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Years of Christianity: Battle of the Sword and Cross in Mactan, Part 6

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem ("for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity."

– St. Ignatius of Loyola

While Ferdinand Magellan was on his way to his final destination, Philippines first then eternity, he left behind a continent in turmoil and a church under siege. The challenges to the Catholic Church actually began long before Magellan moved to Spain when he renounced his Portuguese citizenship in 1517.

Fifteen seventeen was the same year that Martin Luther, a German Catholic monk finally rebelled against the Catholic Church and started a protest movement that evolved into his own religion. He founded Protestantism and ushered in the Protestant Reformation. The protestant movement was actually a culmination of centuries of great upheavals that pitted European countries against each other in the name of religion, including several inquisitions launched by Catholic Churches in England, Spain, and France.

The growing dissent against the Catholic Church and increasing popularity of the Protestant Reformation provoked Pope Paul III to convoke during the years 1545-1563, the 19th ecumenical council in Trentino (Trent), Italy. Trent was located near the German border where a large following of the movement lived. The meeting was to address abuses in the church and to clarify Catholic teachings or doctrines.

What transpired was extraordinary that helped improve the church image but practically declared war on the Protestants by launching its own version of Reformation. In essence, this was a three-pronged approach aimed at improving the church’s image. First, was some house cleaning that dealt with the corruption and abuses part. By decree, indulgences could no longer be sold but indulgences served a purpose thus preserved.

In Catholic countries, the parish priest who had an outsized role in the community was a focal point of such abuses. Religious celibacy is a severe prohibition for the secular priest but hardly observed in the face of such great power over the religious. Despite the presence of the bishops in the diocesan jurisdiction, and the respect of the faithful, were not adequate to check the impure inclinations of the clergy to lead them to a spontaneous compliance with their arduous but sacred duty.

The priest of a rural parish, who was generally the most important personage of the whole population, had so frequent and such dangerous opportunities of forming relations of an illicit character with the weaker sex, that he required a proportionate degree of sanctity, virtue, and prudence, to resist them.

These relations, however, once formed, were not concealed and generally known to the public. All the towns-people knew very well the person who is the priest’s querida; and even the fruits of these illicit relations were commonly known throughout the parish by the name of “hijo/hija de cura!” The bastard child became part of the mestizo race.

The vow of poverty was eluded by the friars due to a technicality. Communities such as in Spain and other jurisdictions were entirely free to accept and acquire property; and thus it was that the greater number of the convents lived in opulence, and the friars enjoyed all the conveniences of life. The friar shared all his collections from alms, sale of indulgences or by way of compensation for the masses he had to say and the sermons he preached, with his diocesan bishop. The bishop was exempt from the vow of poverty and lived in palaces. In return, he would lavish the king or queen with indulgences to keep him in such exalted status.

The residence of the bishop was cited as a problem especially for overseas jurisdictions like Portugal. Previously, the church relied on Christian monarchs and church patrons for compliance to the church teachings. Reforming the episcopate then, became the cornerstone of the Catholic Reformation.

In practice, it was a public relations approach to wash away the image of corruption and church abuses by institutionalizing them. By institutionalizing them, the church clamped down on protest by establishing hierarchies (degrees of priesthood) and embarked on a new direction that told Catholics that here on earth, the Pope is the supreme leader, the Vicar General of the church, and therefore, Catholics must believe and obey and trust the clergy. Obedience became the church’s moral stance but nothing deeper.

This was a repudiation of the Protestant’s thrust to believe directly in God’s grace rather than men - men that have been shown to be sinners. The protestors insisted that Jesus Christ was the global leader of the church, not the pope, even in absentia. And that grace (forgiveness and salvation) can only be obtained from God. Hence, it is the believer’s duty to get to know more about their God through reading and understanding of the Scripture in the Bible.

The Catholic Church disagreed and reassured the faithful that a priest can absolve sins and has the power to celebrate Eucharist, in the name of Christ. The concept behind the decree was that man is an active participant in the undertaking by doing good deeds but that if he falls off the wagon and has sinned, do not worry. Confess and ask forgiveness, and receive grace through communion.

Reforms in the church though, were slow. The sizzling protest movement at the time, was attracting adherents in large numbers of angry peasants from the countryside and in the urban poor who witnessed or suffered the abuses themselves and became disillusioned, prompted the church to act more decisively, through a public relations blitz. The blitz focused on appearances by the clergy and the church itself through rituals and practices, veneration of saints and to drive fear for non-compliance or heresy.

Priests were told to follow a dress code (vestments with embroidered pieces) to look nicer, credible, and respectable; and to train them on sexual morality and church doctrines by creating schools for priests – seminaries. To staff seminaries, the Council created new religious orders to deal with these problems.

Among the early religious orders were the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) founded by Ignatius of Loyola and co-founded by Francis Xavier. The Jesuits would later become the saving grace of the church. Loyola was a Spanish army captain who had the military discipline needed to exact vows of poverty, chastity and obedience among its adherents. They started with seven members who became soldiers of God with Loyola being the first Superior General.

The militarily structured group followed the Latin dictum: Ad majórem Dei glóriam - for the greater glory of God – and for the protection of the Roman Catholic Church. Their uniform was called a cassock or soutane bound by a cincture (roped around the waist) that eventually became standard issue for priests. The distinctive clerical collar on black or white soutane made the priest stand out among followers. Accessories such as a tuft less biretta with three or four-pronged peaks or horns plus a cape completed the look. (To be continued…)


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