A visit to the Piazza Navona brings Bernini's glorious image of Christian globalization: the light of Truth, spread to the four corners of the globe.
On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this series of articles looks at how the Church responded to this turbulent age by finding an artistic voice to proclaim Truth through Beauty. Each column visits a few Roman monuments and looks at how art was designed to confront a challenge raised by the Reformation with a soothing and persuasive voice.
Globalization may seem a concept of the new millennium, fostered by social media and multinational businesses, but the Catholic Church realized the importance of uniting the different peoples of an ever-expanding world long, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.
In 1511, Pope Julius established the first Roman Catholic diocese of the New World in Santo Domingo, with the intention of bringing the Gospel to these far reaches of the world, unknown to Europe until only a few years earlier. While the immediate crisis of the Protestant Reformation had slowed evangelical efforts, the papacy did not take long to find its missionary zeal and focus on these new frontiers.
In 1537, Pope Paul III became the defender of the human dignity of indigenous people when, in his Bull Sublimis Deus, he decried the greed of some merchant explorers who “are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians … be reduced to slavery like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking the Catholic faith … by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples — even though they are outside the faith — … are to be able to use and enjoy this liberty and this ownership of property freely and licitly, and are not to be reduced to slavery …”
Matching the speed of the explorers, the Catholic Church, like Mary of the Visitation, hastened to bring the message of God’s love and freedom from the shackles of sin to all peoples, even those “hitherto unknown to us.” Much of the hurry was caused by the concern that Protestant Holland and England might reach these people first to teach of a salvation without sacraments, saints or pope.
Beyond protecting the liberty of indigenous peoples, Pope Paul III made another decisive move for the spread of the Gospel at this dawn of the age of discovery – approving the Order of the Society of Jesus, with the 1540 Bull Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae. Founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, this committed, educated, courageous group of young men chose to put themselves at the service of the Pope in his mission of exploration and evangelization. The Jesuit missionaries went out into the new worlds, bringing Christ and his teachings to all the known continents.
One of these Jesuits, St. Francis Xavier, would become the superstar of missionary work, walking from Rome to India and baptizing an estimated 30,000 people as he went. After ministering in India and Japan, Francis Xavier died in 1557, while awaiting entry into China. Beatified in 1619, Francis Xavier inspired many artists to try to capture in paint the zeal of the missionaries and the exotic locales in which they preached.