrees of the Council of Trent.
  • Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619) — Established Capuchin monasteries in Germany and evangelized Jews and Protestants. Doctor of the Church.
  • Francis de Sales (1567-1622) — Bishop of Geneva who worked tirelessly to convert protestants and save Switzerland for the faith. Doctor of the Church known for spiritual writings.
  • Fidelis of Sigmaringen (1577-1622) — Capuchin Friar who worked as a missionary in Fribourg Switzerland and had great success in converting Protestants back to the faith, until he was captured and martyred by Calvinist soldiers.

There are many lesser-known heroes of the Catholic Reformation. Most of these saints founded lesser-known, or local religious orders and spent their life exemplifying Christian virtues and works of mercy.

  • Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562) — Esteemed monk of the Discalced Franciscans, who founded a convent of 'Strict Observance' and underwent severe penances.
  • Jerome Emilian (1486-1537) — Soldier who became a priest and dedicated his life to helping orphans and the sick. He founded the ‘Company of Servants of the Poor’, more commonly known as Somaschi Fathers, a religious order of priests and lay brothers.
  • Francis Caracciolo (1563-1608) — Italian nobleman who became a priest after recovering from leprosy. Founded the congregation of Minor Clerks Regular, an order involved in parish work and education.
  • John Leonardi (1541-1609) — Founder of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God of Lucca. Promoted Forty hour devotion to BVM.
  • Camillus of Lellis (1550-1614) — Italy soldier, a lay brother associated with Philip Neri. After working in a hospital due to his own incurable leg wound, he dedicated his life to care of the sick and founded the nursing order known as Camillians.

The following excerpt is from 'Leading Events of Church History: Early Modernd Period'. It provides an overview of the early movement for Catholic Reform

Saints of the Reformation

It must not be forgotten that momentous events had been occurring in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands during the eighteen years over which the sessions of the Council of Trent were spread. But during these troublous times the work of God, too, had been going on, and the state of the Church was full of promise. The reforms already noticed were bearing rich fruit. Institutes for the formation of a holy secular clergy Lad sprung up under the hands of St. Philip Neri and St. Charles Borromeo—the older Orders had been reformed, new religious congregations had arisen, and the nations severed from the Church by heresy were in many places being won back to the unity of the faith. The impetus given to the Christian education of youth was little short of 76 marvellous, and from recently-discovered lands stories were coming of hosts of the heathen being received into the bosom of the Church. Everything seemed to promise a Golden Age. But, though these glorious works developed as time went on, there has never been a truce in the deadly warfare waged against them by Protestant sectaries; and that so little, comparatively speaking, has been realized by such splendid activities must be reckoned to the account of the hand-to-hand struggle going on all over the globe between the Church and the spirit of heresy and of infidelity engendered by the great revolt of the sixteenth century.

Philip Neri and the Oratorians

Perhaps no other feature of the period was more powerful in effecting a return to Catholicism in heretical countries, and in arousing anew the true spirit of the faith where the fundamentals had not been lost, than the Jesuit schools. But there were many other influences at work, though perhaps more local in character than those due to the Society of Jesus. The city of Rome itself owes its spiritual renovation to St. Philip Neri. The ministrations of this gentle saint were long almost unnoticed, for his method was unostentatious, and his works of zeal of the humblest character. He frequented hospitals, aided the dying, talked cheeringly and lovingly of the good God and the way of serving Him, and exercised an almost magnetic influence over all that came under the spell of his gracious presence and winning manners. Men gathered round him instinctively; where he led they followed, whether it was to perform self-denying acts of charity for the sick or for pilgrims, or to make the stations of Rome, or to assist at exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. At length his director insisted on his embracing the priesthood, and Philip, without changing his methods, found his power over men grow. The results of his sacred ministration in the confessional, and his familiar but priestly conversations, will be known only at the last day. Philip loved to gather the young around him, and to make virtue attractive by surrounding it with sweet and beautiful associations. Wise religious superiors sent their novices to join the happy throng of lads that sang and prayed and played round that gentle master on the fair slopes of the Aventine.

Among the disciples who clustered round St. Philip, a little bind of priests attached themselves more closely to him and lived under his guidance, forming something like a community, though Philip had no thought or desire of becoming a religious founder. The first church where they met, and whither crowds repaired to assist at the simple sermons and glorious choral services which, from the first, characterized the meeting of St. Philip's sons, was called the Oratory. Though one church after another was taken—as each in turn became too small to admit the ever-increasing number that flocked thither—the name remained. St Philip's churches are Oratories, his sons Oratorians; and a species of sacred drama set to music, first brought to perfection in the church of St. Philip, and under his inspiration, is still called an oratorio.

Palestrina, the prince of Church musicians, was a disciple of St. Philip, and held for ten years the post of maestro in the Oratory at the same time that he conducted the papal choir at Santa Maria Maggiore. It was in the arms of St. Philip that (in 1594) the great composer breathed his last, "true, even upon the brink of death, to that sympathy with piety and purity which had drawn him, during half a century, to devote to their illustration and furtherance all the beauties of his fancy, and all the resources of his learning."

St. Philip, in spite of his retiring humility, was drawn into most of the stirring events of his day. The very spirit of the Council of Trent seemed to be alive in him, and his action lent effective aid to the popes and bishops in carrying out its decrees by training good priests, by making Church services splendid and, at the same time, attractive, and by adopting a style of preaching understood by all, thus popularizing holiness of life. To combat Protestantism in one of its strongholds, Philip caused his great disciple Baronius to compile the "Annals of the Church." This was to answer the "Magdeburg Centuries"—a series of historical works purporting to be an account of thirteen centuries of Church history. The preparations were worthy of the work. Baronius was commanded to treat only of ecclesiastical history in his sermons, and to repeat the course over and over again for thirty years. Then Philip bade him write. Baronius was able to complete the story of only twelve centuries, but his work is a monument of painstaking research and noble devotion to the Church.

When King Stephen Bathori reinstated Catholicism in Poland, St. Philip founded the Polish College at Rome, on the model of the Germanic College of St. Ignatius About the same time Pope Gregory XIII. founded the English College to provide priests for our country, then under the stress of the Elizabethan persecution; and Philip, when meeting the young collegians, was wont to salute them as "Flores Martyrum."

As we have already seen, St. Philip had a good deal to do in securing for Henry IV. of France the long-sought-for absolution which brought peace to France. Shortly after this event, at a ripe old age, though with undimmed lustre of intellect and warmth of heart, Philip's bright and happy spirit passed to eternal joy, May 26 1595.

Perhaps the greatest work of St. Philip was the silent moulding of the hearts of the great men around him, till one and all who came under his influence became transformed, or were strengthened to lead a more than usually holy life. Not only was he the friend of all the saints of his) day, but he was the centre of cardinals, prelates and religious: he inspired each with lofty aims, and each in his turn became a means of holiness to others.

Charles Borromeo and Frances de Sales

Among the most famous of this group of saintly men were St. Charles Borromeo, Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, and his nephew, Cardinal Frederic Borromeo, who succeeded him in his diocese. Twenty-three years younger than St. Philip, St. Charles was yet of mature sanctity when they first met, and the two saints instinctively recognized each other's holiness. None was more indefatigable in working for the interests of the Church than St. Charles Borromeo. To him it is largely due that the Council of Trent was called and brought to a successful conclusion by his uncle, Pope Pius IV. He, too, had the principal share in compiling and producing the Trent Catechism. To aid him in reforming his diocese he would have had the sons of St. Philip in his episcopal city, but some little difference of views in the two saints frustrated this project. He called in the Jesuits to his aid, gave them charge of the secular college, and entrusted to them the ecclesiastical seminary until his own oblates were able to take charge of it. St. Charles died in 1584, at the early age of forty-six; but by princely munificence in restoring churches, by zealous preaching, by the training of his clergy, and by self-sacrificing labours, he had completely changed the face of his diocese: his Helvetic College had provided for a supply of well-qualified priests for Switzerland. He had also brought about an alliance of the seven Catholic Cantons—the Borromean League—for the defence of the faith of these peoples who were placed, as it were, in the stronghold of Calvinism.

Another eminent bishop and apostle of the age was St. Francis of Sales, a pupil of the Jesuits both at the Paris and Paduan Universities With the assistance of his cousin, Louis of Sales, who obtained for him the provostship of the Genevan Chapter, he overcame his father's opposition to his vocation, and was ordained priest, at twenty-six years of age, in 1593. He was a Savoyard, and his whole career was passed within the limits of this Alpine land, which now forms two departments of France, but was then an independent dukedom. In the great duel between Clarles V. and Francis I., the dukes of Savoy sided with the former. They thus found themselves placed between two enemies—the French on the west, and the Calvinistic Cantons of Switzerland on the northeast—and cut off from their ally, the German Emperor. During the long wars between France and Germany, Savoy was repeatedly invaded, and large slices of her territory were absorbed by France and by the Swiss. In 1536 the Chablais, a very important section of the duchy—that lying to the south of the Lake of Geneva, and a rich and populous part of it—was seized by the Canton of Berne, and retained for more than fifty years. The people changed faith when they changed masters, so that when Charles Emmanuel of Savoy regained the Chablais by treaty with Henry IV. (1589) the inhabitants were bitter Calvinists.

Shortly after the ordination of St. Francis the duke begged the Bishop of Geneva to send some priests to convert the restored province. It was a dangerous mission, and the bishop felt that none could be better entrusted with it than the young provost, who was already attracting much attention by his talents for preaching and his priestly. virtues. Again the aged father interposed, and' strove to prevent his son from undertaking the perilous task;, but Francis was firm, and, with his cousin, set out on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 1594. For a year and a half almost no results were seen, though Francis had exposed himself unceasingly and with dauntless courage to every hardship and danger, seeking the mountaineers among the snow-clad fastnesses, crossing frozen torrents to say Mass for a few faithful Catholics, braving assassins, or preaching to congregations whose numbers could be counted on the fingers. At length people began to be interested in this intrepid missionary who toiled on so patiently at his thankless task, and by Lent, 1596, his sermons were listened to with profound attention. Then Francis boldly defied the Calvinistic ministers to prove the truth of their belief. They met to concert a plan of attack and defence, but not being able to come to a common ground of agreement, excused themselves by alleging the imprudence of holding a conference without the consent of the duke. Private conferences, however, were held, and great numbers were reconciled to the Church. the most influential being the Governor of Thonon, who henceforth was of great assistance to St. Francis. By order of the Pope, St. Francis on three occasions presented himself before the aged Beza, successor of Calvin, and strove to win the old man to reconsider his position. Though he is reported to have been greatly disturbed by the arguments of the saint, he finally declared: "My side is chosen." And if he ever desired to return to the Church, guards placed around him, to watch him night and day, prevented any such attempt. Beza died in 1605.

Though Francis began to work marvels, he felt that single-handed he could not hope to win back the whole country to the faith. He therefore begged the duke to send Jesuits and Capuchins to his aid, to set up a Catholic press for the dissemination of popular pamphlets on Catholic belief, and to open an establishment at Thonon where converts could in peace earn their own livelihood, or at least be secured against want. But what seems to have been the most fruitful measure employed by Francis was the solemn Exposition of the Forty Hours, which he held first at Thonon and afterwards in other places. Most wonderful results followed these times of fervent prayer, and the people simply flocked into the Church. Five years were passed in this way, and then Francis was named coadjutor to the aged Bishop of Geneva. He was able to carry out his idea of a Holy House of Refuge and Formation for Converts, and he joined to it three other departments, the whole forming a sort of university on a novel plan. The special needs of the diocese suggested the attempt. It was founded at Thonon, 1599, and comprised a seminary and residence for priests; a body of missionaries under the control of Capuchins; a college for the young, directed by Jesuits; and the home where converts were instructed in the faith, and provided with means of earning their livelihood. St. Francis also set on foot the Confraternity of Our Lady of Compassion for the conversion of heretics, which, three centuries later, Pope Leo XIII. confirmed and encouraged, giving for its special object the conversion of England.

As administrator of the diocese after the death of Claude de Granier, Francis was able to complete the conversion of all his people. Throughout the summer months he insisted on catechism being given on each Sunday during the two hours preceding vespers, himself setting the example at Annecy. He watched carefully over the education of his clergy, and examined with the greatest care all the candidates for Holy Orders. He held half-yearly synods, visited the various monasteries under his jurisdiction, and with the prudence, patience, and gentle tact for which he was renowned, he succeeded in rousing anew the religious spirit in hearts that had long been dead to its influence. When, after a lengthy visitation of his flock, he sent a report to the Holy Father, he was able to give the consoling testimony that, except in the Swiss section, not one single person in the diocese was a heretic. It is calculated that he won over fifty thousand sectaries to embrace the true faith.

Henry IV. had the greatest esteem for St. Francis, and showed it in many ways. The Swiss promised him their allegiance, and the use of their troops against the Duke of Savoy, on condition that he would re-establish Protestantism in the Chablais. But, at the solicitation of Francis, Henry declined an offer so advantageous from a military point of view. Later he permitted Francis to send missionaries into his Swiss possessions, and did his best to secure the saint for one of the French dioceses, treating him with the utmost honour when he visited Paris.

St. Francis of Sales will always be held in veneration for his splendid writings, which are as perfect models of literature as they are of simple and lovable piety, the "Introduction to a Devout Life" being the most widely known. He founded, with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, the Order of the Visitation, being one of the earliest saints to recognize the need for communities of women who would devote themselves to works of mercy outside their convent walls. The times were not ripe for such an immense step in the development of religious life, and the project had to be dropped, though the name remains to testify to the clear-sighted wisdom of the holy man. He had a good deal to do with the foundation of the Oratory in France, having suggested the idea to Cardinal de Berulle, and done all in his power to foster the new institute. He helped the saintly Madame Acarie in carrying out her project of bringing St. Teresa's Carmelites into France. In his own diocese he multiplied communities, and proved himself a true father to the religious under his care. He toiled without respite at his numerous works of zeal—always gentle, always full of winning gaiety and attractive piety—till struck down by apoplexy, December 28, 1622.

St. Vincent de Paul

In France the movement towards reform was much retarded by the civil wars which lasted up to the close of the sixteenth century, and by the bitter quarrels between the religious parties which characterize the whole period. When once the tide turned, the splendour of the reaction was almost unprecedented. The mere enumeration of the names of those who made the France of the seventeenth century glorious with sanctity would fill a page, but would give very little idea of the work accomplished. Every kind of zealous labour was cultivated: the reform of religious Orders, the foundation of schools, of confraternities to honour the Blessed Sacrament, to stop swearing and dueling, and to provide poor girls with marriage portions—such are a few of the projects set on foot. Everything was undertaken on a large scale; but several new features were added whose usefulness has been recognized more fully as time has gone on. Such were the work of the priests of the mission, of the training of secular clergy, and of active Orders of charity. This last, however, did not originate in France, though some of its most illustrious propagators belong to that country.

St. Vincent of Paul's Lazarist Fathers, founded in 1624, were the pioneers in the work of giving missions among the people. During eight months in each year the members of the Society dispersed in bands whose numbers were proportioned to the density of the population to be evangelized, and passed from village to village and from town to town preaching, catechizing, hearing confessions, and winning thousands to the profession and practice of their faith. Other bodies of priests having the same object were formed from time to time, and it is touching to read of the avidity with which these ministrations were almost everywhere received.

Charles de Condren and the Sulpicians

Most of the societies of religious men which sprang up subsequent to the Council of Trent had for object the supplying of worthy priests for the ministry of the altar and the care of souls; but the training of the so-called secular priests had not made much progress, though the establishment of seminaries for the purpose was one of the special means of reformation pointed out by the Council. It was reserved for an extraordinarily holy group of men of the first half of the seventeenth century to realize this important ideal. Pere de Condren, successor of Cardinal de Berulle as Superior-General of the French Oratory, was, under God, the originator of the project. Its accomplishment was due to Monsieur Olier, whose influence on his contemporaries was almost unbounded. He gathered around him a band of devoted priests, and with them evangelized the disreputable parish of St. Sulpice, which contained the notorious Faubourg St. Germain—the scene of the worst excesses of the dissolute Parisian nobility—and made it the model for a spontaneous reform that, reaching in turn every parish in the great city, spread throughout France, and so changed the face of the land that vice became unfashionable. During this period of renovation the project of an ecclesiastical training college was developed, and the seminary of St. Sulpice became the type on which were moulded the very numerous establishments of the same nature which gradually covered the land.

Somaschans and Piarists

The religious Orders of charity are exceedingly numerous. To mention a few of the best known must suffice: St. Jerome Emilian, of a noble Italian house, and his disciples—the Somaschans—became the protectors of orphans. The Barnabites undertook many charitable works among the poor, and devoted themselves with great zeal to religious instruction; and St. Joseph Calasanctius founded schools for the most forsaken outcasts of great cities.

Daughters of Charity

But perhaps the best known of all the institutes of charity are the Daughters of St. Vincent of Paul, whose devotedness wherever suffering reigns, whether in hospital or on the battlefield, in prisons or in orphanages, is beyond all praise.

This was the earliest example of a religious community of uncloistered women devoting itself to works of zeal. Founded in 1633 by St. Vincent of Paul, with the co-operation of Madame le Gras, it was approved by the Holy See as early as 1655 and incalculable are the effects of the example of this pioneer Order of charity. Since then every form of ministration that womanly hearts can plan and womanly hands can carry out has been opened up; and countless multitudes of consecrated virgins will bless God for the inspiration executed by the devoted father of the poor, St. Vincent of Paul, which has thrown open to them a career of such holy usefulness.

It would be possible thus to follow up saintly bishops and priests, religious and seculars, in their work of renewing again the face of the Church, but the task would be too long. It may safely be said that, thanks to these devoted men and women, by the middle of the seventeenth century a marked change had come over most of the European nations. Nowhere was there complete success, but the spirit of this age was very different from the apathetic decadence of the sixteenth century. Regarded from a merely human point of view, it can scarcely be doubted that the frenzy of the Protestant sectaries had aroused a corresponding ardour in Catholics, but it is as absolutely certain that rarely has any period of Church history to show in such exuberance the marvellous effects of Divine grace working in the souls of men and women of every age and condition. On the whole, in spite of a nascent heresy in France and the sad scenes still being enacted in many parts of Europe, notably in the British Isles, it may be said that the outlook was hopeful for the faith, if not for the political prosperity, of Catholics when the peace of Westphalia (1648) closed the story of the Protestant revolt.

But Europe was no longer the only continent which owned the sway of St. Peter. While thousands on her soil had been throwing off allegiance to the Holy See, thousands in far-distant lands had been gathering under the banner of the Cross, and enrolling themselves in the army of the Church Militant.