Saint of the Day – St. Peter of Alcantara
St. Peter of Alcantara (1499 -1562) exemplified the spirit of the renewal and reform undertaken by the Catholic Church in the 1500’s. Even among Catholics, there can be an overgeneralized view that there were many abuses in the Church at that time and that reforms were undertaken only as a means of launching a counter offensive, called the Counter Reformation. As is always the case, life and history are more complex.
St. Peter of Alcantara was a contemporary of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. John of the Cross, and he was a confessor to St. Teresa of Avila. His life was modeled on St. Francis of Assisi. A young man, from a well-to-do and socially prominent family, he not only joined the Franciscans, but led a movement of Barefoot (Discalced) Franciscans, with a stricter rule of religious life. He was a gifted preacher, administrator, and leader who was not above washing dishes or chopping wood.
As Spain was expanding in the New World in the Golden Century (El Siglo de Oro), there was a strong movement to renew Christian life. Of course, Spain’s history was very different from the rest of Europe. Spain had been conquered by the Moors in the 700’s and the Reconquest (Reconquista) by the Christian kingdoms had just been completed in 1492. Spain was building on a 700 year Arabic and Jewish legacy that had focused on learning and asceticism. The Caliphate (the Moorish government organization based in Cordoba) united both religion and state under Islam and created a culture of immense wealth and knowledge.
St. Peter of Alcantara and his contemporaries had very little in common with the controversies that had enveloped northern Europe. Understandably, their lives had been shaped by different issues and forces. The 1500’s were a time of Christian resurgence in Iberia and of expansion overseas. The spiritual flowering of Spain occurred against a backdrop of massive change and the imposition of uniformity by the state and the Inquisition.
Yet, St. Peter Alcantara and his contemporaries led a major movement of renewal and reform that was more than conformist. Their movement would provide much of the impetus for the reform of Catholicism that would persist for 400 years.
Now that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation have formally ended, we would do well to take a closer look at St. Peter Alcantara and his contemporaries. Like them, we stand on the brink of a new era. We are leaving 300 years that played down the mystical heritage of western Christianity as a “combination of mist and schism.” St. Peter Alcantara was a mystic and a man of action. He and the other spiritual leaders of Spain’s Golden Century present us with a golden opportunity to have a vision beyond imperialism and reactionism as we face the challenges of our time.