Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Peter Burke on Counter-Reformation Saints

Peter Burke, “How To Be a Counter-Reformation Saint,” in Religion and Society in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800, edited by Kaspar von Greyerz. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984, pp. 45-55.

Peter Burke is an eminent and prolific historian of early modern Europe. He begins this chapter by affirming that the cult of the saints is a significant historical indicator because, like other heroes, saints “reflect the values of the culture which sees them in a heroic light.” After tracing the historical development of saint-making, Burke notes that while the idea of holy people is not unique to Christianity, “[w]hat does appear to be uniquely Christian . . . is the idea that saints are not only extremely virtuous people, but also efficacious mediators with God on behalf of the living; more powerful, more valuable dead than alive” (45).

At the dawn of the Reformation, this idea came under increasing fire. Essentially, Reformation critics of the cult of the saints said that it was hardly different from the old Greco-Roman cult of heroes (45-46). These sorts of accusations troubled Roman Catholic authorities who initiated two significant changes. First, they placed more emphasis on verifying accounts of the lives of saints. Second, “the procedure for admitting new saints was tightened up.” Along this line, most revealing is the fact that between 1523 and 1588, there were no new canonizations (46).

The year 1588 not only saw the first canonization in decades, it also witnessed another significant development: the establishment of “the Congregation of Sacred Rites and Ceremonies, a standing committee of cardinals whose responsibilities included canonizations” (46). And, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Roman Catholic authorities made the canonization process increasingly bureaucratic and systematized (46-47).

The second of two major sections in Burke’s chapter deals “with the successful, the happy few, the fifty-five individuals canonized between 1588, when the practice was revived, and 1767, which was followed by another hiatus, this time for forty years” (48). Who in this period was most likely to become a Counter-Reformation saint? Burke notes that these saints number a grand total of 55. With such a small sample, it makes no sense to discuss percentages. However, we can make some observations. Who were most likely to be canonized? Burke replies,

1. men
2. Italians and Spaniards
3. nobles, as opposed to commoners
4. clerics, as opposed to lay people
5. clerics in a religious order, as opposed to secular clergy
6. Franciscans (49-50)

Who saw these people as virtuous? Burke says that there are two places to look: first, the grassroots, home of a particular saint, and, second, the center, where sanctity was made official (50). Also, there seem to have been a number of standard saintly roles. Burke enumerates these as well:

1. the founder of a religious order
2. a missionary
3. someone who devoted himself to charitable activities
4. the pastor who was an especially good shepherd
5. the mystic or ecstatic Christian (50-51)

Finally, Burke raises the question of how and why certain cults were “adopted by the center and made official." It has to be kept in mind that in an era when papal canonization is exclusive, the ideas and prejudices of the popes are vital. What factors seem to have made a difference? Burke answers that

1. Sometimes the personal or school connections between a pope and a prospective saint were significant.
2. Pressure groups who politicked for their saint often made a critical difference.
3. Pressure or promises from rulers rarely hurt.
4. The advocacy of family members of high standing, with money to contribute to the Church, could make a difference. (52-53)

Burke concludes by observing that "[t]he imputation of sainthood, like its converse, the imputation of heresy or witchcraft, should be seen as a process of interaction or ‘negotiation’ between center and periphery, each with its own definition of the situation” (53). This short chapter is a fine model of how a scholar might raise and respond to a significant historical question. For those teaching, say, a course in the history of Christianity, Burke’s brief survey would provide some basic points of an informative lecture.

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