Fall 1983, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 196-206.

Endel Kallas:
      Catholic Spiritual Renewal on the Eve of the Reformation

In the early years of the sixteenth century, a chorus of voices besides Martin Luther called for spiritual revitalization of a declining church.

Reverend Kallas, Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and currently pastor, with his wife, at Grace Lutheran Church in Santa Barbara, contributed "The Spirituality of Luther" to the winter 1982 issue of this journal.

IN every age the Christian church has faced the critical theological question of spiritual renewal. Yet not every age experiences with equal intensity the need for renewed spiritual vitality. Our own era seems to be one that recognizes its spiritual poverty. Pope John XXIII prayed for the Second Vatican Council that the Holy Spirit might indeed "renew thy wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost."(1) The hope of John XXIII was for a new expression of the mysterious dynamic that has invigorated councils and the church throughout time, namely, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit bringing about spiritual rejuvenation amid the community of faith. So, too, was the situation during the first decades of the sixteenth century, when Catholic voices throughout Christendom appealed longingly for a new disclosure of the Spirit to invigorate the woeful spirituality of the world and the people of God.

Thus, Martin Luther, when he appealed for the renewal of Christian spirituality, was not alone. When he nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, a decisive juncture in the regeneration of spirituality was reached. His action was to have incalculable consequences for spiritual renewal in his time and also tragic consequences for the unity of the Catholic church. What must nevertheless be kept in mind is that others cried no less passionately during the early years of the sixteenth century for the renewal of spiritual vitality within the Catholic fold.

This article seeks to illuminate some of these "others," voices within Catholicism, hopeful of renewed spiritual life on the eve of October, 1517. I shall be acutely aware of the timely character of such an investigation and the relevance of the questions raised then by our ancestors and asked again now by us. Already the year 1983 has proven significant with regard to this critical matter of Christian spiritual renewal. Lutherans worldwide, for example, are celebrating this year the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of the reformer. How Luther fits into the larger picture of the sixteenth century and its widespread concern for renewed spirituality already has been a matter under lively discussion among church historians.(2) No less significant for Catholics this year has been the call of Pope John Paul II who declared 1983 "an extraordinary Holy Year of Redemption." At the heart of his address to ' the College of Cardinals last November was the ardent longing for "spiritual renewal at all levels."(3) Inasmuch as the question of spirituality faces our era with renewed intensity, an historical study of Catholic spiritual renewal during the early years of the sixteenth century will prove timely for our day. I do not believe that Luther is slighted when this inquiry highlights those of his contemporaries who yearned, like him, for the upbuilding of spirituality during the critical half decade prior to October, 1517.

The breadth of the investigation will be narrowed to the years r 1512 to 1517. My rationale for this scheme rests on two basic w premises. First, any longer period of time would so complicate the study so as to make it beyond examination within limited space. Second, the historical sources themselves suggest a value to the chosen boundary. In the year 1512, the Fifth Lateran Council opened in Rome with the expressed intention to bring about re form measures within the Catholic church. This council, more over, has been rightly considered by the Catholic historian Hubert Jedin as the "last attempt at papal reform" prior to the Reformation.(4) Bishop Giles of Viterbo, whose address formally marked the beginning of the council, pleaded for renewed devotion among clergy and laity. His remarks to the Fifth Lateran Council remain a landmark in the search for the rejuvenation of spiritual life during the early sixteenth century. Alongside Giles of Viterbo stand the figures of John Colet, Desiderius Erasmus, and Gasparo Contarini, whose voices also figure prominently in the chorus raised up in support of the spiritual revitalization of Christendom prior to October, 1517.

What, then, was it that impelled so many to voice in harmonious strain the need for renewed spiritual life during the critical half decade before the year 1517? How, too, might their anxious cry for spiritual reform help inform the church of our day in its own quest for the upbuilding of Christian spirituality?


What inspired so many to voice concern for the arousal of new spiritual vitality was an acute sense that the "age" squared poorly with an authentic Christianity. In the year 1516, Gasparo Contarini, in his work De officio episcopi, expressed heartfelt anxiety about the deeply troubled spiritual condition of Christendom. His words were poignant, sober, and went straight to the point: "Our age sins greatly."(5) This very ability to stand back from the "age" and take stock of its woeful spiritual condition reflects not only a heightened sense of historical perspective but also a critical element in the evaluation of Catholic renewal efforts during the pivotal years between 1512 and 1517.

This sense of historical perspective was part and parcel of the new currents of thought that swept through European intellectual circles during the Renaissance. No longer was the past so intimately bound up with the present, but former times came to stand more and more on independent grounds.(6) In no small way, too, this heightened historical outlook affected the consideration of the spiritual life. Most troublesome was the seemingly unbridgeable temporal gulf that separated the spirituality of Christendom during the sixteenth century from the more glorious past of the church. in 1512, Giles of Viterbo thus shared his observation with the prelates of the Fifth Lateran Council that Christendom had indeed become a "fallen religion" (CR 44). That from which the church had "fallen" was, for Giles, the "ancient brilliance" Christendom once had known in former periods of history. According to Giles, spiritual devotion and piety evidenced during the sixteenth century fared poorly when considered side by side with the spiritual condition of the people of God in former times. In an effort to awaken new spiritual life, Catholic literary figures thus found it necessary to take straight aim at their "age" in the hope that the spiritual malady of Christendom might be accurately diagnosed along the pathway toward eventual recovery.

Apart from the fact that sixteenth century piety seemingly compared unfavorably with the past, the very survival of Christian spirituality also appeared less than fully secure on European soil. No longer did it appear to many that Christianity would continue to remain an integral part of European cultural life. Giles of Viterbo, at the Fifth Lateran Council, predicted that the days might well be numbered for Christian spirituality. "Unless," Giles confided, "we face our greedy desire for human things, the source of evil, to yield to the love of divine things, it is all over with Christianity, all over with religion, even all over with the resources which our forebears acquired by their greatest service to God, but which we are about to lose because of our neglect" (CR 51). Today, one can speak somewhat casually about a "post-Christian era." It is unsettling to see its approach anticipated already in the year 1512! Yet, for Giles it was as though authentic Christian devotion was slipping away and, worse still; true spirituality possibly disappearing. Thus Giles feared it might well be "all over" for Christianity. What Giles envisioned was Christendom involved in intense spiritual strife where the lines of struggle were drawn between the love of things human and the love of God. Whatever might be the outcome of this conflict of priorities still remained, in the mind of Giles, an unsettled matter. Even so, the worst fears of Giles were counterbalanced with hope that, with the Fifth Lateran Council, there remained a glimmer of hope for the ultimate rejuvenation of spiritual life within the Catholic church.

No less anxious about the need for the awakening of new spiritual life was the esteemed English theologian, Catholic scholar, and dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, John Colet. In a renowned convocation sermon, delivered in the same year Giles addressed the Fifth Lateran Council, Colet challenged the assembled Catholic clergy of Canterbury province to tackle with utmost resolve the spiritual plight of Christendom. According to Colet, the spiritual crisis before Christendom demanded nothing less than the complete attention of clergy and laity. "Consider the miserable state and condition of the church," declared Colet, "and bend your whole mind to its reformation . . . . Suffer riot so illustrious assembly to break up without result. Suffer not this your congregation to slip by for nothing" (CR 39). That Catholic ecclesiastical leaders might grasp the opportunity for serious spiritual renewal and not allow the church "to slip by for nothing" remained a goal for Colet in the year 1512. What the church still did not need, Colet further argued, was "new laws and constitutions" (CR 36). Instead, Colet directed the eyes of his contemporaries back in time to the apostle Paul, whose inspirational words to the Christians at Rome provided one bright ray of hope through desperate spiritual times, namely, "be not conformed to this world, but be reformed in the newness of your minds" (Rom. 12:2). Like Giles, Colet perceived the spiritual breakdown of his day in terms of the failure of people to turn their vision to God over and beyond a narrow fixation on things worldly and temporal. Insofar as this word of the apostle Paul might take hold in the hearts of ecclesiastical leaders and the laity, Colet found promise in the effort to see through the spiritual predicament of the day. "Pardon a man for speaking out in zeal," Colet concluded, "a man sorrowing for the ruin of the Church; and, passing by any foolishness of mine, consider the thing itself' (CR 39). That "thing itself' was for Colet the arousal of new spiritual vigor among Catholics according to the words of the ancient apostle: "Be reformed into a new mind."

Equally sensitive to the need of turning around the widespread spiritual indifference of the day was Desiderius Erasmus, acclaimed Christian humanist and Catholic literary scholar. The works of Erasmus penned during the half decade prior to 1517 resound with anguish over the spiritual poverty of the age. In Sileni Alcibiadis, published in 1515, Erasmus expressed profound dismay that the needed "amendment of life" among his contemporaries seemingly might not be forthcoming, at least apart from radical repentance. "What else does this great turmoil tell us," Erasmus mourned, "but that God is angry with us all? What else is left for us to do, but . . . fly for refuge to the mercy of God? . . . Nothing has been gained so far from complaints, harshness, quarrels, and turmoil. There is only one way left -- let us all make a joint confession, that the mercy of God might be ready for us all" (CR 89). Uncustomarily, Erasmus assumed the mantle of an Old Testament prophet with his impassioned call for the thoroughgoing spiritual revitalization of Christendom through repentance. A year later, anxiety continued to well up in Erasmus over the spiritual crisis before Christendom. In the famous preface to his Greek New Testament -- often called the Paracelsus -- Erasmus identified more specifically what troubled him most about the spiritual poverty of his era. "It is not pleasant," remarked Erasmus, "to be forced to restate the old, but, sad to relate, only too just to complain -- perhaps never more just than in these days -- that now, when people are dedicating themselves with such devoted attention to all studies, the philosophy of Christ alone is sneered at by some -- even Christians! -- is neglected by many, and is discussed by few, and then in a detached fashion."(7) Where his days ran so afoul, Erasmus thus argued, was not so much in the attachment to worldly matters over and against the divine as much as in intellectual and literary pursuits contrary or indifferent to the "philosophy of Christ." Erasmus therefore published his new edition of the Greek New Testament with the expressed conviction that this scholarly tool might reverse the pervasive spiritual lethargy of his day and effectively begin the regeneration of spiritual life through "the philosophy of Christ."


All told, fears ran deep between the years 1512 and 1517 that something was seriously amiss with the spiritual condition of Christendom. Clearly the concerns evidenced in previous paragraphs by no means centered merely on ecclesiastical abuses. Indeed, the longing for the regeneration of religious affections and fidelity far surpassed criticism of the Roman curia and church prelates. If anything, Christian civilization itself seemingly teetered on the edge of a spiritual abyss; only a new manifestation of the Spirit provided positive hope for survival. It is of interest, then, to note that the Fifth Lateran Council customarily began its sessions with a ringing of the classic medieval hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus.(8) The very words to the hymn suggest the critical situation faced by the Lateran Council, though not without hope for the Spirit to bring to pass the much sought renewal of religious fervor:

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
And lighten with celestial fire;
Thou anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Anoint and cheer our soiled face
With abundance of thy grace.
Keep afar our foes; give peace at home;
Where thou art guide, no ill can come.

What the Lateran Council thus hoped for its day was nothing less than a "new Pentecost," whereby the Spirit might once again invigorate the church and assist the people of God in their search for renewed spiritual vitality.

Amid this climate of intense spiritual aspiration, expectations that God would soon intervene within history and effect the needed change also spread. This anticipation, moreover, oftentimes veered decidedly toward more violent expressions of judgment and insult. in the year 1497, the fiery Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola announced from the majestic Duomo in Florence that the city would soon fall under divine wrath if the people failed to heed the call for spiritual renewal. "O Italy, O Princes of Italy, O Prelates of the church," Savonarola proclaimed, "the wrath of God is over you, and you will not have any cure unless you mend your ways! . . . Do penance while the sword is not out of its sheath and while it is not stained with blood" (CR 14). According to Savonarola, the time for decision was at hand. Enact renewal, or be ready to suffer the imminent judgment of God.

By the year 1512, however, Giles of Viterbo felt far more hopeful that the "awaited renewal" was close at hand and that God would deal with Christendom sympathetically. Before the Fifth Lateran Council, Giles spoke enthusiastically of "salutary times" when God would not execute destruction, but accomplish the spiritual regeneration of society. "If only You be present," exclaimed Giles, "renewer of the world, Child of the divine Father, Preserver and savior of mortals, you may grant to me the power to speak, to my address the power to persuade, to the Fathers the power to celebrate . . . and finally [the power] to call fallen religion back to its old purity, its ancient brilliance, its original splendor, and its own sources" (CR 44). Inasmuch as God was now "present," Giles thus found his times more hopeful that the Lateran Council might initiate the process of spiritual regeneration and turn around the fallout of religious fervor and conviction.

Similarly, John Colet in his closing remarks to the Catholic clergy of Canterbury province implored them to depart with a clear sense that the Spirit whom they invoked at the proceedings would indeed bring to pass the restoration of piety and authentic devotion to God. "Go now," Colet entreated, "in the Spirit whom you have invoked, that you may be able with His assistance to devise, to ordain, and to decree those things, which may be useful to the church, and redound in your praise and honor of God" (CR 39). According to Colet, the Spirit was not far aloft or distant from the assembly of prelates and clergy. Renewal, Colet heartily expected, was imminent now that the Spirit, through the inspirational word of Paul, declared to the convocation: "Be ye reformed." No better place, moreover, for this to begin, noted Colet, than in the cathedral of London named after the apostle and the site of the assembly. With the advice of the apostle and the new indwelling of the Spirit, Colet thus believed that Catholicism in England was near to an awakening of faith for laity everywhere by virtue of this spiritual rejuvenation of church leaders in convocation.

Where Erasmus perceived renewed indwelling of the divine and the beginning of spiritual awakening was not so much in councils and convocations but in greater sensitivity to the reading of Scripture. In the printed word of Scripture Erasmus found concealed the very "living and breathing likeness" of Jesus Christ.(9) It was, affirmed Erasmus, the biblical narrative that served as the medium, or vehicle, whereby Jesus Christ once again made himself present and thereby imparted new spiritual vitality to the readership, laity and clergy. In the Paracelsus, Erasmus wrote: "The literature [of Christ] brings us the living image of His holy mind."(10) The written word of Scripture was for Erasmus far more than merely a printed page; it was a lively means for imparting the living Christ for the sake of spiritual regeneration everywhere.

By comparison, Gasparo Contarini, in his work De officio episcopi, viewed the bishop as the pivotal element for the initiation of spiritual upbuilding within Catholicism. The bishop, maintained Contarini, stands at an intermediary position between the "divine spirits" and humanity. The effective link of the divine realm with the temporal fold is, for Contarini, none other than the bishop of the Catholic church. Through bishops, spiritual vitality from on high is brought directly to bear on the temporal arena of the church. Put another way, the bishop functions in the scheme of Contarini as the "efficient cause" (CR 93) whereby the source of spiritual regeneration, God, accomplishes concrete renewal within the life of laity and clergy. Clearly more than simply an ecclesiastical administrator or standard of elevated religious virtue, the bishop assumed paramount importance for Contarini in the longed-for renewal of spiritual vitality throughout the church.


The search for spiritual revitalization in the early sixteenth century was obviously widespread and varied. The historical figures cited in previous paragraphs amply demonstrate that, within Catholicism between the years 1512 and 1517, longing for the arousal of new spiritual life was by no means an isolated phenomenon. If anything, the cause of spiritual renewal formed a climate of thought, indeed a dominant intellectual milieu, which spanned western European culture. In Rome, Giles of Viterbo stood before the Fifth Lateran Council and called upon Catholic prelates to begin the renewal process. In Venice, Contarini hoped Catholic bishops would take the helm and steer a new course for Catholicism along the way to spiritual regeneration. Across the Alps, Erasmus labored to initiate renewal with the publication of his Greek New Testament. In England, Colet expounded on the epistles of Paul in the hope that his words might spark Catholic clergy to be about the upbuilding of piety and new religious fervor.

Though the strategy for reform surely varied, one assumption can be culled from these various expressions of concern for spiritual awakening within early sixteenth-century Catholicism: spiritual renewal would come to pass. The proposed means might vary. But whether through an ecumenical council, or an ecclesiastical convocation, or the study of Scripture, or the leadership of bishops, the means whereby God would effect new spiritual life never appeared altogether beyond grasp or possibility. At the heart of the longing for renewal stood a positive expectation that God would intervene on behalf of the community of faith and thus advance the Catholic church along the pathway toward new spiritual vitality. This cherished hope, moreover, was not born of wishful naiveté, but of religious conviction with historical roots that, one might say, extended back in time to the first event of spiritual renewal within Christianity -- Pentecost. Though the process of renewal during the early sixteenth century proceeded far more slowly and painstakingly than the first Pentecost, Catholic reformers still held to the conviction that the winter of spiritual discontent would one day give way to a new blossoming of spiritual vitality.

No less urgent has been the feeling of need for spiritual revitalization within our own time. If history has demonstrated anything, it is that our age does not face the question alone. That history might assist the church today in its search for new spiritual life was a theme set forth some years ago by Pope John XXIII during his opening speech to the Second Vatican Council. "In our modern times," John XXIII reflected, "many can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is nonetheless the teacher of life."(11) In the face of forecasts of disaster, the end of the world, and arguments against the possibility of widespread spiritual regeneration, John XXIII echoed the voice of Catholic reformers during the critical half decade before the Reformation: never is spiritual rejuvenation utterly beyond the hope and possibility of the church. Indeed, spiritual renewal for John XXIII not only marked the beginning of church history at Pentecost, but also has been the very lifeblood of Christianity through the passage of time. In accordance with this vision, John XXIII prayed that our day would witness a "new Pentecost."

What may be hoped, in summary, is that the efforts of the sixteenth-century Catholic reformers may be a positive stimulus for the consideration of spiritual renewal in our day. Since 1983 has been designated a "Holy Year of Redemption," the call has already gone out for Catholics to face once again the awakening of spiritual life. Lutherans, who observe in this year the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, similarly might consider anew the contemporary significance of the reformer within the context of spiritual renewal and in relationship to Catholic efforts just prior to the critical year of 1517. May this year ultimately prove fruitful in the recovery of spiritual renewal from the past, while in search of new spiritual vitality for the future.

  1. Walter Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press, 1966), pp. 709, 793.
  2. John Todd, specialist on Luther, presented a public lecture November 29, 1982, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on "An Everyday Theology: The Spirituality of Martin Luther."
  3. "Pope Urges Spiritual Renewal, Proclaims'83 Redemption Year," Los Angeles Times, 26 November 1982.
  4. Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, vol. 1 (St. Louis: Herder Book Company, 1957), p. 128.
  5. John C. Olin, ed., The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (Westminster, Md.. Christian Classics, 1978), p. 106. Henceforth this work will be referred to in the text in parentheses as CR followed by page number, thus: (CR 106).
  6. Cf. E. Harris Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956), pp. 35 f.
  7. Herman Shapiro and Arturo Fallacio, eds. Renaissance Philosophy: The Transalpine Thinkers (New York: Modern Library, 1969), p. 151.
  8. Cf. C.-J. Hefele, Historie des conciles, vol. 8, for a detailed account of the proceedings of the Fifth Lateran Council.
  9. Shapiro and Fallacio, Renaissance Philosophy, p. 162.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Abbott, Documents of Vatican II, p. 712.