The Council of Trent lasted eighteen years (1545-1563) under five popes: Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV, and under the Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand. There were present 5 cardinal legates of the Holy See, 3 patriarchs, 33 archbishops, 235 bishops, 7 abbots, 7 generals of monastic orders, and 160 doctors of divinity. It was convoked to examine and condemn the errors promulgated by Luther and other Reformers, and to reform the discipline of the Church. Of all councils it lasted longest, issued the largest number of dogmatic and reformatory decrees, and produced the most beneficial results.Preview This Lesson
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The March 14, 1542, bull of convocation for the Council was addressed to all Catholic Bishops and also invited all the Christian Princes, even the Protestant Princes and their theologians. Trent, located in Habsburg lands, was chosen to reassure the Protestant Princes and theologians that they would be safe and even the Pope’s absence was assured to entice them to come. The Pope, of course, sent legates and kept well informed on the problems at the Council through messengers. His orders were carried out to the best of the legates’ abilities but the Bishops, Cardinals, theologians and ambassadors often had their own ideas on how the Council should proceed. One of the first disagreements occurred over what should come first — should the Council discuss reforms or doctrine first? Pope Paul III believed that condemning the heretical ideas of the Protestants should be done first. Emperor Charles, not wanting to antagonize the Protestant Princes, wanted the Council to discuss reforms. The delegates at the Council debated the problem and realized that the two problems of reform and doctrine were related and determined to publish a reform decree and a doctrinal decree at each session — working at the problems in tandem. Another decision was made to condemn the doctrine not the person, which would hopefully keep the debate on the issues, not personalities. Although Luther and other Protestant leaders had their ideas condemned, they personally are not mentioned in any decree.
Perhaps because the Council had taken so long to convoke and there had been so many delays, it was at first sparsely attended. As the delegates processed to the cathedral of St. Vigilius on Gaudate Sunday, 1545, there were four Cardinals (including the three papal legates who oversaw the Council), four Archbishops, twenty-one Bishops, three Benedictine Abbots, five superior generals of the mendicant orders and forty two theologians. The majority of the delegates came from Italy. Cardinal Reginald Pole exhorted the delegates at the 2nd Session, speaking to them on a theme that would run through the Council—that of the pastoral responsibilities of the clergy:
We ourselves are largely responsible for the misfortune that has occurred — for the rise of heresy, the collapse of Christian morality, because we have failed to cultivate the field that was entrusted to us. We are like salt that has lost its savor.
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