This Week in History

The Council of Trent Concludes: December 4, 1563

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Pope Paul III

Laetare Jerusalem—“Rejoice, O Jerusalem”—was the title of Pope Paul III’s bull that called for the convoking of an ecumenical council at Trent in northern Italy on March 15, 1545. The coun­cil had been a long time in coming, and many had awaited it eagerly. Talk of an ecumenical council to correct abuses in the Church and address the Protestant challenge had been ongoing since 1529. But it had faced many obstacles. Controversy had erupted, for instance, over where to hold the council. The Lutheran princes in Germany demanded that it be held on German soil, while Pope Clement VII was in favor of an Italian venue. The pope demanded that, in order to attend the council, the Protestants had to acknowledge the teaching authority of the Church. This they refused to do.

Another problem was His Most Christian Majesty, Francis I, king of France, who kept interfering with the council preparations. He used the excuse of his war with Emperor Charles V to forbid the French bishops to attend the first scheduled meeting of the council (at Mantua, in Italy) in 1536. For this and other reasons, the meeting of the council was delayed to May 1538, then to Easter 1539, then to All Saints Day 1542. On this last date, the council fathers were to meet at Trent; but the meeting was not held. The Protestants voiced their violent opposition to the council—and their ally, Francis I, would not allow the bull convoking the council to be published in France.

Emperor Charles V, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533

So it was that the council was again delayed until 1543—but war between Francis and Charles, and bad relations between Pope Paul III and Charles, forced another delay. Even the date of March 15, 1545, called for by the bull Laetare Jerusalem, came and went without a council. But at long last the council did meet, on December 13, 1545. A Mass of the Holy Spirit opened the long-awaited assembly that would, it was hoped, bring true reform and renewal to the Catholic Church—and perhaps reunite divided Christendom.

Great hopes were held for the Council of Trent, but the fulfillment of those hopes had to wait a long time. Once it had come together, the council was not free from controversy or the opposition of monarchs. Altogether, the council met on and off for 18 years, from December 1545 to December of 1563. At times it looked as if it might fail to achieve its goals.

For many years, Charles V had pushed for a council. But it became clear after the council met that he had his own ideas about the sort of council he wanted. Always hoping to reconcile the Protestants to the Church and so have a united empire, Charles did not want the council to address the doctrinal questions that divided the Protestants from the pope—such as whether Scripture alone is the source of doctrine, or Scripture and Tradition; or whether Christians are saved by faith alone, or by faith and works. Instead, Charles wanted the council to address questions of Church reform—such as whether one bishop should be allowed to hold two sees, or whether the Mass should be said in a language other than Latin, or whether laymen could receive both the bread and the cup in Communion. The emperor hoped that if the Protestants saw the Church reforming its behavior, they would agree to come back into the fold, even if they con­tinued to hold to heretical doctrines.

An idealized depiction of the Council of Trent, by Pasquale Cati. The female figure, crowned with the papal tiara, represents the Church

The council fathers, however, insisted that they would address doctrinal and disciplinary questions together. During the council’s first session that began in December 1545, the fathers tackled some important issues and promulgated decrees on justification (how God saves or justifies men) and the Sacraments, as well as decrees on Church reform. This session of the council lasted until March 1547. Then, because of an outbreak of disease in Trent, the council fathers voted to move to Bologna in northern Italy.

Charles V was opposed to moving the council to Bologna; so, even though most of the council fathers went there, Charles (since he was king of Spain) would not allow the Spanish bishops to leave Trent. Seeing he could not convince the emperor to change his mind, Pope Paul III suspended the council on September 17, 1547.

Pope Julius III

Pope Paul died in November 1549, and the new pope, Julius III, was not elected until February 1550. Julius called for the council to resume at Trent in May 1551. This time the council met opposition from the Protestant German princes, who insisted that Lutheran theologians have a vote in the council. The princes demanded, too, that neither the pope nor his representatives lead the council. King Henry II of France was a source of trouble as well. He was allied with the Protestant princes against the emperor and refused to send French bishops to the council. Still, the council met eight times, promulgating important doctrinal and reform decrees. In April 1552—after learning that the Lutheran prince, Mauritz of Saxony, was leading an army toward Trent—the council adjourned to meet at a later time.

It was nine years, however, before the council could meet again. Julius III died in 1555. He was succeeded by Pope Marcellus II, who reigned only 22 days. The next pope, Paul IV, wanted to avoid difficulties with the emperor, the French king, and the German princes, and so decided he would not resume the council. Paul wanted to reform the Church by himself, without the aid of a council.

St. Charles Borromeo, by Giovanni Ambrogio Ficino

It was Pius IV, after becom­ing pope in 1559, who called the council together for what would be its final session. But though Pius called for the council to meet in 1561, the council fathers did not gather again in Trent until January 1562. During this session, the pope and his supporters (called the Ultramontanes) were opposed by the French bishops, who wanted to weaken the pope’s authority in the Church in favor of the bishops. Under the control of the French king, these bishops pushed the idea that national Churches should be fairly indepen­dent of the pope. They wanted a Gallican Church that, while in commu­nion with the Church of Rome, was mostly under the king’s direction.

At the council, however, the pope had a strong champion—his nephew, Cardinal Charles Borromeo. Under Charles’s leadership, the council was able to complete its work. It promulgated new decrees and voted to approve the decrees from previous meetings. On December 4, 1563, the council adjourned, finishing its part in the reform of the Church. On January 26, 1564, Pope Pius IV issued the bull Benedictus Deus, in which he approved all the council’s acts. The pope drew up the Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent, which he ordered all bishops and university professors to sign. So ended the Council of Trent, one of the most impor­tant councils in the history of the Church.


A Model of Church Music

Among the abuses the Council of Trent addressed were those affecting sacred music in the liturgy. Two principles for sacred music arose from the council’s considerations: that liturgical music should not use themes drawn from or reminiscent of secular music and that the music should not obscure the sacred text to which it is set. To further the implementation of these principles, Pope Pius IV appointed two cardinals — St. Charles Borromeo and Vitellozzo Vitelli –  to consider improvements to the papal choir. On June 19, 1565, Borromeo celebrated Mass in the presence of the pope, with the ordinary set to music by Borromeo’s protege, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: the Missa Papae Marcelli. Since that day, Palestrina’s music has been considered (with pride of place given to Gregorian chant) a model of sacred music. Here is the Missa Papae Marcelli performed by the Tallis Scholars.