"It is perfectly true that we can find real wrongs, provoking rebellion, in the Roman Church just before the Reformation. What we cannot find is one of those real wrongs that the Reformation reformed."
G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, 66
The Protestant Reformation is the only event to surpass the tragic effect on Christianity that the great Schism between East and West had on the Church. Not so often spoken of, perhaps because of general anti-Catholic bias in the world in general, is the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Taking some of the accusations of the Protestant Reformers at their word, the Counter-Reformation not only strode forward with courage to meet the objections and attacks of the Reformation, but also corrected the corruptions within the Church that had been pointed out.
The following is a list of the 10 key figures of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
A giant amongst the successors of St. Peter, Pope St. Pius V was the great mobilizer behind bringing the reforms of the Council of Trent to life in the Church. Fighting multiple battles on all fronts that threatened the Church, he defended its walls against the onslaught of the Turks, the English Reformation and its subsequent persecution of Catholics, the rise of Huguenots in France, and corruption within the Church herself. In order to preserve the Mass from error and innovation, he issued the papal bull Quo Primum in order to standardize the Mass. He also promulgated the Catechism of the Council of Trent (also known as the Roman Catechism), which became the basis for all further catechisms of the Church. One wonders how this saintly pope ever had a moment for himself or for prayer in the slightest.
Nonetheless, Pope St. Pius V's reforms of the Church according to the great Council of Trent, his exemplary life and witness, and his active participation in combatting heresy make him a must on this list.
I think of all the saints on this list, St. Charles Borromeo was probably the busiest of them all. To peruse some of his activities and roles within the Church is to read over a massive laundry list of duties.
In his life, St. Charles, like Pope St. Pius V, was extremely active in bringing the reforms of the Council of Trent to life in every way imaginable. In his life, he fought the spread of Lutheranism, established schools and hospitals (including Sunday schools), worked amongst the poor and victims of plague, and was instrumental in cleansing the clergy of the taint of worldly corruption.
Most interesting to me is how he was always known to take the time to teach the faith, even in the most minute and simple of ways, to the poor and marginalized. A true hero of the Counter-Reformation.
Words cannot accurately nor justly describe the heroic life and virtues of this man, the "gentleman saint" and great apostle to the Calvinists of the Chablais. A masterful apologist for the Christian faith against Protestant innovations, a brilliant student of the Church Fathers, and a humble servant of the faithful, St. Francis de Sales is without a doubt one of the leading lights of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Not only did he almost singlehandedly convert 72,000 Calvinists back to the faith, but also authored one of the greatest apologetic writings of all time - The Catholic Controversy, as it is now known. He also was an incredible spiritual director and mystical writer, exemplified respectively in his masterful Introduction to the Devout Life and his Treatise on the Love of God.
A Capuchin friar and former lawyer, St. Fidelis was sent to evangelize and bring back the Protestants of Switzerland. His life was one of undaunted courage in the face of hardship, hatred, and violence - several times throughout his missionary career amongst the Calvinists of the region of eastern Switzerland, he was threatened with death, shot at, and faced all manner of violence. Notwithstanding threats on his life, he managed to convert many back to the faith, which only aroused the ire of the Calvinists in the region even further.
Finally, it seems that they could take no more of the presence of this holy friar, the man who was known as a father to the poor and servant of all - having predicted his own death in a very short time, he met with a large group of Calvinists led by a minister during his travels. Fr. Alban Butler relates: "On his road back to Gruch, he met twenty Calvinist soldiers with a minister at their head. They called him false prophet, and urged him to embrace their sect. He answered: "'I am sent to you to confute, not to embrace your heresy. The Catholic religion is the faith of all ages, I fear not death.' One of them beat him down to the ground by a stroke on the head with his backsword. The martyr rose again on his knees, and stretching out his arms in the form of a cross, said with a feeble voice 'Pardon my enemies, O Lord: blinded by passion they know not what they do. Lord Jesus, have pity on me. Mary, mother of Jesus, assist me.' Another stroke clove his skull, and he fell to the ground and lay wetering in his blood. The soldiers, not content with this, added many stabs in his body, and hacked his left leg, as they said, to punish him for his many journeys into those parts to preach to them."1
Nicknamed the "hunter of souls", St. Cajetan was central to the Catholic Church's response to Protestantism. In light of much interior corruption within the Church, St. Cajetan formed the Theatine order which actively sought to strengthen the laity in the sacraments, as well as reform the clergy - "Study of the Bible and Christian doctrine, restoration of the dignity and spirituality of worship, care for the sick and poor, preaching and pastoral care with complete disinterestedness were some of the characteristic marks of the new Order."2 A "seraph at the altar, and an apostle in the pulpit"3, he introduced the devotion of Forty Hours' Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament "as an antidote to the heresy of Calvin."4 His active work in reforming the Church from corruption and lukewarm faith was awe-inspiring; not only this, but his work amongst the poor was positively heroic.
6. St. Robert Bellarmine
Demonized by devotees of scientism nowadays due to his involvement in the Galileo affair (which is not what it has been popularly mythologized as), St. Robert Bellarmine was a brilliant theologian and bright star of the Jesuit order. He wrote many theological works, as well as several classics of mysticism, and was a spiritual guide to St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Against the errors of Protestantism and attacks on the Papacy, he wrote a definitive apologetic work entitled as the Disputationes (also known as The Controversies), which caused a tremendous stir amongst the major Protestant theologians who were called to respond to it (including a bewildered Theodore Beza). According to Fr. John A. Hardon, the Cardinal and saint, "more than any single man in Christendom analyzed Protestantism to its roots."5
No introduction is necessary for this man, one of the greatest of saints that Holy Church ever saw in her history. St. Ignatius of Loyola, after having been wounded by a cannonball in battle, experienced such a profound turnaround to Christ in his life that everything that happened from then on is like a lightning bolt through history. Against all odds, St. Ignatius and a small company of like-minded men formed the Jesuit order, professing unfailing loyalty to the Church in their extremely troubled times. Surrounded by all manner of heresy, corruption and danger, they set forth to their work and never looked back, being sent all across the world to bring the truth of Christ to the nations.
In terms of the Counter-Reformation, St. Ignatius was instrumental in reforming corruption within the church. The Jesuits became the most militant defenders of the Church in the face of widespread heresy, and St. Ignatius' revolutionary Spiritual Exercises became a masterpiece of Catholic spirituality used by both the ordinary lay faithful and religious alike. It is thanks to St. Ignatius' revolutionary approach to the spiritual life and his founding of the Jesuit order that many other great saints were raised to defend the Church in the tumult of the Reformation era.
St. Teresa of Avila, unlike most of the saints on this list, did not necessarily actively engage in checking the spread of Protestantism. Though she does make a brief reference to Protestantism and its effects in her autobiography, St. Teresa was far more concerned it seems with the reform of her own Carmelite order. In effect, she took to heart the abuses and corruptions pointed out by the Protestant Reformers, and began to set them aright.
By the time of St. Teresa of Avila, the Carmelite order had become a mockery of what it had originally been intended to be. Monasteries and convents had become materialistic, lax, and corrupt in the extreme. St. Teresa sought to rectify this through her reform of her own order, establishing a stricter rule of life, and forming the Discalced Carmelites. Against much resistance, and with her friend in Christ St. John of the Cross at her side, she managed to halt the interior decay of the order, re-establish a way of life and monastic perfection bereft of error and love of the things of this world, and became one of the Church's greatest mystical writers and doctors.
One of the greatest Jesuits of all time, St. Peter Canisius was one of the first members of the order (learning under St. Ignatius himself) and is one of 35 Doctors of the Church. It is due to the tireless efforts of St. Peter that Lutheranism did not completely overtake Germany, with his opposing any and all Lutheran theologians who met him in theological debate.
His written works against the errors of Protestantism were many, and designed for almost every audience. He also propagated a Catechism in order to ensure the proper education of the faithful, and was a major driving force behind the Council of Trent. In all aspects, not only a model Jesuit, but a model Catholic and defender of the faith - "whoever adheres to the Chair of St. Peter is my man. With Ambrose I desire to follow the Church of Rome in every respect."6
10. St. John Fisher
I think that many might be shocked here to find that I did not put St. Thomas More - no doubt St. Thomas will forgive me for it (as well as St. Edmund Campion, St. Robert Southwell, and so many other great heroes of English Counter-Reformation). Instead, I place in this list of illustrious saints of such a tumultuous age, St. John Fisher. In St. John, we see one of the first of many English Catholics who were martyred for their faith during the English Reformation, and whose writings would bear influence during the Council of Trent. Already having spent time in defense of the Real Presence in the Eucharist against Protestant theologians in the universities, including writing a four-volume work in refutation of the errors of Martin Luther, St. John Fisher became embroiled in the controversies surrounding King Henry VIII.
Despite his close relationship with the King, he stood in defiance against his wishes to procure a divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon and his claims to be the head of the Church of England. For all of this, and his defenses of the Catholic Church and the Papacy against the objections and agitations of King Henry VIII, he was thrown in the Tower of London for ten months, subjected to inhumane conditions, and beheaded. His body was left exposed and humiliated for all to see - his last words were, "Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death’s stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel."7
1 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, found here.
2 - David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, "Cajetan"
3 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, 1866 edition.
4 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, 1894 edition.
5 - Found here.
6 - Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition, "Bl. Peter Canisius"
7 - Michael Davies, St. John Fisher