The role of individuals cannot be underestimated when studying the outcome of the Counter-Reformation. The likes of Ignatius Loyola founding the Jesuits is well documented as are the ‘big’ issues such as the Council of Trent, the Index, the Inquisition etc. However, the role of the individual can easily be overlooked. 


Charles Borromeo (1538 – 1584) was born into wealth. He was a monk at 8 and a titular abbot at 13 i.e. symbolising everything that was wrong with the Catholic Church. In 1559 he was appointed a cardinal (aged 21) and in the same year archbishop of Milan. He was not even ordained at this time but his uncle was Pius IV.


At this time he underwent a spiritual change and decided to devote his life to the Catholic Church. He helped to draft a new catechism of the church to instruct parish clergy. This was an attempt to simplify and make more understandable the faith to the masses. In 1 566, he went to Milan where there had been no resident archbishop for 80 years. He patronised the Jesuits, founded 3 seminaries in Milan and 3 more in other parts of his diocese. He established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for instructing children — the Sunday school movement grew from this. He gave most of his money to the poor and worked exceptionally hard and never spared himself. Milan became a model for other reformers.


Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552) was one of the original Jesuits and one of the greatest missionaries of all time. In 1541, he was invited to go to the East Indies by John III of Portugal. He was from an aristocratic family yet he found himself on a filthy ship devastated by fever. He washed, scrubbed and cooked for all the people on board. He went to Goa, Travancore, Malacca, Molucca Isles, Sri Lanka, Japan and he eventually died near Hong Kong thus failing in his wish to get to China. He travelled extensively in great hardship but it is estimated that he converted more than 700,000 people to the Catholic faith. 


Philip Neri (1515 – 1595) founded the Congregation of the Oratory. Neri devoted his life to God after turning down the chance to be a merchant. At 18 he went to Rome where he taught and helped the young and prayed with them. He encouraged them to sing, dance and play games. 

In 1551, he became a priest and grouped around him a congregation of priests at the church of San Girolamo. This developed into the Congregation of the Oratory which was recognised by the pope in 1575. This group dedicated itself to leading people to God by prayer, preaching and studying the sacraments. Singing was encouraged (the word ‘oratorio” comes from this). By 1595, they were established in Italy, Spain and southern Germany.


Theresa of AIva (1515 – 1582) and John of the Cross (1549 -1599) were both contemplative mystics. At 18, Theresa went to a Carmelite convent and found it relaxed and very lax with regards to discipline. She reacted against this and founded a reformed convent. Her Carmelites were called Barefooted while the easier going convents were called Barefaced. She founded 17 convents and 14 monasteries (though the latter was helped by John of the Cross) Their writings were widely read and influential. Both were supreme organisers and administrators. This, combined with a total religious commitment, proved a potent combination. Both were great thinkers thus adding a philosophical side to the Counter-Reformation.