History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Organisation of the Church

The Papacy

St. peter, as we have seen, was set up by Christ as head of the Church, and the apostles were appointed to rule and govern it with the self-same authority possessed by Christ himself. When St. Peter was put to death by orders of Nero, his successor in the bishopric of Rome was recognised as the vicar of Christ to whom all the faithful were bound to yield obedience. In the early centuries the exercise of this supreme authority by the bishop of Rome was not so frequent as at the present time, because owing to the difficulty of communication the local authorities were obliged to deal with most of the questions that arose. It should be remembered, too, that a great deal of the literature especially of the first two centuries has been entirely lost, but yet, enough remains to prove that from the very earliest times the bishop of Rome was recognised as the successor of St. Peter and the head of the Christian organisation.

About the year 96 A.D. a dispute broke out in the church at Corinth. Some of the people rose against their pastors and tried to remove them from office. St. Clement who was Pope at the time interfered in the dispute and exhorted the people to submission, warning them at the same time, that if they did not obey his instructions they would be guilty of sin but that his own conscience would be free. Such an exercise of authority in regard to a Church so distant from Rome as Corinth, and at such an early period, can hardly be explained, except on the assumption that the supremacy of the bishop of Rome was well recognised by Christians throughout the world.

The respectful tone of the letter addressed by St. Ignatius of Antioch to the church at Rome taken in conjunction with his letters addressed to other churches bears witness to his recognition of its authority, as does also St. Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies, written about the year 187. In this book he declares that wherever you have an uninterrupted succession of bishops from the time of the apostles, there also you have the apostolic doctrine, and he asserts that though he could produce the list of bishops who governed the great churches from the beginning, yet it will suffice for his purpose if he traces the succession in the Roman Church. "For it is necessary," he adds, "that the whole Church, that is the faithful of the whole world, should be in communion with this church on account of its more powerful authority."

St. Cyprian speaks of the Roman Church as the principal Church, the chair of Peter, the source and centre of ecclesiastical unity, and declares that to be united with Rome was to be united with the Catholic Church. Tertullian, too, though writing against the Popes, bears testimony to the fact that in his own day Pope Callistus claimed the title of "bishop of bishops," and asserted his right to make decrees binding on the whole Church.

Again, on the question of the celebration of Easter, Pope Victor insisted that the whole Church must accept his decrees, and threatened those who refused with the penalty of being cut off from the Christian organisation. The wisdom of this policy was, indeed, called in question, but the right of the Pope to do so was denied by no one. St. Stephen, too, forbade the rebaptism of heretics on their conversion to the Church, and Pope Callistus (218–223) modified considerably the discipline of the Church relating to the Sacrament of Penance, especially in regard to the sins of adultery and fornication. The very fact also that heretics always endeavoured to secure the approval of the bishop of Rome, and that bishops in difficulties turned always towards Rome for protection, is an indication that the supremacy of the Roman See was universally recognised. In the council of Sardica held in the year 343, the right of appeal from all parts to the Pope was solemnly affirmed.

Bishops and Dioceses

The bishops throughout the Church are the successors of the apostles, as is abundantly evident horn the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, in which he exhorts the faithful and the clergy to act always in harmony with their bishops. They were appointed in the early Church at a meeting of the bishops of the province, the clergy and the people. The people were admitted to bear witness to the character of the candidate selected, but owing to the scandals that oftentimes arose, it was deemed best that elections should be left in the hands of the local clergy and the provincial bishops. The election was the preliminary to the consecration, and the ceremony of consecration could be performed only by a bishop. As a rule, in order to lend dignity to the consecration, it was carried out by three bishops.

The seat of the bishopric was generally the city, and the limits of the bishops' jurisdiction corresponded with the civil jurisdiction of the city authorities. At first the bishops were all equal, with the exception of the bishop of Rome, but soon one in each province was recognised as the head of the province. The ecclesiastical provinces as a rule corresponded with the civil provinces of the empire. The bishop who presided over the province was called a metropolitan, or archbishop, or primate. When disputes arose about matters of faith a general or a provincial synod or council of the bishops was held in order to restore peace to the Church.

Priests and Deacons

The priests lived at first in the same houses as the bishops and were their assistants. But when Christian communities were established outside the cities it became necessary to send priests to reside permanently in them. Their authority was very much restricted, but as churches were built and endowments provided for the support of the clergy, the priests were allowed greater powers by the bishops, and their position as pastors of their own churches was more fully recognised. At first no regular training for the priesthood was possible, but gradually the necessity for a regular novitiate was perceived, and candidates for the priesthood were required to live in close proximity to the residence of the bishops, and were educated and trained under their own supervision. The Deacons had been established, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, to assist in looking after the temporal wants of the early Christians, but that their office was also a spiritual one is evident from the ceremonies used at their ordination and from the qualifications required in all candidates for deaconship. The deacons assisted at the celebration of Mass, carried the communion to the sick and generally helped the priests. Sub-deaconship, Minor Orders, and Tonsure were instituted, in order to secure a sufficient supply of clerics for the ceremonies of the Church, and to provide a novitiate for those who were to be ordained priests.


From the very earliest ages of the Church, some individuals were found who set before themselves the strict observance of the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity, and obedience. At first these individuals did not separate themselves from their families, nor did they abandon their ordinary work in the world. They were called ascetics; but soon, in order to devote themselves better to prayer and the service of God, some of the ascetics began to withdraw from the world and to live apart in proximity to the gates of the cities or villages. These were called anchorites. Later on, owing to the persecutions and the desire for greater perfection, some fled into the deserts where they lived entirely alone. These were called hermits. Egypt was the great home of the hermits, and St. Paul of Thebes is recognised as the greatest example of the eremitical life.

The fact that the hermits scattered over the desert had no opportunity of assisting at Mass or of receiving the holy Eucharist, and the desire of placing themselves under the guidance of some well recognised master in the spiritual life, induced numbers of them to come together into a kind of community where each lived in his own cell without any common rule. This kind of community Was known as the Laura, and of this style of life St. Anthony is regarded as the founder. Later still, St. Pachomius drew up a rule for those who had come to seek his spiritual guidance, and he founded the first real monastery in the Thebaid, a valley of the upper Nile (325). The good results of such a mode of life were soon recognised, and it developed quickly in the east. In order to give it greater permanency St. Basil (329–79) drew up a rule and required all his subjects to take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The rule of St. Basil was soon followed generally in the east.

From the east it was introduced into the western church in the fourth century, St. Ambrose, St. Eusebius of Vercelli, St. Honoratus of Lerins and St. Augustine being its most zealous patrons. St. Benedict, however, must be regarded as the real founder of monasticism in the west. He was born in the year 480, and having fled from his first community at Subiaco he set up his great monastery at Monte Cassino, from which his monks soon spread over Europe. The Rule of St. Benedict was strict but at the same time not beyond human strength. It insisted principally on prayer, labour and obedience.

St. Columbanus and his associates from Ireland also introduced the monastic life into the continent, and set up establishments at Luxeuil, St. Gall and Bobbio, from which other communities were founded. At first it seemed, as if the rule of St. Columbanus was likely to prove a rival to that of St. Benedict but its severity and strictness proved an obstacle to its general acceptance.

Clerical Celibacy

From the very beginning most of those engaged in the work of preaching the gospel, in obedience to the counsels of Christ concerning celibacy, and in imitation of the example of virginity set by His Blessed Mother, remained unmarried, or if married before their acceptance of the office of priesthood, lived apart from their wives. It was fitting that those engaged in such sacred duties and whose work it was to preach self-denial to others, should set the very highest example of self-denial in their own lives. Besides, having devoted themselves to the service of God, they were mindful of the words of St. Paul that "he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world how he may please his wife, but that he who is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to God how he may please God" (I. Cor. 33-34).

But though as a general rule celibacy was observed by the early clergy, yet there was no divine law on the subject. It was a matter of purely ecclesiastical discipline, and for some time was not enforced by any universal law of the Church. The decrees, however, of the synods held in the early portion of the fourth century make it clear that celibacy was pretty strictly enforced in regard at least to the bishops and priests, and before the end of this same century, celibacy was the common rule in the western church. The discipline in the east was less strict. It permitted clerics who had married before receiving Holy Orders to retain their wives, and this difference of practice exists till the present day.

Feasts, Fasts, Churches, Cemeteries

Even in Apostolic times Sunday was set aside specially for religious service in commemoration of the Resurrection of Our Lord. It was called the Lord's Day, and the faithful were expected to attend the celebration of Mass and to devote themselves to prayer. In order that they might be free to do this it was usual to abstain from servile work as far as possible, but during the years of persecution this was not always convenient, and it was only after the triumph of the Church in the days of Constantine that the practice of abstaining from work became really general. From the earliest times, too, the great Feasts of Easter in memory of the Resurrection, and of Pentecost in memory of the descent of the Holy Ghost, were celebrated with special solemnity. The feasts of the Epiphany and of the Nativity were also observed at a very early date. Besides, feast days were observed in memory of the saints who had laid down their lives for the faith. Their memory was commemorated on the anniversary day of their death.

Wednesday and Friday were observed as fast days, and later on in the Roman Church and in many parts of the world Saturday was also regarded as a day on which Christians should fast. The Lenten fast in preparation for the great festival of Easter is probably of apostolic origin, though there was a great difference of practice in regard to its duration. The Advent fast was introduced at a later period.

In the early days there were no churches, and the faithful met in private houses for prayer and the celebration of Mass. In the days of persecution they were obliged to meet in the forests and caverns outside the cities. In Rome they sought refuge in the catacombs where Mass was offered up on the tombs of their martyrs. In the third century when a period of peace was allowed churches began to be erected and dedicated entirely to divine service. They were, as a rule, plain oblong buildings without much decoration. Round the churches the Christians laid their dead to rest, to typify the union that exists between the church on earth and the church in heaven, and also to remind the faithful of their duty of praying for those that were gone. Cremation was unknown in the early Church.