Trent: What Happened at the Council, by John W. O'Malley


John W. O’Malley’s book, Trent: What Happened at the Council, fills a sizeable gap in church history published in English.  Hubert Jedin’s magisterial five volume history of the council was only ever partially translated into English with three volumes remaining in the original German.  The two volumes published in English are now out of print and, subsequently, only available with difficulty.
As O’Malley points out throughout the book, Trent has unfairly earned somewhat of a bad reputation and is often blamed for intransigence or conservatism in the Roman Catholic Church.  Trent, in fact, was the council that initiated a structured approach to the training of the clergy; it universalised the practice of regular auricular confession; it made definitive the list of seven sacraments; and, very significantly, it addressed many abuses current in the church of its day.  As a result of the Council of Trent bishops are obliged to reside normally in the diocese which has been entrusted to their pastoral responsibility.  Is this something of which modern bishops should be reminded in an age where it is not unusual for some (many?) bishops to be absent for several months of the year while they attend important meetings?  Trent’s answer to this question is very clear – the most important thing for any bishop is the pastoral care of the diocese; all other things are secondary to this.
O’Malley writes well and manages to trace the complicated history of this council in a very comprehensive and readable manner.  His use of primary sources is extensive and the fact that he consults the private diaries of so many of the participants gives the book an insight into the “behind the scenes” happenings during the council.
Interesting little titbits abound – for example, the fact that Trent did not insist on the liturgy being celebrated only in Latin.  In fact, Trent’s concern was to refrain the practice whereby the only acceptable language had been the vernacular.
A very worthwhile book which is informative and enjoyable – a must for any person who is interested in the history of either church or theology.  From the Augustinian point of view there is a very interesting pen picture of Seripando, the papal legate at the council who had been the Prior General of the Augustinian Order.  I give this book a 9 out of 10.


Article posted on 6th of June 2013