Emmitsburg Council of Churches


History of the Church: Part II

Father John J. Lombardi & Stephen Quinn

Read History of the Church: Part I, Part III, Part IV

Are Jesus' Teachings carried on after He died? Do the principles of the Holy Bible continue in some way after the first century? Many think not; Catholics, however, think so. How so? Jesus says: "The Father will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of Truth…The Advocate…will teach you everything and remind you of all I told you" (Jn 12:16,26). Jesus promises a linkage of Himself and His teachings thru all time. The Catholic Church preserves and promotes this succession of Holy Teaching-it is called Sacred Tradition. Let us investigate…

The period after the death of the last apostle--St. John--exiled to the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9)--is doubted by many-esp. fundamentalists who disbelieve in Sacred Tradition-- because these accounts were not recorded in the Bible itself. The Bible certainly described prophetically these ensuing times; however, it does not actually record these events after the death of St. John. Who, then, do you trust, to interpret the teaching after Jesus' death and today? Remember: "There are also many other things that Jesus did" which are not contained in Holy Scriptures (Jn. 21:25). The Catholic Church claims it is the authentic and consistent continuation of Jesus' teachings, unbroken and unchanged. Other denominations say they are--sincerely. Who do you believe?

There is a tendency for those of us looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century to disregard events distant from our current understanding. Thinking of the past through our partial modern consciousness is a common mistake. We therefore should not conclude an event of history did not occur simply because we are not aware of it. Sacred Tradition is the continuation of past events (i.e., Bible history) authentically interpreted for today, precisely because the Catholic Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church does not make up Tradition or interpretations of the Bible-it formulates and affirms valid ones, and denies invalid ones. St Paul speaks about this Tradition and the Eucharist: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…" (I Cor. 11:23), He handed on what was handed on to him. This is the Church, its sacred duty and mission-authentic passing on. Are you paying attention to what your church is handing on?

For too long Catholics have been victims of bad journalism with an agenda. We are familiar with this practice in the modern media. By reporting certain facts and not others, an event is easily presented different from its actual occurrence. Likewise, Catholics and Christians suffer from the same bias when historians report certain events or facts of history and not others. For instance: regarding the Holocaust, Pope Pius is derided for not more aggressively assisting the Jews by denouncing the Nazi regime. However, it is ignored how many Jews he did save by hiding them in the Vatican itself, and how much work he did behind the scenes, thereby preserving the continuing ability to work quietly under duress. St. Paul writes about the Christian's holiness in and safety in the Church: "You should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of Truth" (I Tim 3:14). Popes, paupers and prisoners are all at home in the Lord's Foundation! How can you bring others to the Lord's Catholic Unity?

As we discussed in History of the Church Part I (bulletin dated 12 October), Archbishop Fulton Sheen divided the past 2000 years into four parts of 500 years each, briefly highlighting central conflicts in the Christian Church. The first 500 years saw arguments about the nature of God. The second 500 years saw arguments concerning the authority of the head of the Church on earth, namely the papacy. This caused the division we now refer to as the Eastern and Western Church… The third 500 years saw arguments concerning the visible Church and the sacrificial character of the priesthood and the sacraments…Man without the Church. This week's bulletin focuses on the end of the first 500 years.

To combat the first heresy of the Catholic Church established by Jesus on St. Peter (Matt 16:18), we saw from Part I, that the Judaists--sometimes called Judahizers, forced the Church to define the doctrine that circumcision was not necessary for salvation (Acts 15). The authentic interpretation of Jesus was given when the Church decided that circumcision was not necessary for new believers (see: Acts 15:28).We also discussed Gnosticism, which plagued the Church as recorded in the Bible and continues to resurface, as we will discuss later. Gnosticism is the teaching which denigrates the human body and created world; mis-applies spiritual practices thru faulty interpretation of the Bible, and is eclectically blends Christian teachings with other religions. St. Paul said the Church would always be plagued by heresy. We cannot assume that the two heresies described in the Bible were the only ones to challenge or attack the faith as handed to the apostles by Jesus. The Catholic Church-guided by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 12)--persisted in promoting the true teachings of Jesus thru these turbulent times. It does so today-do you believe so?

Centuries after Jesus, Mormons suggested that a "great Apostasy" occurred as the faith handed to the apostles by Jesus eroded until its rediscovery by Joseph Smith in the 1800s. However, this theory contradicts the Word of Jesus Who guaranteed the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church established on the Rock of St. Peter. To ignore the history from the death of Jesus is to ignore the plight of the Church established by Jesus and render Him a liar. Why? Because, if there were a total loss of faith (as claimed by Mormons), the gates of Hell would have prevailed against the Church (Mt. 16:18). Therefore, by studying the historical period beginning with the death of St. John (around the year 100), to the 1800s and today, we can see for ourselves whether the faith was lost or continued intact, via the Catholic Church's defense of orthodoxy. St Paul described genuine teachers as "holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents" (Tit 1:9). Actually, this job is for all of us!

To defend the Faith, St. Justin Martyr, around the year 125 a.d., wrote against gnosticism as first described by St. Paul. St. Irenaeus also wrote against gnosticism in his work 'Against Heresies' and was a contemporary of St. Polycarp (69 - 155 a.d.) who was a disciple of St. John the Beloved (Apostle to Jesus). The historical record is clear about apostolic succession, and those who defended and handed on orthodox teachings of the true Church. Despite challenges from many, Jesus preserved His Church in sound teachings and Catholic Unity. As we discussed in Part I, combating heresies played a major role in the Church's development of her understanding of the mysteries of her Faith. St Paul describes himself as "a slave of God, and for the sake of the Faith of God's chosen ones and the recognition of religious truth" (Tit 1:1). We have an extension of Jesus and sound teaching in the Catholic Church because we have people like St Paul!

People suggest that the Roman Emperor Constantine is responsible for establishing the Roman Catholic Church. While it may seem as though Constantine was for Christianity, he was a politician, not a priest or friend of the true Pope at the time. In fact, Constantine endorsed Aryanism, which denied the divinity of Christ. It was one of the worst heresies to plague the Catholic Church.

The reason Emperor Constantine is erroneously credited with starting the Catholic Church is because he recognized Christianity as a religion by the State. There was fusion of church and state, not a separation. Christianity had existed in Rome long before it was officially recognized by the Roman Empire. A succession (carrying on) of the bishop of Rome --the Pope--existed before and continued after the reign of Constantine. Christianity received civil endorsement over other religions of the Empire from Constantine because he was trying to attain political peace within the Empire when he ended Christian persecution. Praise Constantine for inventing Roman Catholicism??! Hardly. Congratulate him for denouncing Arianism and possibly converting on his deathbed!!? Definitely! So, you see: as in the Old Testament--sometimes God uses unknowing people to continue His Covenant and Church!

Rome is typically said to have officially fallen as an empire when Alaric the Goth sacked Rome in 410 a.d. According to Matthew Arnold (Fire and Sword), "Alaric, himself a Roman citizen, did not see this as a victory of paganism over the 'Latins' or barbarism over Christianity." Alaric took the city because his army went unpaid by the powers of Rome. However, Alaric showed respect for the great Catholic faith as history records: "but from respect towards the Apostle Peter, he commanded that the large and very spacious church erected around his tomb should be an asylum. This prevented the entire demolition of Rome; and those who were there saved, and they were many, rebuilt the city" (Catholic Encyclopedia).

When Rome fell, pagan nations swarmed into the city.

Many, including some of the Saints, thought this would be the end of Christianity. According to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "Saint Jerome thought the end of the world was near as he sat in his cave translating the Bible." Likewise, St. Augustine shared the same notion as is evident in his great work "City of God," which he began writing in 413, three years after the fall of Rome, to combat pagan theories that Rome fell due to the abolition of pagan worship. Thus began the time period known as the "Age of Faith" (from 410 until 1517 - commonly referred to as the Middle Ages). The Church, in persecution, kept the Faith, though. Just as when, in times of St John and the Apocalypse, Catholics kept the authentic continuation of Jesus, so did St Augustine and other defenders of Christ. Jesus exhorts His followers-and us!: "Remain faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).

Catholicism was not dependent on the Roman Empire for its survival. Although structured society had fallen for a time, the Church continued on; unified, holy, and apostolic. Jesus says: "Hold fast to what you have until I come" (Rev. 1:25) . In fact, St. Augustine wrote the majority of his works after the fall of Rome. Those pagans who scaled the walls of fallen Rome to enjoy citizenship were quickly engaged in dialog with Christians. One might argue the Roman Empire actually hindered Catholicism rather than being the cause of its establishment.

Conclusions-Jesus continues His Church despite all adversity--He protects His Church-"Christ is the Head of the Church…(He) handed Himself over for her, to sanctify her" (Eph. 5:25-6). Be thankful and pray for the Church! How will you help hand on the authentic Faith?

Think: just as the recent crisis of sexual abuse and the priesthood affected many, and seemingly challenged the official Church, it did not change any substantial Church teaching. Bad incidents of individuals can never change Church doctrine; despite sin the Church persists. Trust in the Church for proper teaching.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Catholic convert, once wrote: "I have inevitably and increasingly been driven to the conclusion, almost against my own will, that for a West European whose life and background and tradition are in terms of Western European Christian civilization, the only answer lies in the person and life and teaching of Christ."

Read History of the Church: Part I, Part III, Part IV

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi