General and Introductory Materials
Part 2 History of the Liturgy

Chapter d26 Reformation [1500-1699 CE]

Historical Context


Sacramental Theology
To Think About

Historical Context

Following the Reformation there is a new emphasis among both Protestants and Catholics on doctrine. Religion becomes much more a question of believing rather than doing; a shift from a set of practices to a set of doctrines.  While social justice and right conduct remain important, now  more than ever before there is an emphasis on correct doctrine.  (Professor Brad S. Gregory, The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era, Great Courses, The Teaching Company)

For example when Pope John Paul II was asked in an interview by the French journalist Andre Frossard, "what was the most important word in the New Testament", replied "Truth". (See Pat McCloskey O.F.M., Homily Helps, June 24, 2007)

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Sacramental Theology

Sacraments in General

Sacraments had acquired an independent existence as seven "things" each having matter and form.  (The understanding of sacraments as encounters with God in and through symbolic events was obscured or lost.) 


As the clergy emphasize the need for infants to be baptized quam primum - as soon as possible - after birth to avoid hell fire, gradually the population is all baptized.  As the focus of baptism shifts then from adults to infants, the stages of Christian initiation and the unity of the initiation sacraments was lost.  The catechesis that had preceded the baptism of adults is also lost and we are faced with a Curch of un-catechized adults who were baptized as infants.

The doctrine of original sin, which first explained why it was possible to baptized an infant, has now become the principle reason why an infant must be baptized.  Original sin becomes a "threat" which clergy used to motivate parents to have their infants baptized.  The focus of baptism shifts to what it takes away (i.e. original sin) rather than on what it gives

[Note:  Twenty-First century biblical scholarship identifies Abraham as the first historical person in the Bible.  This requires the sacramental theologian to re-think original sin.]


The unity of the sacraments of initiation was lost and confirmation becomes an independent sacrament. It then acquires independent meanings.  Confirmation changes from a part of the initiation ritual and becomes "the sacrament of Christian adulthood".

The bishop, who was the original minister of all the sacraments now becomes the ordinary minister of confirmation.  Note the important switch from original to ordinary -- the first a historical reality, the second a legal requirement. 


The discussion centering on how the bread and wine can become something other than what they are, namely the Body and Blood of Christ, while an important discussion in itself, tends to focus the understanding of the Eucharist on the material elements of bread and wine rather than the transformation of the assembly, gathered to share a common meal, into the spirit field body of Christ commissioned to preach the gospel to every nation.

The Mass becomes the private prayer of the priest; the people say their devotions and receive only "ocular communion".


As Celtic penance comes to the continent and becomes scholastic confession, the focus shifts from healing to the listing of individual sins.  This emphasis on the listing of individual mortal sins tends to move moral theology and the moral life away from an interpersonal context of love of God and love of neighbor into a situation where the the emphasis is on individual works good works and bad works (sins).  Mortal sin becomes an act that even good people commit frequently, even daily. 

 Extreme Unction

As Extreme Unction is administered only in danger of death it begins to be associated with dying and the fear that dying inspired consequently Extreme Unction it is put off as long as possible. 

Holy Orders

It was difficult to reform Holy Orders because the people in charge of reforming the sacrament were often the very people who needed reforming! 

Pope:  Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) conferred eight different dioceses on one of his nephews (who becomes Julius II). Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) spent most of his papacy caring for his family and his five children.  Pope Julius "The Terrible" (1503-1513) led armies into battle; he celebrated a military victory parade through Rome on Palm Sunday.  Pope Leo X (1513-1521), had been made a cardinal at the age of 13 (he was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence).

Bishop:  Bishops were appointed by Kings and nobles. Often Bishops "collected" dioceses for the income (taxes and stipends) they brought in.  For example, the Cardinal of Lorraine became archbishop of Rheims at age 14, and had two other archdioceses, seven dioceses, and four wealthy abbeys. In England, Cardinal Wolsey was archbishop of York and bishop of three other dioceses. He never set foot in any of his four cathedrals until the day when he was carried into one of them for his funeral.

Priest:  "The clergy with whom lay people had the most contact were the parish priests, and there where numerous complaints about them. In many localities there were too many of them. In a notorious example, in the German city of Breslau, there where two churches staffed by 236 "altar priests," whose sole duty was celebrating Masses for the dead.  In such churches where many Masses where celebrated every day at the same times on the side altars, many people would run from one Mass to the next to be present at the elevation of the Host.  For many the Eucharist had become an object of adoration rather than a sacrament to be celebrated. Sadly too many people came to think of the Mass as the priest's own private prayer rather than a common act of worship."  (Rev. Thomas J. Shelley Ph.D. in Church History:  A Course on the People of God.  Sadlier, Faith and Witness series, pp 74-75.)

Deacon:  The functioning ministry of Deacon disappeared from the Church.

Minor Orders:  Many ministries in the liturgy and in the Church -- e.g. Readers, Mass Servers, Sacristans, etc. become formalized, restricted to clergy, and entered into by sacramental Ordination.  After the rite of tonsure, by which a man entered the ranks of the clergy, he was was ordained to the Order of Porter, ordained to the Order of Reader, ordained to the Order of Exorcist, ordained to the Order of Acolyte, and ordained to the Order of Subdeacon, before being ordained to the (major) Orders of Deacon and Presbyter. This was the normal way of doing things until  Ministeria quaedam, August 15, 1972.   For example, I have been ordained 7 times in 5 different ordination celebrations.


Marriages were often arranged in secret between children who did not even know one another and were based on dowry payments, and other financial and political considerations. 

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To Think About

How would ordinary Christians of the time understand the sacraments? 

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