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Trent: What Happened at the Council

Trent: What Happened at the Council

by John W. O'Malley
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The Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Catholic Church’s attempt to put its house in order in response to the Protestant Reformation, has long been praised and blamed for things it never did. Now, in this first full one-volume history in modern times, John W. O’Malley brings to life the volatile issues that pushed several Holy Roman emperors, kings and queens of France, and five popes—and all of Europe with them—repeatedly to the brink of disaster.

During the council’s eighteen years, war and threat of war among the key players, as well as the Ottoman Turks’ onslaught against Christendom, turned the council into a perilous enterprise. Its leaders declined to make a pronouncement on war against infidels, but Trent’s most glaring and ironic silence was on the authority of the papacy itself. The popes, who reigned as Italian monarchs while serving as pastors, did everything in their power to keep papal reform out of the council’s hands—and their power was considerable. O’Malley shows how the council pursued its contentious parallel agenda of reforming the Church while simultaneously asserting Catholic doctrine.

Like What Happened at Vatican II, O’Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Council strips mythology from historical truth while providing a clear, concise, and fascinating account of a pivotal episode in Church history. In celebration of the 450th anniversary of the council’s closing, it sets the record straight about the much misunderstood failures and achievements of this critical moment in European history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674066977
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 01/15/2013
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 591,693
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John W. O’Malley is University Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University and the author of many books, including Four Cultures of the West, Trent, Vatican I, What Happened at Vatican II, and The First Jesuits (all from Harvard); The First Jesuits has been translated into twelve languages. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a recipient of the Harvard Centennial Medal as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Society for Italian Historical Studies, the Renaissance Society of America, and the American Catholic Historical Association. O’Malley is a member of the Society of Jesus and a Roman Catholic priest.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Four: The Middle Years, 1547-1562

Were it not located in the Papal States, Bologna would have been an ideal city for the council. Although often oppressively hot in the summer, it had a milder climate than Trent. Then as now it was noted for its good food. A large city by sixteenth-century standards, it had a population of about 50,000, roughly the same as Florence and Rome. Lodging was plentiful. The Palazzo Campeggi (today Bevilacqua), where the General Congregations were held, was a spacious and beautiful Renaissance building from the late fifteenth century. The church of San Petronio, located right at city-center, was perfect for the Sessions, at which large crowds were expected.

Bologna boasted one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, whose only rival for such claims was Paris. Unlike Paris, renowned especially for its theology faculty, Bologna was renowned for its faculty of law, both civil and canon, which attracted students from all of Europe. The university did not have a theological faculty until 1364. That faculty, altogether different in structure from its Parisian counterpart and of lesser repute, consisted essentially in a consortium of the studia or “houses of study” of the many and important convents of the mendicant orders in the city. The influx into the council of experts from these institutions made the size of the Congregations of Theologians at Bologna considerably larger than at any other time in the history of the council. On April 29, 1547, Massarelli counted more than eighty present that day.

These institutions also boasted extensive libraries with just the kind of collections the Council needed for its work. The Dominican convent was especially important because to it were sent talented young members of the order from all over Europe to complete their studies. These and other students were admitted as auditors to the Congregations of Theologians until their numbers grew so great—over 300 on April 2, 1547—that the practice was stopped.

“The Council of Bologna”


Charles received the news of the translation to Bologna at Nördlingen on March 15, 1547, just a few days after it happened. Furious, he held the legates, especially Cervini, responsible. He hoped Paul III would repudiate what they had done and hold true to his promise of a council “in German lands.” Just as the legates felt the council’s freedom threatened in Trent, Charles felt it threatened in a city of the Papal States. To acknowledge Bologna would be to betray his promise to the German Protestants and offend even many German Catholics.

The two legates arrived in Bologna five days later, on March 20. Meanwhile in Rome news of the translation caused misgivings, and Paul was notably perturbed when he received word from Charles in effect demanding return to Trent. On March 27, however, the legates got reassurance that the pope not only approved the translation but in consistory had told the gathered cardinals that no more was to hoped for from Trent. The Germans had been awaited there for two years and had never shown up.

That same day, a happy one therefore for the legates, Cervini celebrated mass in San Petronio to mark the council’s coming to the city. Del Monte, suffering from one of his recurrent attacks of gout, could not attend, but present were the governor of the city, other civic officials in great number, and a large congregation, which constituted an embarrassing contrast with the meager contingent of prelates come from Trent—two archbishops and ten bishops. A month later the Session on April 21, though solemnly celebrated in San Petronio, was forced to publish a decree admitting that because so few bishops had shown up the matter scheduled for promulgation had to be deferred until the next Session, set for June 2.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The Fifteenth-Century Prelude 23

2 The Struggle to Convoke the Council 49

3 The First Period, 1545-1547 77

4 The Middle Years, 1547-1562 127

5 The Council Resumes, 1562-1563 168

6 The Council Concludes 205

Epilogue 248

Appendix A The Twenty-Five Sessions of the Council of Trent 279

Appendix B The Tridentine Profession of Faith 283

Abbreviations 287

Notes 289

Acknowledgments 325

Index 327

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Trent: What Happened at the Council 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Theoj More than 1 year ago
A readable account of a confusing era. We sometimes think it was a totally holy gathering of a major event in the counter-reformation. The fact is it is lucky to have happened at all and even more so that the bishops were able to resolve anything.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago