How to Reform the Church

How to Reform the Church August 16, 2018

From a letter to Pope Paul V by Saint John Leonardi, priest:

Those who want to work for moral reform in the world must seek the glory of God before all else. Because he is the source of all good they must wait for his help, and pray for it in this difficult and necessary undertaking. They must then present themselves to those they seek to reform, as mirrors of every virtue and as lamps on a lamp-stand. Their upright lives and noble conduct must shine before all who are in the house of God. In this way they will gently entice the members of the Church to reform instead of forcing them, lest, in the words of the Council of Trent, they demand of the body what is not found in the head, and thus upset the whole order of the Lord’s household.

They will be like skilled physicians taking great pains to dispose of all the diseases that afflict the Church and require a cure. They will ready themselves to provide suitable remedies for each illness.

As far as remedies applicable to the whole Church are concerned, reform must begin with high and low alike, with superiors and inferiors. Yet the reformers must look first to those who are set over the rest, so that reform can begin at the point from which it may spread to others.

Be especially concerned with cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and priests, whose particular duty is the care of souls, and make them men to whom guidance of the Lord’s flock can be safely entrusted. So let us work down from the highest to the lowest, from superiors to inferiors. Those men who must initiate ecclesiastical reform must not be looked down upon.

Nothing should be left untried that can train children from early childhood in good morals and in the earnest practice of Christianity. To this end nothing is more effective than pious instructions in Christian doctrine. Children should be entrusted only to good and God-fearing teachers.

These are the thoughts, most holy Father, that the Lord has chosen to inspire in me for the present on this most important matter. If at first glance they appear difficult, compare them with the magnitude of the situation. Then they will seem very easy indeed. Great works are accomplished only by great men, and great men should be involved in great works.



To put this in context, St. John is writing in the wake of the Reformation and the Council of Trent, during the Counter-Reformation and on the cusp of what is sometimes called the Catholic Reformation. Pope Paul V has been in office only a short while, but has already kicked the Bishops who were living it up in Rome back to live in their dioceses, as Trent mandated, so John is perhaps hopeful more reform might be possible.

The “reformers” John alludes to, then, include the Pope and himself, other moral reformers as well as some of those who were instrumental at Trent. John may be trying to piggyback moral reform on liturgical and canonical reform by presenting the success of the former as dependent on the latter.

John himself wound up founding a new order explicitly for the purpose of reforming priests and providing examples of austere, simple, utterly Christ-focused ministry. His order, the “Clerks Regular of the Mother of God,” would own no endowments or income-producing land, nor would they beg (he’d seen how successful–and fat–some of the mendicant orders managed to get from “begging.”) They would accept only freewill offerings given spontaneously.

(He was later persuaded there should be some way of asking for donations in extreme need, so he amended this rule to allow tolling a particular bell when provoked by sheer necessity.)


Anyway, to get back to the letter. Here’s my translation into modern terms:


  • Reformers (the Pope, St. John, priests, religious) must hold themselves to high standards of moral behaviour in order to effectively call others to reform. If they pester the laity to reform their lives without first reforming their own, they are forcing what should be enticed by example, and going about things bass-ackwards.


  • These reformers/church leaders must be like good doctors who take time to understand all of the illnesses plaguing their patient (the Church) and treat each illness or wound appropriately.


  • As far as the Church goes, reform must address ills on every level, but it must start at the top (the bishops, the Pope) and spread from there.


  • Be especially concerned with cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and priests, because it’s their job to take care of everyone’s souls. Make sure the heirarchy consists of trustworthy people who the laity will be safe with. Let’s start at the top and work down, from superiors (abbots, bishops) to those under them (everyone else). If we (clerical reformers–St. John, the Pope, other bishops and priests) want to be taken seriously, we need to be people worthy of respect.


  • We need to do whatever we can to make sure the next generation of Catholics aren’t as screwed up as this one, which means they need to learn right from wrong. They need to be taught by people who actually live what they preach.


  • This is the message God gave me (John) to give the Pope (Paul V), at least for now. If this seems like a lot of work—well, look around you at how HUGE the problem is. You’re getting off easy compared to what I could be asking you. Great works require great men, and you want to be thought of as a great man, don’t you? Do you think you’re already pretty great? Then PROVE IT.




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