History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

Foundation of the Church

State of the World at the Coming of Christ
In the Roman Empire

When Christ came on earth to redeem mankind the Roman Empire had reached the extreme limits of its power. Before the onward march of its well trained legions, nations like Greece and Macedonia, Egypt and Carthage, that once reigned supreme, were forced to yield submission and were reduced to the position of provinces. Spain, too, as also Gaul and Britain had been overcome, so that in the days of Augustus Ireland alone of the countries of Western Europe maintained its native independence. From the Rhine and Danube on the north to the deserts of Africa on the south, and from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, the authority of Rome was fully recognised and the decrees of the imperial authorities were received almost without a murmur.

Nor was the dependence of all these different peoples and races upon Rome merely nominal. The various parts of the empire maintained the closest relations with the capital. Garrisons were established along the frontiers and fleets stood in readiness on the rivers and inland lakes to guard the territories of Rome against invasion; roads were built to ensure easy communication; the governors of the provinces were obliged to, send a report on their districts at regular intervals to, the emperor and his advisers, and thus the most distant parts of the empire were closely connected with its centre.

Now, the existence of such an empire was of the greatest importance for the spread of the Christiana doctrine and the development of the Church. By means, of the empire the barriers that had hitherto separated the various nations and races were in part at least broken down; racial and religious prejudices were: softened; the means of transit from one place to another had been rendered easy; the language difficulty was to a great extent overcome, and the way was, prepared for the kingdom of God that was not to be confined to one race or one empire but was to include; all the nations and peoples of the world.

Religion, however, and material prosperity do not as a rule go hand in hand. The Romans of the days of Augustus were much inferior to their forefathers who had laid the foundations of the empire. They boasted, indeed, of their conquests and their legions, but by their lives of self-indulgence and wickedness they were preparing the way for the overthrow of their dominion. For this degeneration the presence of the slaves in Rome was largely responsible. The slaves were the property of their masters who could use them as they would use their cattle or their horses. Such a power tended to foster cruelty and immorality and to weaken the physical and moral character of the masters who possessed it. From the highest to the lowest, Roman society of that time was rotten to the core, and on all sides the prevalence of vice and sin was only too apparent. Nor was their religion likely to prove any barrier to the indulgence of their passions. Polytheism was still the official religion, but most of the educated and higher classes had long lost their respect for the gods. External rites and ceremonies were carefully observed, but these had no influence on the everyday lives of the people. The lower classes were attached undoubtedly to their ancient worship, but even with them their belief in the gods did not tend to set before them higher ideals. The presence of Bacchus and Venus and Jupiter and Olympus amongst the gods, the stories that were told about them and the manner of paying honour to them were not likely to improve the moral tone of those who believed in them.

Yet such a state of degradation is not natural to man. Men may be weak, and men may sin, but there is something in human nature that rebels and chafes against a perpetual round of vice and that hopes for higher things. Besides, the belief in a Redeemer to come that was once universal had not been entirely forgotten, and we find that in the days when vice and irreligion seemed triumphant, the hope and expectation that from the East a Saviour would arise who would redeem mankind and the world was not unknown even in Rome.

Among the Jews

The existence of the Jewish nation and of the Jewish religion helped also to prepare the way for the spread of the Christian gospel. This hardy race of people occupying a barren country, and having only one priesthood and one doctrine, was specially selected by God to keep alive the true religion and to serve as a model for the rest of the world until the Redeemer of mankind should come. For this purpose they had been brought into contact with most of the great empires of antiquity, with Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and Macedonia, Greece and Rome, but whether scattered in exile in Alexandria or living in bondage at home they still remained loyal to the one true God who had selected them and who watched over them. Palestine had at this time become a province of the Roman Empire, and Herod the Idumaean held the sceptre of Judah.

The two great parties amongst the Jews of this time were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, distinguished from one another both in politics and religion. The former of these, hostile to all foreign influence in the affairs of Palestine, advocated a strict observance of the law and of the traditions that had been handed down, but as we know from the terrible denunciations levelled against them by Christ they themselves did not practise what they preached; while, in opposition to them, the Sadducees were the freethinkers and liberals of their day, anxious to reconcile Judaism with Greek philosophy, and ending by rejecting not merely the traditions but also most of the Scriptures and doctrines held sacred by their forefathers.

Some of the Jews were scattered throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire, though it was in Egypt, more especially in Alexandria, that they had secured their strongest foothold; but wherever they happened to be their hearts beat in unison with those of their countrymen at home, and their thoughts were fixed upon the temple that crowned the heights of Mount Moriah. In their zeal for their own religion they were anxious to secure converts amongst their Gentile neighbours, and for this purpose they carried on a regular campaign in various cities of the empire. In this way they helped to prepare the ground for the teaching of Christ and to win the people from their false gods, while the contact of the Jews with the Gentiles tended to spread the expectation of the Saviour which was universal throughout Judea and Samaria at this period. The Jews looked for a Redeemer who would be not merely a religious reformer but who would also rescue their country from the yoke of Rome, and it was because this hope was disappointed that so many of them refused to accept Christ.

The Work of Christ and His Apostles

Christ came on earth not merely to redeem mankind or to preach the doctrine that had been confided to Him by the Father, but also to found a society which should include all those who would accept His teaching. For this purpose He selected the apostles and disciples, to whom He handed over the exclusive right of preaching and preserving pure and entire what He Himself had taught them, so that the faithful in after ages were not to be left free to pick and choose for themselves, but were to be obliged to accept the instructions and the advice of those who had been appointed by Christ.

Hence, He chose from his followers a select body whom He instructed specially, and to whom He revealed the secrets not communicated to the multitude. To these men He entrusted the sacred duty of taking His place and spreading His doctrine when He Himself should have returned to the Father, and for this purpose, too, He invested them with the authority that He Himself had received. "As the Father has sent Me so also I send you," He said, "and whoever receives you receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (Matt. 10, 40). In regard to the forgiveness of sins He said, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are' forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained "(John xx. 22:23), and to these men also He gave the power of changing bread and wine into His own most sacred Body and Blood, as He Himself had done at the Last Supper. "Do this," He said, "for a commemoration of Me" (Luke 22, 19). When the time for His ascension drew nigh He summoned His Apostles to meet Him on a mountain of Galilee and He gave them His last solemn injunction; "All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth, going therefore teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world "(Matt. 28, 18-20). That He appointed St. Peter supreme head of His society, is clearly evident from the words in which He declared him to be the shepherd whose duty it was to feed the entire flock (John xxi. 15-18), the man whose faith having been strengthened was to strengthen the faith of others (Luke, xxii., 31-32), and the rock upon which His Church should be built, and to whom He gave supreme power by conferring on him the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. xvi. 18, 19).

After the Ascension the Apostles returned from the Mount of Olives sad at, heart and full of gloomy forebodings. They were oppressed with anxiety when they realized their own weakness and the magnitude of the work that had been given them to do. They retired to a room in Jerusalem to take counsel, and to await the coming of the Holy Spirit whom Christ had promised to comfort and strengthen them. On the great Feast of Pentecost as they were assembled together with Mary the Mother of Jesus, "suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty wind and it filled the whole house where they were sitting, and there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire and it sat upon every one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak" (Acts ii. 2-4). Immediately the Apostles, who had been hitherto weak men, distrustful of themselves, became bold and determined to preach Christ even at the risk of their own lives. The crowds, assembled from different nations in the streets of Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, were astonished when they heard Galileans speak in their own tongue so as to be understood by all. At first they were inclined to think that they were overcome with wine, but Peter the head of the apostles, addressing the multitude, pointed out that the Redeemer who had been foretold by the prophets had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that if they did penance and were baptised in the name of Jesus their sins should be forgiven them and they should receive the Holy Ghost. As a result of this first sermon, 3,000 were enrolled in the army of Christ, and the Church as a visible society took its place in the world.

Through the preaching of the Apostles and the miracles wrought by them in confirmation of the truth of their doctrines, they secured quickly a large number of followers in Jerusalem. To become a member of the society it was necessary to believe in Christ and to be baptised. All those who received baptism were required to lead blameless lives, to help one another in all difficulties and to assemble in common for prayer and for the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Otherwise, they lived like the Jews and attended the worship of the temple, but as their numbers increased the priests and the Pharisees took alarm. They realised that the spread of the new religion meant the downfall of their sacrifices and of all that they represented, and they determined to arrest St. Peter and St. John, the two most active leaders. These two apostles were brought before the Sanhedrim and were forbidden to preach in the name of Jesus, but they replied boldly that they were bound to obey God rather than man, and that they spoke only the things that they themselves had heard. Through fear of the people they were released, but as their work progressed and as their religious body grew larger the official leaders of the Jews determined to crush the movement, and a great persecution began. St. Stephen was the first to receive the crown of martyrdom for the sake of Christ. The Apostles were dispersed through Judea and Samaria, but this dispersion furnished an opportunity to spread the Christian doctrine throughout Palestine, and in all the leading cities flourishing Christian communities sprang into existence.

For twelve years the doctrine of Christ had been preached to the Jews, and at last the time came when light should be brought to the Gentiles who till then had sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. Such an idea was distasteful to many of the Jewish Christians, but St. Peter, strengthened by a special revelation given to him by God, overcame these scruples, and Cornelius the centurion was received into the Church as the first Gentile convert to the new religion. The way was now open to the apostles to spread the Christian doctrine and to carry out the command that had been given them by Christ, namely, to preach to all nations. Some of them remained in Jerusalem like St. James the Greater, who was martyred for Christ about the year 44 A.D., and St. James the Less, a cousin of Our Lord, who became the first Bishop of Jerusalem; others of them went eastward like St. Matthew, St. Thomas, St. Bartholomew and St. Jude; some of them turned to the south like St. Simon and St. Matthias, and some, like St. Andrew, to the west.

But the two apostles who did most to spread the gospel in the provinces of the Roman Empire were St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Peter, who had been appointed by Christ head of the Church, took the leading part after the Ascension. It was he who preached the first sermon to the multitudes in the streets of Jerusalem, who wrought the first miracle in proof of the Divinity of the Christian religion and who received the first Gentile into the Church. When he left Jerusalem and Judea he preached first in Syria, and became Bishop of Antioch. But, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he realised that it was fitting that he should set up his See in the very centre of the empire, as a sign that he and his successors were appointed by Christ to rule the world. The fact that St. Peter visited Rome and lived and died as its bishop was so well established that for thirteen centuries it was never called in question. Putting aside the testimony contained in his own Epistle, it is proved by the authority of St. Clement of Rome in the first century, of St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria in the second century, and of St. Cyprian, Tertullian and Caius, the priest, in the third century. How long he remained in Rome is not known for certain, but the fact that he was present at the Council of Jerusalem (50 A.D.) goes to prove that he was often absent from the capital. When the persecution of the Church was begun he was seized and crucified on the slopes of the Vatican hill, and his body was laid to rest in a tomb over which the basilica of St. Peter now stands.

St. Paul it is who in a special manner merits the title of Apostle of the Gentiles. He was a Jew himself, educated in the school of Gamaliel, and he took a leading part in the persecution of the Christians at Jerusalem, having been present, as an active participant, at the martyrdom of St. Stephen. It was while he was on his way to Damascus to arrest the Christians there that he received the call from Christ. Instead of attacking the Christians he began to preach Christ in the synagogue, and the Jews aroused by his desertion turned against him, and determined to put him to death. After years of preparation and after having received the approval of the other apostles he started on his missionary labours, journeying through Syria; Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece, winning numerous converts to the faith and establishing Christian churches in the cities that he visited. On his return to Jerusalem he was arrested and thrown into prison where he remained two years. As a Roman citizen he appealed to Caesar, and to Caesar he was sent. He remained in honourable captivity in Rome for some time, and on his release he visited, according to some, the church in Spain. When the persecution of the Christians was begun by Nero he was beheaded, and his body was laid to rest close to the remains of the chief of the apostles. Besides his labours as a preacher, St. Paul did much to spread the gospel by the Epistles which he addressed to many of the principal churches.

The apostle who survived all the others was St. John, the beloved disciple of Our Lord, to whose care Christ, hanging on the Cross, committed His Blessed Mother. He settled at Ephesus whence he was brought to Rome during the persecution under Domitian, and was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, from which he was rescued by divine intervention and was banished to the island of Patmos. Here he wrote the Apocalypse. He is the author also of the fourth gospel, known as the Gospel of St. John.