Parishes – A View from the Vatican Archives

01/29/2014 in Parish Research Today, Uncategorized

A week in the Vatican Secret Archives has caused me to think carefully about the relationship between centre and periphery – papacy and parishes – in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I am currently working on a Leverhulme-sponsored project ‘Indulgences after Luther: the fall and rise of pardons in Counter-Reformation France’. This involves an examination of how pardons were represented, how they were acquired and how they evolved over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After a decline in popularity in France across the middle sixteenth century, indulgences again became popular and were created and consumed in large numbers after 1600. The parish church and its associated confraternities, was one of the largest ‘consumers’ of pardons.

There was one important shift between the Middle Ages and the Catholic Reform period, that is, plenary pardons became much more frequent. New confraternities commonly sought plenaries as part of their foundation, while churches of the mendicant orders and parishes sought permission for privileged altars, where a mass would liberate a soul from purgatory. As the papacy was the only source of plenary pardons, requests from French communities increased enormously in this period. Directly or indirectly, ordinary parishioners and confraternity members had a much closer relationship with Rome.

While there were numerous ways of acquiring pardons from Rome, such as through the procurators of religious orders or via political and financial commissioners resident at the Curia, a good number were obtained by ordinary visitors. For example, in 1626, Cléder parish church in Vannes diocese obtained an indulgence for its altar of St Sebastian, through one of the parish’s priests, Jean Charles, who visited Rome for the Jubilee of the previous year.  In 1656, Nicolas Le Noir of Nancy in Lorraine visited the shrine of Loreto and then continued his pilgrimage to Rome. He petitioned the Holy See for an indulgence for his parish church of St Sebastian in Nancy. Here, a shortage of priests was forcing the population to seek the sacraments elsewhere. Le Noir intended to make an endowment to provide four more priests and hoped for a pardon to attract visitors and therefore revenue to the church as part of his project.

Having an attractive, authentic pardon for display was of great prestige value for local churches. In a handbook for the confraternity of pilgrims to Mont Saint-Michel of Saint-Niçaise parish of Rouen, published in 1668, the author was careful to describe the document as well as the text of the plenary pardon. It was signed by one C. de Goux, with ‘several other notes and signatures customary at the court of Rome’, sealed with wax and a lead seal, which was attached to the document by a string of yellow and red silk. The seal had alarge R on its reverse, signifying Registrata with the text ‘Rentius in secretaria Apostolica’   (Obtained from the Secretariat of the Apostolic See). Indirectly if not directly, the sight and touch of a papal brief exposed local parishioners to Rome’s spiritual prestige.

So we see evidence for a shift in spiritual authority over powers to loose and bind towards Rome. The mechanisms of obtaining indulgences reinforced the link between centre and periphery, reinforcing the position of Rome as the capital of Catholicism. The regulation of indulgences was part a wider systematisation of ritual and papal governance in the Catholic Reformation, which enhanced its authority. But this was not a top-down imposition, it was just as much, demand led. Through pardons, centre and periphery, the pope and the parishioner, came closer together.

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