Council of Trent and the Catholic Mission

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Council of Trent and the Catholic Mission

The successful implementation of the doctrinal and disciplinary decrees of the Council of Trent (an assembly of Catholic bishops and priests that met from 1545 to 1563 to reform the Roman church) was premised on state cooperation with a Catholic establishment of resident bishops who were committed to regulating the devotional lives of laity and clergy. The bishops would ideally hold regular diocesan and metropolitan synods, visit Rome (the font of orthodoxy) regularly, and monitor liturgy and organizations in the parishes. Stable social and political conditions were necessary for the Tridentine vision of a renewed Catholic Church to become a reality.

The three Irish bishops who attended the closing session of the council in 1562 to 1563 returned instead to a mission field where the Catholic Church was outlawed and its structures dislocated. Although their dioceses in the north and west of Ireland were outside the reach of the Protestant state church, the decades since Ireland's breach with the papacy under Henry VIII in the 1530s had witnessed great upheaval in the organization of the Roman church in Ireland. Some areas had bishops that conformed to the royal supremacy, and other sees such as Dublin and Meath were to remain without papally appointed prelates for many years. The closure of many monasteries across the country had disrupted parish activity, since many of the benefices had been in the gift of monastic orders. As a result, church livings that had in the later Middle Ages been endowed upon the monasteries by pious benefactors were now in the possession of the new lay grantees. Despite their best efforts, the remaining Catholic bishops were operating without a proper structure of ecclesiastical command or a proper parish system.

In an effort to kick-start the drive toward reorganization, Pope Paul IV appointed a Limerick Jesuit, David Wolfe, as commissary in 1558 with the task of rebuilding the Roman episcopate in Ireland. One of his key nominees was a fellow Limerick priest, Richard Creagh, who became archbishop of Armagh in 1564. He was a zealous protagonist of Tridentine reform, but the failure of his episcopal mission makes clear the obstacles to implementing the conciliar decrees in the Ireland of the 1560s and 1570s. He never got a foothold in his archdiocese because of political turbulence and crown suspicion, so Creagh's plans for convening synods and enforcing discipline came to naught. His position on state-church relations—that the papal warrant of Catholic agents should be recognized and tolerated in return for the church's acceptance of royal sovereignty in temporal affairs—was unacceptable to the state authorities. The excommunication of Elizabeth I by Pope Pius V rendered this approach increasingly intolerable to the Crown after 1570. Creagh spent most of his twenty-two years as a bishop in prison in London or Dublin.

During the latter half of the Elizabethan period up until 1603, growing Catholic militancy in Ireland led to the involvement of both laypeople and ecclesiastics in insurrections in all of the Irish provinces. Archbishop Edmund Magauran of Armagh (who died in a skirmish in south Ulster) and Archbishop Maurice MacGibbon of Cashel went on delegations to Spain seeking military aid. Other bishops such as Dermot O'Hurley of Cashel and Patrick O'Healy of Mayo were executed by the state as traitors. In the popular mind the deceased clerics were accounted martyrs, and their example inspired a more zealous dedication to Catholic activism. In particular, lay community leaders among the gentry and merchant elites were moved to make available the considerable resources of ecclesiastical tithes and clerical appointments that they possessed to a reviving Catholic organization. They also chose to eschew the newly founded Trinity College in favor of sending their offspring to Irish continental colleges, which became seminaries for a new Catholic priesthood that returned to staff the Irish Catholic Church beginning about 1600.

With a newly confident Catholic lay elite, and in spite of sporadic bouts of government prosecution of religious dissent, a church alternative to Anglicanism began to firmly take root in Ireland in the early seventeenth century. The return of a resident episcopate, spearheaded by David Rothe of Ossory, and the reestablishment of religious orders provided an ecclesiastical leadership for the movement. New religious societies such as the Jesuits and Capuchins joined the older established ones, such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites, to refound religious houses in most parts of the country.

Because the older church buildings and parish structures were now possessed by the Anglican Church, the emerging Catholic organization came to be based in the homes of the gentry in the countryside and in the houses of prominent merchants in the towns. These unofficial "mass-houses" were frequented by laypeople who heard mass celebrated there by seminary-trained priests, while the parish churches of the Anglican Church of Ireland were by and large thinly attended. Aristocratic patronage of the systems of worship and pedagogy was key to the success of the Counter-Reformation church in the late seventeenth century.

Diocesan organization was slowly re-established by the 1640s, with most areas of the country served by Catholic bishops and an adequate supply of priests. Diocesan and metropolitan synods were held from 1614 onwards, legislating for the implementation of the decrees of Trent in areas such as worship, the sacraments, and discipline among clergy and laity. When the enforcement of a strict code of practice came into conflict with the social mores of the Gaelic world (with respect to marriages and funerals, for example), compromises were worked out. By the 1640s there was a strong Catholic organization that incorporated the decrees of Trent and had gained the loyalty of most of the population. One of the attractions of the Counter-Reformation church was the ease with which priests communicated with their congregations orally in the native tongue, and the deft use of Irish in published form for catechisms and works of devotion was a most useful aid to the Catholic priests. (By contrast, most of the ministers of the Protestant reformed religion were committed to the advancement of the faith through English exclusively.) The Catholic Church had successfully molded itself to the contours of the native Gaelic and Old English societies, and its leaders were anxious to be seen accepting the temporal authority of the state.

The rebellion of the 1640s and the subsequent Cromwellian regime of the 1650s dislocated the nascent church, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660, a great deal of rebuilding had to be done. Some bishops and priests were among those who had been executed for resisting the Cromwellian armies, and most others had withdrawn from the country and had to be replaced. A slow recovery took place in the 1660s and 1670s, but the fragility of the Catholic position, dependent as it was on the grace and favor of the monarch, was made clear from the prosecution and execution of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett of Armagh for his alleged part in an antiroyalist Catholic conspiracy. The brief reign of James II in the late 1680s brought about an official Catholic restoration, but the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath cast into doubt once again the position of Catholicism in Ireland. The victorious Protestant Ascendancy was determined to consolidate its political, constitutional, and social position through the parliamentary vehicle of the penal laws. Aimed primarily at suppressing Catholic social and economic ambitions, the laws did make the practice of Catholicism very difficult, but there was some flexibility through local cooperation in the areas of clerical activity such as arrangements for baptisms, marriages, burials, and schooling for Catholic youth. Although the penal laws did constrain the Catholic community socially and politically, the Irish Counter-Reformation church of the seventeenth century proved robust enough to endure and provide a relatively vibrant Catholic Church in the eighteenth century and after.

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690); Irish Colleges Abroad until the French Revolution; Lombard, Peter; Plunkett, Oliver; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704)


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Bottigheimer, Karl S. "The Failure of the Reformation in Ireland: Une Question Bien Posée." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36 (1985): 196–207.

Bradshaw, Bradshaw. "The Reformation in the Cities: Cork, Limerick and Galway, 1534–1603." In Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland, edited by John Bradley. 1988.

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Lennon, Colm. An Irish Prisoner of Conscience of the Tudor Era: Archbishop Richard Creagh of Armagh, 1523–1586. 2000.

Colm Lennon

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Council of Trent and the Catholic Mission