Saturday, March 12, 2022

A Saint and Four Spaniards

In addition to the feast of Pope St Gregory the Great and the Ember Saturday of Lent, today the Church marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most important events of the Counter-Reformation. On this day in the year 1622, Pope Gregory XV canonized four Saints who had played particularly important roles in the reformation of the Church after the terrible shock of the Protestant rebellion: St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory; his friend St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who was a Basque; the great missionary St Francis Xavier, one of the first members of the Jesuit order, who was from the northern Spanish kingdom of Navarre; and St Theresa of Avila, the foundress of the Discalced Reform of the Carmelites. To this illustrious company was added one medieval Saint, a farmer from Madrid named Isidore, who lived from 1070 ca. – 1130; this was done at the behest of King Philip IV of Spain, whose father, Philip III, was once cured of a deadly illness when the Saint’s relics were brought into his bedroom.
A Spanish painting of the “Five Saints”, as they are known in that country, with Isidore the Farmer in the middle.  
Gregory XV was born of a noble family from Bologna called Ludovisi, baptized with the name Alessandro, and educated in the Jesuits’ school in Rome known as the Roman College, which had been founded by Ignatius himself in 1551. (A total of 17 Popes, including a string of eight in a row in the 16th and 17th centuries, were alumni of this institution.) He would therefore certainly have known early members of the Society who had known the founder personally. After serving for many years as a canon lawyer in the Curia without being ordained to the priesthood, he was appointed archbishop of his native city by Pope Paul V in 1612. He was ordained a priest on the feast of St Gregory, and a bishop on the following May 1, the feast of the Apostles Ss Philip and James. Four years later, he was made a cardinal, and then elected to the Papacy in 1621 on the death of Paul V. It seems likely that he chose Gregory as his papal name in remembrance of the Saint on whose feast day he had been ordained to the priesthood. The great canonization of 1622 was held on the tenth anniversary of his priestly ordination.
An image of the canonization ceremony held in St Peters’ Basilica, and of Pope Gregory reading the decree of canonization. Assuming the image on the left is accurate, note the large decorative wall built around the high altar of the basilica, and the contingent sections of the nave, apse and transepts, almost in the form of an extended liturgical choir. Also note the baldachin over the altar itself, which I believe was a temporary creation, done a few years before Gregory’s successor, Urban VIII, commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to build the much larger permanent baldachin which we see in the basilica today. (Nicked from the Twitter feed of the York Oratory.)
In the 17th century, the power and political influence of the Spanish crown were extremely strong in Italy, since it controlled the kingdom of Naples (the southern third of the peninsula), the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and the duchy of Milan. This occasioned no small resentment among the Italians, and particularly the Romans, since the Papacy ruled over a large independent state in the center, but was caught up in an endless political tug-of-war between the Spanish and French interests. A popular joke in Rome in 1622, therefore, was that Gregory XV had canonized “a Saint and four Spaniards.”

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