Identity Crisis during the Counter-Reformation: Johannes Pistorius (1546-1608)



Today we’re familiar with people radically changing their lives. There is the sceptical careerist who suddenly discovers the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. There is the large-scale meat factory owner who turns vegetarian overnight. Seemingly unconcerned, people leave their familiar networks in a crisis to start over from scratch. You think that is a modern phenomenon? Far from it. I’ll tell you a story from the 16th century. 


While today we like to get into a good fight over how much exercise prevents Alzheimer’s and if nuclear or solar energy is our future, there was just one question of relevance on the minds of people during the Reformation: How do I go to heaven? Life was short and unpredictable, death omnipresent. Johann Pistorius learnt that lesson already at a young age. 


His father was one of the most renowned theologians of the time. He had a handsome salary, a happy marriage, and still all five siblings of Johann died of the pest within only three weeks. His mother was killed in a tragic accident only several months later.


To little Johann it must have seemed that nothing in life is more important than choosing the right path that leads to heaven. And the many theologians that kept company in his father’s house must have said the same. He knew them all, Luther, Melanchthon, and those who fought for the Reformation back then but whose names have been long forgotten.


It was a well-functioning network. The Protestant clergy took care of one another. They saw to it that their children married among one another, and mutually borrowed money to finance the education of their future sons-in-law. Johann Pistorius too was given money and a bride. And not just any bride but one from a prominent dynasty of theologians from Frankfurt. He would have very much liked to study Theology himself but his father wouldn’t let him. He wanted a physician in the family. The loss of all his children to the pest had left an indelible mark.


Maybe this made the young doctor medicinae seem like an outsider in the eyes of the Protestant clergy. At least his father’s superiors entertained the suspicion that he was a Calvinist. That could mean death at the time. Fortunately his father possessed considerable authority. He stood between his son and his enemies to protect him. Johann Pistorius may have made the mistake of being all too open-minded and curious, and holding no prejudices.


Because he had also met Catholics at the university. He was even good friends with several Jesuits. He must have gotten into debates with them. About medicine. About classical studies. And yes, also about theology. 


The conversations must have led him to frequent the comprehensive library that he had inherited from his father after his death in 1584. After all he’d always wanted to be a theologian. It is said that he read all of Luther’s works in one year and noticed that the big reformer often contradicted himself. Not to mention the many differences between Luther’s Theses and the convictions of those theologians in whose tradition Luther placed himself!


Johann Pistorius was smart. And he was independent. He realised that Luther put his trousers on one leg at a time too. That his was not the only way to heaven. But his wife was a convinced Protestant, just like all his relatives, his colleagues, his superior, everybody around him …


But on 8 April 1585, less than a year after he’d lost his father, his wife died. With shaking hands Johann Pistorius wrote in the family diary: My dearly beloved wife has died, and with her, because she is my wife, my happiness and my life.


Pistorius meant what he wrote. The death of his wife tore a hole in his life and led to a deep existential crisis. What good was all his knowledge about medicine if it had failed him trying to save his own wife? He returned to theology and felt his initial suspicion confirmed: Luther had been too rash to break with the Catholic Church. The Pope was the spiritual leader of the Church, instated by Christ himself.


This insight might seem irrelevant to us. For Pistorius, however, it meant leaving everything that he loved behind. His relatives, his colleagues, his superior, his old friends. And still, it was the crisis caused by his wife’s passing that gave him the strength to leave his old life behind and do what he believed to be right. He became a convert. 


What followed then is told in few words. Pistorius became the chief opponent of the Protestants and Reformists. They hated him for knowing their own theses so well. He won each of their disputes! So there was nothing left for them to do but despise him for not having studied theology but gained his knowledge in self-study. 


But the Catholics loved him. They read his books enthusiastically. Pistorius won many friends and admirers. The emperor himself honoured him with the highest offices.


Pistorius found fulfilment in his new role as fighter for the Catholic cause. He never married again. He was ordained priest and convinced to have found the way to eternal bliss.

Signet Sunflower Foundation