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When the Catholic Church excelled in PR

It would be nice to think that the Counter-Reformation was a programme worked out on the back of an envelope by clever cardinals in some smoke-filled sacristy in Trent, in between sessions of the famous Council. A few figures in scarlet might have gathered round a thurible and brainstormed: what was wrong with the Church, and what needed to be done – a strategy for recovery, as it would be called nowadays.

But it wasn’t really like that. The Counter-Reformation, like all mass movements, began at the bottom of the ecclesiastical pyramid, and the Council of Trent, and its protracted implementation, represented its final stages, not its genesis. It began in the hearts and minds of people like St Ignatius of Loyola, as well as other lesser known figures such as St Anthony Mary Zaccaria (founder of the Barnabites), and St Cajetan (founder of the Theatines), though the first stirrings may well be traceable to the great Englishman, Cardinal Pole.

But if one were to reconstruct the points that might have been written on the back of that non-existent envelope, they could have looked like this. A programme for recovery, circa 1540, would have had at its centre the principle of clear doctrine, clearly expressed, clearly communicated.

To this end, one could have listed the following necessary steps to be taken: the publication of catechisms, for old and young; better preaching, and better clergy training; the use of the printed word, with the requisite development of printing presses, with means of publication and distribution; the fostering of sound popular devotions; investment in Catholic education at all levels and liturgical renewal. But one could also add something less practical but equally important: the invention of a proper Catholic style, in both music, liturgy, art and architecture, a style that would capture the spirit of the emerging age.

In the first field, that of education, catechesis, preaching and mission, the early Jesuits certainly excelled. One can think for example of St Peter Canisius, who spearheaded the re-evangelisation of Germany with his catechetical works; and one remembers with pride St Edmund Campion, who even though on the run during his brief English ministry still managed to write, print and distribute the Decem Rationes, popularly known as “Campion’s Brag”, a stunningly effective work of apologetics, all the more so for being produced under the very noses of the Elizabethan authorities. Its very daring got it noticed. Again, Jesuit colleges throughout Europe, but especially in the Austrian lands, were effective in re-Catholicising territories that had been lost to the Church.

But in the second field, that of the creation of a Catholic style, the Jesuits led the way too. If one wants to see the fruits of their patronage, visit any Jesuit church on the continent, perhaps starting with the two great churches of Rome, the Gesù and Sant’Ignazio, both of which showcase the achievements of the Jesuit brother Andrea Pozzo. Pozzo made his initial reputation as a stage designer for biblical pageants, and his ceiling fresco in Sant’Ignazio with its trompe l’oeil illusionism is certainly stagey, as is his design for St Ignatius’s tomb in the Gesù, but this theatricality is not to be dismissed.

What Pozzo does is what every Baroque artist did: he blurs the boundaries between heaven and earth, between spectator and spectacle. Pozzo’s work draws you in. To gaze at the tomb of Ignatius and spot the little angel who indignantly tears up the tomes of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, to see Religion crushing the monster that is Heresy, is to realise that this is a drama of which you, too, are a part. Baroque art overflows in all directions, in music as in architecture, as in painting and sculpture. The aim of the artist was to raise the heart and mind to God, to make that passage, from the mundane to the sublime, easier.

The artistic heritage of the Counter-Reformation is still with us, while the theology books of once-leading players like St Robert Bellarmine gather dust in the book stack. Few would advocate a return to Counter-Reformation theology and apologetics, though St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises are still with us, as is his surely enduring emphasis on mental prayer. But the art of the Counter-Reformation is dated as well, though there are parts of the world where people are still building baroque or neo-baroque churches. But the real enduring legacy of the art of the Counter-Reformation is that it underlines the way art and theology need to be allies, and how one can reinforce the other. Both preach, one with words, one in a way that transcends language. The artists of the Catholic Reformation also make the important connection between Catholicism and beauty, Catholicism and culture.

Thanks to these artists, to experience beauty almost became identical with having the Catholic experience, and the Catholic experience became an experience people wanted to have. One gets a hint of this looking at Bernini’s St Teresa in Ecstasy: here the teaching of the Council of Trent is communicated in enraptured marble. Again, thanks to many lesser artists, visiting cities as diverse as Mexico or Valetta or Manila meant entering a milieu which was unmistakeably Catholic, where the very stones breathed a lived faith that might move the hardest of hearts.

Why these thoughts today?

In Europe, at least, faith and culture have become separated, and Catholicism is marginalised. Hence the Pope has recently set up the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, under the leadership of Archbishop Rino Fisichella. If the archbishop were sketching ideas on the back of an envelope right now, they might resemble some of the points above, for the situation of the Church in Europe today greatly resembles that of the Church in Europe during the Reformation period. Vast territories that once were Catholic are Catholic no longer; many symbols of the faith endure, but they are symbols whose meaning is now obscure to all but the antiquarian-minded.

One thing that the new Pontifical Council must do is open up a way for the Church to speak to the world without being misunderstood. This means, in essence, proper public relations, or what the Americans call “public diplomacy”, and more cynical Europeans call propaganda. This was something at which Bellarmine excelled, as did Pozzo and Bernini, each in their different ways. Before anything like evangelisation can begin, we need to detoxify the brand, to make it attractive once more, to undo the damage to the Church done by paedophile priests and their enablers. Re-enchanting Catholicism, and making it synonymous with beauty again, will perhaps take centuries. Archbishop Fisichella, who is a very able man, will need an army of people like St Ignatius and Andrea Pozzo to help him in his formidable task.