The sermon, it has to be said, is quite a good one, in that Fr Cantalamessa seems to have an understanding of his audience and, to use the modern ugly phrase, “where they are at”. He also seems aware that their invitation to him to preach is of great significance. What catches the eye, though, are the references to the forthcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and the exhortation that we need to take things to a new level, along with the reference to the theological and spiritual enrichment that the Reformation brought about.
When I think of the Reformation, I have to admit that great theological and spiritual enrichment are not the first things that come to mind. In fact quite the opposite. In this country at least, the Reformation was marked by the reduction of the sacraments from seven to two, by iconoclasm, and by the abolition of many useful spiritual practices, such as devotion to Our Blessed Lady and pilgrimages, and the abolition of the religious life. The widespread opposition to these changes – which included three major rebellions – showed that these practices were much loved by the people of this land. Some welcomed the Reformation, but for others it was imposed at the point of a sword.
Of course there were positives, of which the greatest was the English Bible and the revival in preaching and its offshoot, religious pamphleteering. However, it has to be said that the Catholics had an English Bible too (the Douai Bible) and they certainly had their pamphlets, such as the famous Decem Rationes of Saint Edmund Campion, as well as the shorter work known as Campion’s Brag. These pamphlets were important as evidence of popular religious fervour. The government at the time was desperately keen to stop them.
Perhaps I may be seen by some as trying open old wounds by bringing this up, but it has to be said that there was great spiritual and theological enrichment in the Counter-Reformation as well as in the Protestant Reformation, and the energy of the Counter-Reformation flowed from the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, which was anything but moribund. I am reminded of what my old history teacher once taught me years ago: if Good Queen Mary had lived to be 70, instead of dying in her early forties, England would have remained Catholic. Incidentally, this is something that Professor Eamon Duffy says in his work on Marian Catholicism too.
So, just how should we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? Given that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were complex phenomena, the best way to mark the anniversary is to immerse ourselves in history. A year long programme of lectures, seminars, along with some historical re-enactments for added fun, would be an enriching experience for all.