- Reforming Priests and Parishes: Tuscan Dioceses in the First Century of Seminary Education
Those of us who have the fortune to teach the basic liberal arts student the broad historical surveys realize that we often make sweeping generalizations. While Kathleen Comerford's book would not be appropriate for such a class, it is this kind of research that allows us to make, or qualify, those sweeping statements with some confidence. Comerford cites Hubert Jedin with one such generalization:"It would not be an exaggeration to say that, if the Council of Trent had done nothing else for the renewal of the Church but initiate the setting up of diocesan seminaries for priests, it would have done a great deal" (H. Jedin, Crisis and Closure of the Council of Trent [London: Sheed & Ward, [End Page 367] 1967], p. 120). In a sense this is the generalization that she seeks to verify and ultimately calls into question.
Comerford's thesis is twofold: the first is the overall impact of Tridentine seminary legislation in the specific region of Tuscany; the second is a more specific comparison of the urban and rural areas of that region. The received wisdom, of course, echoing Jedin, is that Tridentine seminaries brought reform to the local level as seminary-trained priests returned to the parishes whence they came (p. xvi). Comerford's conclusions are somewhat more nuanced. After a brief historical overview of Tuscany, what follows is a rather detailed quantitative analysis (in the spirit of the Annales school) of Arezzo, Siena, Volterra, and Lucca. What she discovers within these regions are significant differences between cities and rural areas. Only ten percent of the priests in Arezzo were educated in seminaries, while more than a quarter of those in Siena were (p. 131).
Comerford's conclusions are fourfold (p. 132): (1) A frequent obstacle to seminaries was the unpopularity of the bishops advocating them; (2) Seminary priests mainly came from the cities and had already received some earlier education;(3) Seminary priests generally stayed in their dioceses;and,(4) Each seminary had a slightly different story. Perhaps her clearest overall conclusion suggests that "lack of reward and punishment" (p. 135) is the underlying reason why seminary legislation did not work in Tuscany. It remained too easy to arrive at ordination by other means. Comerford concludes that until bishops,whether popular or not, finally gave the legislation teeth, it remained ineffective.
Unfortunately, Reforming Priests and Parishes lacks the anecdotal narrative to bring the past to life, but it does outline the initial difficulties in reforming the Church (in Tuscany at least) through seminary education in the crucial first years following the Council of Trent. While this may not be the book that you give even to your most aggressive undergraduate history major, research libraries should have Reforming Priests and Parishes on their shelves. [End Page 368]