As the second millennium of Christianity
draws to a close, we present a Top Ten list of individuals and
groups who substantially shaped the face of the Catholic Church
today. We might call them “movers and shakers.”
Historical perspective demands the passage of time to evaluate
people and events; that’s why modern greats like Mother Teresa
and Pope John Paul II don’t find a place here.
From the start, we should also acknowledge the nameless men,
women and children in the pews who became increasingly central
to the life of the Church in the last 1,000 years—not to mention
the great impact of the faithful who built the Church in its
Gregory VII rises at the dawn of the millennium like a giant
on whose broad shoulders all later popes stand. He was trying
to accomplish several goals. First, he wanted to get the Church
out from under the authority of the secular powers so bishops,
abbots and even popes could be selected freely. Second, he wanted
to establish the papacy as the ultimate, unquestioned authority
in the Church and the world. Third, he wanted to improve the
moral behavior of the clergy.
Gregory pursued these goals like the proverbial avenging angel,
fiercely using his spiritual and temporal power. His best friend
called him “a holy Satan” and in his letters we can hear why.
“To Bishop Jaromir of Prague, greeting and apostolic benediction,”
the pope wrote to a troublesome bishop, “even though he does
not deserve it.”
Gregory’s actions touched the Church from top to bottom: He
excommunicated Emperor Henry IV, the most powerful emperor in
Europe, while he worked to make celibacy the absolute rule for
every priest. He forbade anyone to buy or sell a Church office,
a crime called simony, and tried to remove bishops who fought
his reforms or who had been put into office by local kings or
Gregory VII so changed the papacy that his efforts were not
a reform but rather a revolution. He began to organize the papacy
as a powerful monarchy with all the power, prestige and pomp
of competing authorities. The popes who followed him during
the Middle Ages were administrators and canon lawyers like Innocent
III (pope, 1198-1216), who built the bureaucracy we think
of when we say “the Vatican” or “the college of cardinals” today.
But papal revolution had a price: This bureaucracy often grew
so worldly that the papacy itself became a target for reform
in the middle of the second millennium of Christianity. Still,
Gregory VII helped set the standard for moral leadership that
has particularly been exercised by the popes of the 20th century.
Francis personified a medieval spirituality that was as emotion-filled
as Gregory VII’s papal monarchy was programmatic. But we tend
to take Francis out of his historical place—that is, we see
him as a timeless saint who speaks to all centuries and countries.
And while that is true (see Francis:
Saint for a New Millennium), we can appreciate Francis and
his legacy more if we place him in his own time.
Francis ministered to the poor in ghettos because that’s where
the poor people were. Europe was undergoing significant economic
and population growth at this time that made cities the cutting-edge
spots in society. Whenever the rich got richer, the poor got
poorer. Francis had dedicated his life to following Christ’s
example as closely as possible by clothing the naked, feeding
the hungry and sheltering the homeless. He knew that whenever
he did this for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters,
he did this for Christ himself, a scriptural ideal that was
very popular for medieval Christians who, like Francis, tried
literally to imitate Jesus’ life.
When most people thought of Jesus in the Middle Ages, they
thought in terms of the human Jesus who walked, ate, cried,
suffered and did all the other things humans do. This idea of
Jesus represented a change, since for the better part of the
first millennium of Christianity the emphasis was on Jesus’
divinity because so many heresies claimed that Jesus was either
a superman or divine—but not human.
That heresy settled, and in large part because of Francis’
example, Christians after the year 1000 increasingly began to
discover and identify with a Jesus that was like them in all
things but sin. Francis conformed his life so closely to Christ’s
that he was known as the alter Christus—Latin for “another
Francis left a legacy of trying to walk in the footsteps of
a familiar Jesus in the circumstances of our everyday lives,
an apostolic life that combines prayer and action.
His contemporary St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) established
the Poor Clares, adapting Francis’ spirituality for women. St.
Bonaventure (c. 1221-1274) organized Francis’ vision and
shaped the Franciscan Order as its manager and mystical theologian.
Meanwhile, St. Dominic (1170-1221) founded the Dominican
Order, another group of cutting-edge mendicants, who fought
heresy and spread the faith through their teaching and preaching
More than any other theologian, Aquinas shaped how Catholics
talk about theology. That statement remains true, even though
many theologians rejected his scholastic method as being too
formal and not practical enough in the centuries after he died.
But the fact that Aquinas became a hero to some and a roadblock
to others only solidifies his place as the greatest thinker
Christianity has ever produced.
Aquinas was a university professor and Dominican priest who
organized the study of theology in the Summa Theologiae,
a summary organized by topic. He didn’t invent this method,
but many judge him to be the best at it. His great achievement
lay in taking all sides of a theological question—like “Can
it be demonstrated that God exists?”, but never “How many angels
can dance on the head of a pin?”—and reconciling them into one
formulaic, authoritative, standard theology text.
His scholastic method of pursuing answers by very carefully
laying down questions was revived in the 19th century and influenced
a new generation of scholars who, as in his own lifetime, either
followed in his tradition or disagreed and tried to come up
But even Aquinas knew he didn’t have all the answers. Shortly
before he died, he had a vision during Mass that made him stop
writing. Compared to what he’d just experienced, he told his
friends, all of his writings were just straw. Even for Aquinas,
Christianity was a faith seeking understanding.
The late Middle Ages saw institutional chaos with the papacy’s
move from Rome to Avignon (1305-1378) followed by the Great
Schism, when two and then three popes fought for authority (1378-1417).
A century later Protestants and Catholics split. But during
this period there is a great flourishing of female mysticism.
We’ll let one faithful woman stand for many others who took
an ever more active role in the Church as the millennium advanced.
Catherine was a Dominican tertiary who gathered a spiritual
family of men and women, which raised some eyebrows, and refused
either to stay in one place or to keep her voice down. Catherine
resisted the accepted course of marriage and motherhood, on
the one hand, or a nun’s veil, on the other. She chose to live
an active and prayerful life outside a convent’s walls following
the model of the Dominicans.
She left nearly 400 letters, including several strong ones
to popes, fairly warning them to use their power and authority
wisely. Her cries for reform pressed the popes to leave Avignon,
where they had been living luxuriously, and to return home to
Rome. Catherine had visions throughout her life, including what
she described as a mystical marriage with God and union with
Christ’s suffering on the cross. She set these experiences and
others down in a Dialogue between herself and God.
Dead center in the second millennium, Christianity crossed
the Atlantic with Columbus. But the story of the first Christian
missions is marked by the cruel treatment of indigenous people
whom Columbus incorrectly called “Indians.” “How easy it would
be to convert these people,” Columbus reported back to Europe,
adding ominously, “and to make them work for us.” One voice
in particular was raised against this treatment.
Las Casas’s father sailed with Columbus on his second voyage
and returned with an Indian slave for his son. The younger Las
Casas went to present-day Cuba in 1502 where he owned land and
slaves despite his later ordination to the priesthood. In 1514
he saw with new eyes the Indians’ slavery.
Named “Protector of the Indians,” he shuttled between Spain
and the Americas working against treatment that included slavery,
torture and rape. He argued Indians were human beings with the
same equality and natural rights as white Europeans; they were
not inferiors, animals or adult-sized children.
Las Casas was still bound by the biases of his age: At one
time he approved of black slavery, but later recanted. He joined
the Dominicans and served as a bishop in Mexico where his own
people called him a lunatic and tried to hang him. He was behind
the New Laws of 1542-1543 outlawing slavery, at least on paper.
His most important attack was Brief Relation of the Destruction
of the Indies that produced the infamous “black legend”
about Spanish treatment of the Indians, which probably exaggerated
a harsh reality.
His efforts remind us that it took some time for Christianity
really to live the ideal that all Christians in an expanding
world are equal in God’s eyes.
Ignatius was raised to be a chivalrous courtier and soldier,
but that changed when his legs were shattered by a cannonball
during a battle when he was about 30. During his recovery, he
read about the lives of Christ and the saints. He transferred
his romantic sense of mission to the Church and, because he
wasn’t educated in Latin, the language of theology, he squeezed
himself into the little chairs at a local grammar school and
began with amo, amas, amat....
From these baby steps came a doctorate in theology and the
idea of a new order, the Society of Jesus. What made the Jesuits
unique was the way they put themselves at the Church’s disposal,
adding a fourth vow to poverty, chastity and obedience—to go
out and do whatever job the pope assigned them.
So while the Jesuits were not founded to fight the Protestant
challenges or to establish schools, these naturally became major
activities since they were the tasks at hand.
Ignatius was a rare combination: a contemplative in action,
both a visionary and an administrator who prayed as hard as
he worked. He left more than 6,000 letters giving detailed instructions
From his experiences as a spiritual director and mystic who
experienced visions, Ignatius drew on his own prayer journal
to leave the Spiritual Exercises. Like Teresa of Avila’s
Interior Castle, which came out of the same Spanish mystical
tradition, the Exercises teach that prayer is a journey
with days of consolation and desolation. What is most important
is keeping on a steady course through a daily examination of
conscience that allows us to discern which thoughts, or “spirits,”
we should follow in order to do all things for the greater glory
St. Teresa was too bold for many Christians, especially those
in authority. As a female mystic, she was distrusted. A member
of the Carmelites for 20 years in a very comfortable convent,
Teresa was treated with suspicion and opposition by members
of her own Order who resisted her reforms once she had a conversion
Her own spiritual life, especially as she described it in Interior
Castle, was unsteady and marked by highs and lows, ecstatic
union with God and silence so strong she wondered if God was
She finally achieved a reform of the Carmelites by establishing
a more austere branch that went back to poverty and simplicity,
although bishops and kings fought her changes. Teresa of Avila,
with Catherine of Siena, was declared a Doctor of the Church
As the Catholic Church responded to the Protestant challenges,
bishops were charged with leading the way in their dioceses
as the key agents of reform and the chief shepherds of their
people. The model bishop was Borromeo, who became archbishop
of Milan at the age of only 28. He had worked hard at the Council
of Trent and afterward to reform the Catholic catechism, missal,
breviary and liturgy, as well as to help establish seminaries.
At first he seemed an unlikely candidate for bishop: He was
a cardinal living in luxury long before he was a priest and
bishop, but in Milan he always dressed and signed his name as
bishop, not cardinal.
In Milan, Borromeo was known for training the clergy in mind
and heart so they could be caring and educated pastors, for
visiting parishes, for reorganizing the administration of his
diocese and for his early version of religion classes for children
on Sunday mornings. Often asked for advice by other bishops,
he left a huge paper trail for them and their priests to follow.
He wrote in Italian so his ideas would have an even wider circulation.
He was so zealous in pushing his reforms that twice someone
tried to kill him. As the Church continues to look to the bishops
to implement reforms after Vatican II, the innovative and energetic
figure of Borromeo remains as the ideal to be adapted to changing
Despite caricatures of the occasional ruler-slamming sister
used to stain nuns as the most maligned group in the Church,
it remains true that Catholic schools are the envy of nearly
every urban public school system. Where would the Church be
today without orders of teaching nuns who created an educational
program still copied throughout the world?
Perhaps the most familiar to Americans is Mother Seton, the
first native-born American to be canonized. Widowed before she
was 30, she converted to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church
and established the American Sisters of Charity, who dedicated
themselves particularly to educating the poor. Mother Seton
brought to the United States a vocation that actually began
with the first teaching order of nuns, the Ursulines, established
by St. Angela Merici (1470-1540).
Merici’s concern was especially to train girls who would become
responsible wives and mothers, creating in their homes the domestic
churches on which the Catholic Church stands. She was soon followed
by St. Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) who, with St.
Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), founded the Daughters of Charity
(known also as the Sisters of Charity).
Elizabeth Seton moved women out of the cloister and into the
world where they taught, ran orphanages and worked as nurses
in hospitals and even on battlefields. Mother Seton’s order,
plus all of the many teaching orders, brought the children of
immigrants (and even some immigrants themselves) from illiteracy
to college and beyond, sometimes in a single generation. On
their classroom drills and discipline were built careers in
Perhaps more importantly, their examples of corporal and spiritual
works of mercy in daily life, far from high Church and civil
politics, left a legacy of service for their pupils who became
leaders of society, spouses and parents.
These nuns arguably had a greater, more intimate impact on
the Catholic family than any other group in the Church.
Catholicism didn’t start updating with Vatican II’s aggiornamento.
The Church is always growing, but more directly related to Vatican
II’s reforms were events and ideas that began to bubble about
150 years before Pope John XXIII called the Council. Newman
was a key figure in rejuvenating Catholicism. He was so forward-looking
that some call Vatican II “Newman’s Council.”
Newman was an Anglican priest who gradually moved toward the
Catholic Church, joined, became a Catholic priest and was eventually
named a cardinal. Newman was a scholar and a preacher who understood
that the Christian life was a series of conversions and attempts
to live the faith more deeply each day, even as the world changed
One of his lasting achievements was looking at the study of
theology in terms of development. Doctrine doesn’t change, Newman
wrote, but our understanding of fundamental truths and mysteries
does develop. We can explain the faith in new and better ways
the more we study the past. But new ideas and words should be
measured against the past to see if they are authentic and faithful
to the Church’s tradition, Newman said.
Another legacy was his loud call for an educated, involved
laity. In what amounts to a shout for action, Newman nearly
demands, “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech,
not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter
into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they
hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well that
they can give an account of it, who know so much of history
that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed
Though Newman may have been bound by the 19th century when
he spoke of “men” here, laywomen as well as laymen have been
living their vocations more and more as the Church walks into
its third millennium.
Historians need time and perspective to analyze people and
events. Who knows what figures future generations will pick
out from the 20th century as heroes?
Still, it’s certain that in the 20th century a quartet of giants
had a tremendous impact: Dorothy Day, Pope John XXIII, Mother
Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Their greatness is clear for our
lives. Like St. Francis of Assisi, they seem to be as well known
outside Catholicism as among its members.
But we must let history judge them—and us—a thousand years
The Church has always had martyrs, and this millennium
has been no exception. Some are well-known, such as St.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) and St. Thomas More (1478-1535).
In our own time, St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)
and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein,
1891-1942) died in Hitler’s concentration camps. But
few people realize that martyrdom and missions often go
During the last half of the second millennium, the Catholic
Church became truly catholic (universal) since
it reached out from Europe to embrace lands bordering
the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As it spread, people
died for the faith as they had done during the Roman Empire’s
persecutions at the beginning of the first millennium.
Most will never be familiar names.
In Japan in 1597, for instance, 26 people were crucified.
They represented the growing catholicity of the Church:
They were clergy (Franciscans and Jesuits) and lay, men
and women, Spanish, Indian, Japanese and Korean. For over
a century, from 1745 to 1862, maybe as many as 100,000
Christians were martyred in the area we now call Vietnam
or Indochina. The Church can identify 117 for sure, including
eight bishops. In Africa, the king of Uganda persecuted
Christians late in the 19th century. He had one beheaded
and 21 others burned to death, most of them younger than
These martyrs were as brave as their Roman ancestors.
In Japan and Vietnam, suspected Christians were flushed
out when crowds of people were forced to walk on a cross
or a picture of Jesus to prove they weren’t believers.
Those who stepped over the cross or picture essentially
signed their own death warrants. In Uganda the accused
were asked, “Do you want to stay a Christian?” Their response
was simple and direct: “Until death.”
Is there someone you would consider to be a great Catholic of the
past millennium, but he or she isn't listed in the article? Let
us know who you think should be on the list.We'll be posting
as we receive them.
Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is assistant professor of
Church history at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, in Yonkers,
New York. He is the author of Lost
and Found Catholics: Voices of Vatican II (St. Anthony
Messenger Press, 1999) and What Every Catholic Should Know
About the Millennium (Liguori Publications, 1998).