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Paul III - A Reformer Pontiff

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Paul IIIPaul III, like the fabled Janus, looks two ways, back to the bad old times of Renaissance Rome, forward to the glory of the Catholic Reform.

Alessandro Farnese was born of a noble family in 1468. Educated by Pomponio Leto in the house of Lorenzo de' Medici and at the University of Pavia, he was steeped in Renaissance culture and Renaissance morality. Though he entered the service of the Church and was created cardinal in 1503 by Alexander VI, he lived a loose life. But he gradually improved, and when in 1519 he decided to become a priest, he turned over a new leaf and thenceforth lived chastely. Agreeable and competent, he got along with the variety of popes he served from Alexander VI to Clement VII. And when Clement died, Alessandro's election was achieved with ease and hailed with delight.

Paul III, as he chose to be called, was a good pope, a strong pope, sagacious, energetic, and largely devoted; not entirely devoted, for he was guilty of favoring his relations. But he compensated for this dangerous fault by his great work in promoting the Catholic Reform.

Paul III began to do what Adrian VI had been prevented by death from doing. Paul did not merely talk reform, he reformed. There was a crying need for spiritual cardinals to replace the worldly Renaissance princes of the last generation. Paul filled the sacred college with earnest reformers, men like Gian Pietro Caraffa and Reginald Pole.

There was a crying need for reform in the papal curia. Paul began that work over the agonized protests of vested interest. There was a crying need for reform of the clergy and the religious orders. Paul gave strong support to new orders and reforms of the old orders. He backed up reforming bishops who put their dioceses in order. On September 27, 1540, Paul approved of the Society of Jesus, and before his pontificate was over, Ignatius and his followers were spreading throughout Europe and Xavier had left for India and spiritual conquest. Paul favored the Theatines, the Barnabites, and the Ursulines, and in a time of trial, his wisdom protected the great reform order of the Capuchins.

Above all, Paul after most vexing difficulties got the long-desired general council under way. On December 13, 1547, his legates opened the Council of Trent. And Trent is a watershed in church history.

Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians. He rebuked Francis I for his ferocious cruelty toward the Protestants, while, on the other hand, he established the Index of Forbidden Books to check heretical tendencies. He was a great patron of art. Under him Michael Angelo began that dome of St. Peter's which today is a landmark of Rome.

But Paul's great glory lies in the fact that when he died on November 10, 1549, a new era had been born, the era of the Catholic Reform.


Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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