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A Book Review… Saints And Heroes Who Reformed The Church

August 30, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


Heroes of the Catholic Reformation: Saints Who Renewed the Church, by Joseph Pearce, Our Sunday Visitor, 176 pages. Available at; paperback.

This is a book about saints and heroes, and although all the saints have practiced heroic virtue in some way during their lives, not all of them have lived “heroic” lives in the usual sense of the term — but for many of the saints who lived during the Catholic Reformation which, in its full flowering took place after Luther’s revolt, in 1517, heroism was very much required of them.
Heroes of the Catholic Reformation begins with a prologue on heroes and holiness, followed by an initial chapter which is an overview of the historical situation at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The rest of the book is then made up of chapters dealing with some of the outstanding saints of the Catholic Reformation.
Joseph Pearce contrasts the way the Reformation — and thus the Catholic Reformation — unfolded in England and in Europe as a whole; the English Reformation was essentially driven by Henry VIII’s “political ambitions and lustful appetites.”
But as bad as the situation was for Catholics under the Tudor monarch, things became even worse during the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth, when many priests and lay people were martyred for their love of, and fidelity to, the Mass and the faith, including Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, who are the subjects of the final two chapters of the book.
In Europe, there were persecutions and martyrdoms, too, but the Catholic Reformation produced truly great saints such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the founder of the Jesuits Ignatius of Loyola, and also a great Pope, Pius V, who brought to fruition the Council of Trent and was the driving force behind the victory over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Three chapters are taken up with story and martyrdom of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. Fisher was an intellectual, an ascetic, and a bishop, the only one who had been prepared to stand up to Henry VIII, and preach publicly, in 1532, against his plans to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Later on, he was accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Thomas More, on the other hand, was a layman, but like Fisher a scholar, who was born in London in 1478. He tried his vocation as a Carthusian, the rigorous religious order, but ultimately married and pursued a legal career. But he never forgot the habits of prayer and mortification he learned from the Carthusians, wearing a hair shirt at times, and rising early to pray and study, before hearing daily Mass. He was generous in almsgiving and a friend of the poor.
He came to the notice of the King through his legal ability. He was well aware of the capricious nature of the monarch, but when offered the position of chancellor, in 1529, following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, had little option but to accept. Ultimately, though, he too was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower.
Bishop John Fisher was beheaded, and after a show trial, on July 6, 1535, Thomas More was likewise judicially executed, although he put up a stout legal defense against the injustice of his trial.
The author also deals with Shakespeare’s play, St. Thomas More, which was written 60 years after his martyrdom, and provides evidence of the playwright’s Catholic sympathies during a time when it was very dangerous to express such thoughts.
He then turns his attention, for the next five chapters, to some of the major Catholic Reformation saints of Europe, none of whom were martyrs, but all of whom who could be described as great men and women of prayer — which was the secret of their sanctity.
The first of these chapters deals with Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, the wonderful Jesuit saints, who did so much to build up and inspire both the Church and their Order in Europe and around the world. And such saints were needed because the situation in Europe was very serious following Luther’s revolt — internally divided by Protestantism, it was also threatened externally by Islam.
Ignatius Loyola was born in 1491, a year before Columbus’ epic voyage, and until 1521, lived the life of a noble and soldier. But he was wounded in battle that year, at Pamplona in Spain, and after painful surgery forced to spend time convalescing. During this period he began to read spiritual books, and this led him ultimately to his conversion and to the founding of the Jesuits, an order, which under the Popes, did so much to revive and consolidate the Church in Europe.
One of his first followers was Francis Xavier, a fellow Spaniard, who acted like a second St. Paul in evangelizing the Far East, traveling to India, Sri Lanka, and Japan, before dying on an island off the coast of China in 1552, after an incredible missionary career. At the time of St. Ignatius’s death in Rome in 1556, there were more than a thousand Jesuits around the world.
The next two champers deal with Saints Charles Borromeo and Pope Pius V, who between them did so much to ensure that the work of the Council of Trent was carried to a successful conclusion. St. Charles became the archbishop of Milan and wore himself out with work and ascetic practices, dying in his early 40s. His example of personal holiness was of great importance in his successful dealings with quite often cynical men of the world, and in the spiritual reformation of his diocese.
Pope Pius V was likewise an ascetic, and a great man of prayer, who was responsible for among other things, in 1570, the excommunication of Elizabeth of England. Pearce deals with this point in some detail, and rejects the modern historical consensus that this act was an error of judgment on the Pope’s part.
Then there are chapters on Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, the great Carmelite saints and reformers, before the final two chapters deal with Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, two outstanding English Jesuit martyrs. Both suffered torture for the faith and both were executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered, the brutal sentence for those Catholics convicted of “treason” in Elizabeth’s England.

Useful And Worthwhile

Joseph Pearce has packed a lot into this fairly slim book of 176 pages and brought out the true sanctity and heroism of his subjects, who, as he says, “laid down their lives for Christ and His Church rather than accommodate themselves to the secularism of the state and its imposition of a state religion.”
There is a broader lesson to be learned from this book, too, that is that the Church today is facing a threat every bit as serious, if not more serious, than at the time of the Reformation. What the lives of the men and women featured here show is that the best, and indeed the only, way to reform the Church is through holiness and prayer. That has to come first, and the Catholic Reformation, at root, was a movement of reform brought about by saints who did indeed put prayer first.
Anyone who wants to get a broad idea of the Catholic Reformation, as viewed through the lives of some of its most outstanding exponents, will find Heroes of the Catholic Reformation a most useful and worthwhile volume.

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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at He has also a written two time-travel/adventure books for young people — details can be found at:

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