Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Fifteenth Century
The Century of Genuine Reformation

The great Schism of the West was ended, but the evils which it had wrought in the Church were still present. The Papacy, which had suffered most, preserved its faith intact; it enforced the reformatory statutes of the Councils of Constance and Basle; it sent legates throughout Europe to reform and elevate monastic life; it labored earnestly to bring about the reunion of the schismatic Greeks; it alone of all the European powers strove to defend Christendom against the military genius of Mohammedanism.

The crowning manifestation of the true spiritual life in this age was the holiness of the saints raised up by God in His Church.

  • St. John Nepomucen, martyr to the Seal of the Confessional.
  • St. Catherine of Sienna, helped in the reform of the Papal Court.
  • St. Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal.
  • St. Catherine of Sweden.
  • St. Vincent Ferrer.
  • St. John Capistran.
  • St. Casimir, Prince of Poland.
  • St. Rita of Cassia.
  • St. Frances of Paula.

Foremost among the men who undertook to bring back the practice of the laws of the Church was Jerome Savonarola. He was a Dominican Friar who, in 1489, was appointed Lenten preacher at St. Mark's, in Florence. His words, full of passionate earnestness, found an echo in the hearts of his hearers. He denounced the wickedness of the Florentines and spared none, however high their station. The face of the city was changed. Many reforms were commenced, and though Savonarola took no part in the council of state, it was he who led the whole movement. Those who would not join the converted Florentines in their new way of living became violent enemies of the man who had wrought the change, and they accused him to Pope Alexander VI.

The Dominican was called to Rome to answer for himself. A letter is extant in which he laid before the Pope his inability to leave Florence. Then he was forbidden to preach. For a time he obeyed, but at last, sheltering himself behind the statement that the Pope had been wrongly informed, recommenced his sermons. This is the fault which blots an otherwise fair memory, and which brought on him the sentence of excommunication.

In 1498 Savonarola was accused of heresy, and when challenged to an ordeal of fire by a Franciscan, would not consent. The tide of popular feeling turned against him. Fierce mobs raged around his convent at St. Mark's. Savonarola was carried off and imprisoned. At the trial which followed he made some statement that was construed into guilt. As he afterwards corrected this, he was condemned, as a relapsed heretic, to be strangled. He died in complete submission to the Holy See. In later years his memory was cleared from the charge of heresy.

The Inquisition.
At the Fourth Council of Lateran, 1215, Pope Innocent III condemned the Albigenses and established the Inquisition. This was an ecclesiastical tribunal by which persons accused of heresy were tried, and, if penitent, reconciled to the Church; if obstinate, handed over to the secular power. This Roman Inquisition still exists, but has never shed a drop of blood.

The Spanish Inquisition, established by Ferdinand and Isabella and authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478, was a secular institution. Its purpose was to protect the kingdom of Spain against Moors and Jews who had remained in the country and, pretending to be converts, conspired with the African Moors for the overthrow of Christian Spain. The severities practiced by this tribunal were such that Rome frequently interfered. The Spanish Inquisition was abolished in 1813.