Over the course of the nineteenth century, there was a widespread change in the way in which religious commitment was expressed and apparently understood by a majority of observant Roman Catholics. For most of the eighteenth century, all that had seemed necessary to lead what was generally considered to be a devout life was to be baptised; to hear Mass on a Sunday; and to take seriously one's duties of going to confession and receiving the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year ('at Easter or thereabouts' according to the catechism, but by convention some eight times a year, on the greater church feasts). Mainstream Catholic sermons, just like mainstream Protestant ones, stressed above all the reasonableness and morality of the central tenets of Christianity; while religious communities which could not prove themselves to be socially 'useful', or which had developed a reputation for excessive attachment to the pope, dwindled in membership and were sometimes forcibly closed down. Biblical miracles, unless considered fundamental to doctrine, tended to be either side-stepped or explained away by Catholic theologians; traditional legends surrounding the lives of the saints were treated with equal fastidiousness, so that St Francis of Assisi, for example, had come to be regarded by the self-consciously enlightened as 'a harmless enthusiast, pious and sincere, but hardly of sane mind, who was much rather accessory to the intellectual than to the moral degradation of mankind'.1
In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, during what has come to be known as the Catholic Revival, the tone and presentation of the Catholic message began to change in ways which, within a generation, were to become characteristic of Catholic communities just about everywhere. Catholic churches ceased being designed to look like neo-classical temples, but were built instead in Gothic or Romanesque idiom, the implication being that eternal values
1 Hallam, as cited in T. Okey, introduction to 'The little flowers' and the life of St Francis with the 'Mirror of perfection', ed. E. Rhys (London, n.d.), p. xxi; Heimann, 'St Francis and modern English sentiment'.
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