Emmitsburg Council of Churches

History of the Church: Part IV

Father John J. Lombardi & Stephen Quinn

Christian Persecutions to Monasticism of the Middle Ages

Would you die for your faith? A zealous early Christian, Tertullian wrote, "Afflict us, torment us, crucify us, in proportion as we are mowed down, we increase; the blood of Christians is a seed." This is a famous axiom of the Catholic Church: The seed of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. What seeds of inspiring thoughts and deeds will you plant and contribute to the Church and her witness of the Faith today?

If, as St Paul said, all authority is God given (Rm. 13:1), then why are Christians persecuted and killed for the Faith? Where? you ask. On December 29th, 2003, Archbishop Michael A. Courtney, Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi, was shot to death for preaching the truth. Today in China the underground Catholic Church is persecuted; priest and lay-catechists are tortured and imprisoned. In South America the Catholic Faith is threatened by narco terrorists-- drug lords. Blood of holy men and women is being spilled: will it enliven our Faith? Ever wonder what happened to the Apostles for their belief and propagation of the Gospel? Let's face it, anyone who believes that Jesus Christ is Almighty God incarnate may suffer today for what is considered an absurd notion. How can you prove that 2000 years ago Jesus Christ walked the earth and was divine, unless through the Holy Spirit? For "no one can say, Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit." (1 Cor. 12:3).

We live in a society that attempts to separate and divorce religion from law (separation of church and state), which is paradoxical, since ardent secularism becomes a religious belief in itself (albeit subtly). Many politicians do this on an individual basis in our "democracy" today (for instance, Catholic politicians who support abortion.) Just recently, Bishop Burk of Lacrosse, Wis., said that Catholics who do not renounce their pro-abortion stance should not receive Holy Communion. What would you do if you were a Catholic politician, or a bishop today? This kind of separation did not exist in the Roman Empire. Those who did not practice the pagan ritual of worshiping the emperor as a god were subject to punishment and even death. Many Christians became martyrs for this reason. What idols are Catholics and Christians coerced into worshiping today? Among others, they include materialism; contraceptive-abortive sexuality; a reproductive health agenda which turn women (mostly), children, and men into animals and objects; and personal self-destiny, with euthanasia being the ultimate denial of trust in God's Providence. The Israelites' worshipped a false idol - the golden calf: (gold = money, calf, bull = power). Contrast that to our Catholic-Christian call to true freedom through poverty, chastity, and obedience.

In 64 A.D. some storehouses near the Circus Maximus caught fire and caused a raging blaze in Rome for 10 days, destroying most of the city. Rumor suggested that Emperor Nero himself started the fire. He seized the opportunity to shift blame to an unsuspecting group known as the Christians. At first, a few were arrested and tortured to produce a false confession of guilt with respect to arson. Through them, the names of other Christians were identified and since it was impossible to convict these additional Christians of arson, they were accused of being 'enemies of the human race' for practicing magic, and of perpetrating the most abominable crimes. (Jesus said, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of Me." (Matt 5:11). These first Christian witnesses were tossed to hungry dogs to be devoured; others, including women, were crucified or burned to death in the gardens of Nero. Catholics have since been falsely accused and martyred. Blessed Miguel Pro, in communist Mexico, was arrested on false charges and persecuted. As a Jesuit priest he disguised himself to bring the Sacraments to the people, to worship God and celebrate their faith. The "government" didn't like him and using him as a scapegoat, we killed him. But remember; the seed of the martyrs…" and "the mustard seed is the greatest of all seeds" Matt (13:31-32).

Saints Peter and Paul were martyred during the persecutions under the rule of Emperor Nero. Tradition suggests Peter and Paul were arrested together and martyred within a short time of each other. Perhaps Paul is suggesting his own end is near when he writes to Timothy, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of justice which the Lord, the just Judge, will render to me in that day; and not only to me, but to them also that love His coming."(2 Timothy 4: 6-8)…At the end of your life-or even the "middle" of it-can you say the same? That you put everything into living and proclaiming a Christ-centered life? How can you convert now and intensify your Catholicity if you are not yet a saint? St. Peter was martyred in the Circus of Nero. A Roman tradition asserts that he died on the cross, upside down at the request of St Peter because he was not worthy to die upright on the cross as Jesus died. Notice St Peter, after his triple-fold betrayal (Mark 14:72), died a martyr-showing us we can always convert and come back to the Lord (but: don't wait until it's too late). St. Paul, being a Roman citizen, was beheaded, rather than murdered as a criminal via crucifixion. How can you bravely witness to the Lord even when it is unpopular: "Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed…" (Rm. 12:2)

Jewish historian Josephus reports that St. James (the younger) was stoned to death by order of the High Priest Annas, (A.D. 62-63). After the death of St. Paul, Luke the Evangelist (who also wrote the Book of Acts), preached the Gospel in different parts of Achaea (today Greece) and eventually suffered martyrdom in Thebes (modern-day Egypt).

Previously in this series, we discussed that Christianity, only after some 300+ years of persecution, was recognized as an accepted, state-sanctioned religion under the rule of Emperor Constantine. After enjoying peaceful existence for some time, the fall of the Roman Empire brought on disorder, and Christianity was faced with paganism and barbarism from beyond the empire, around the year 411 A.D. Thus began the time known as the "Middle Ages".

But just what are the Middle Ages? As historian Matthew Arnold questions: "the Middle Ages cannot be said to be in the middle of anything, so why the term?" Western history suggests the time period from the last Roman Emperor in 476 until the rise of Humanism and the Renaissance and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, comprises the Middle Ages. It is often implied that this time period saw a "complete loss of classical knowledge" and people were kept in this darkness by a backwards and oppressive Catholic Church; however, not all believe this type of revisionist agenda. How can you view and use your Catholic Church as a preserver of true knowledge and wisdom. Even secularist authors such as Thomas Cahill in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, opine that Catholicism helped preserve essential elements of culture and humanity.

While it is true that the fall of Rome gave rise to barbarism in the Western part of the Roman Empire, Christianity continued to flourish in the East. Barbarism turned into the feudal system that became Christianized in its own respect, due mainly to the influence of monasticism. Contrary to popular historical understanding, the rebirth of classical knowledge was encouraged by Charlemagne in the late 700's and gained wide spread pursuit in the 1200's, approximately 300 years prior to the Renaissance (which means, literally, "re-birth"). But it is not as though the Renaissance just happened by chance. It was the culmination of hundreds of years of preparation of cultivation. Even artists like Michelangelo and inventors like Leonardo DaVinci were sponsored by, and loved, the Catholic Church.

Cultivation of this learning proved difficult under the conditions of the day. Without recognized law to help settle culture--as enacted, for instance by the Roman Empire in the west--people became organized into different clans. Structures of society broke down. War was waged by many in regional conflicts to settle disputes and to break the vicious cycle of temporal pursuit of the poor being manipulated by feudal injustices. For the betterment of all humanity, culture would need to be introduced - but how?

General education and literacy needed to be re-introduced. This meant the institution of communal learning, through schools and other public services such as hospitals for both the rich and the poor. How was this accomplished amidst a backdrop of disorder? Enter the monks of the Middle Ages.

For monks (as hopefully for all people), the purpose of life is to love God: "The greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul (Matt 22:37 & Deut. 6:5). Monastic asceticism means the removal of obstacles to loving God totally. Love is the union of wills. If the creature is to love God, he can do it by sinking his own will in God's, by doing the will of God in all things: " If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in His love" (Jn 15:10). Few understand those words of the beloved disciple better than the monk: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life"(Jn 15.13). For in this case, life has come to mean renunciation. Broadly speaking, this renunciation has three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. All are called to live these virtues, regarding, of course, their state of life-whether married, single or religious. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Mt. 5:6). Are you hungering and thirsting to give up more, and gain more (spiritual graces) from God? What do you need to renounce to be freed? "The truth shall set you free" (Jn. 8:32). Priest and religious profess these evangelical counsels publicly, while others are called to live the spirit of them in their own way and lifestyle. Think of St Francis of Assisi who lived a life of poverty. And when he did, he loved his Lord more, and certainly helped the poor, the sick, and dying. You see--these evangelical counsels help us to become holy! What can you give up, give away, so as to gain God and holiness more?

Monasteries were not only centers of learning; they were like mini-cities, communes of culture, where, amidst the barbarian pillaging, life, Christianity and culture were passed on, promoted and preserved. People like St Benedict and St Bernard of Clairvaux not only lived Christ's counsels intensely, they also passed on necessary, human pursuits and requirements: like food development and architecture (think of how monks made beautiful villages and monasteries, and how they pastured gardens and ecosystems of fertility); they also preserved books from the past (secular ones and sacred); they established a network of communication with other villages and monasteries wherein to survive and thrive amidst challenges and the desolation of barbarism. They made and preserved illuminated manuscripts--beautifully embellished sacred pages of light and color of the Bible and prayer books--not only to enamor but also to develop devotion. We should be thankful to them rather than 1) ignoring them; and 2) confining them to "Dark Ages." Perhaps a better term for this period of time is the "Age of Faith."

Like the saints before us, how can you live-and even die-- for the Faith? In moral matters we heard of one parent removed a child from school because of illicit sexual education; these parents are living for "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God" (Mt. 5:8)…In spiritual -Church matters a convert is being persecuted-belittled and ostracized-because he has a crucifix in his home and attends daily Mass….In lifestyle matters, President Bush is proposing that traditional marriage between a man and woman be preserved: these are all seed-bearers for the Faith-let us take up their contribution and grow in Faith and Love. For Catholic perspectives on history we recommend reading: Hillaire Belloc and Christopher Dawson (convert) and Phillip Hughes

Briefly Noted: Annual March for Life: Jan. 22, 12 noon, Washington, DC (begin at the Ellipse-just south of the White House-and goes to the US Capitol & Supreme Court. Candlemas at Grotto: blessing of candles at the 12 noon Mass on Feb. 2. Nine Day Novena in Honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Feb. 3-10, 7:30 PM Mass & Novena Services. World Day of the Sick: Feb. 11 at the Grotto-6:30 PM Holy Hour, 7:30 PM Mass followed by Healing Service-conducted by Fr. Sal Livigni.

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

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi