History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Spread of the Christian Religion

In the Various Countries

From the Acts of the Apostles we learn that through the preaching of St. Peter and of the other apostles flourishing Christian communities were established throughout Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Syria. St. Paul was specially successful in spreading the Christian religion in Asia Minor, Greece and Macedonia. St. Matthew, St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas worked beyond the confines of the empire among the Persians, Ethiopians, Parthians and Indians. In Rome the Church had made great progress, as we know from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans and from the works of Tacitus, who declares that in the days of Nero an immense number of Christians were put to death for the faith. St. Justin Martyr in his Apology, written before the middle of the second century, points out to the Emperor that there was then no part of the world whether Greek or barbarian where prayers were not offered up to God through Christ crucified. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the heretics of the second century, appeals to the testimony of the great churches and includes amongst them the churches of Gaul, Germany and Belgium. "Were we disposed to resist you," says Tertullian, "think you we should lack men or courage? We are but of yesterday and already we fill your cities and castles, your hamlets, your fields and your senate. We have left you nothing but your temples. But it is our duty to suffer death rather than to inflict it. Besides, we need take no deeper vengeance than to withdraw beyond the limits of the empire. We should leave you appalled by the solitude that would surround you." Again, in his work against the Jews, he declares that among the races of the Gaetulians and in the confines of the Moors, throughout Spain, and the different peoples of Gaul, among the Britons, even in places inaccessible to Roman power, among the Sarmatians, the Dacians and the Scythians—in islands and provinces remote and almost unknown—in all, the name of Christ reigns.

The churches of Palestine, Asia Minor and Syria were founded by the Apostles themselves. The principal of these were Jerusalem, presided over at first by St. James, and afterwards by St. Simeon who was martyred, the church of Antioch which was honoured by the presence of St. Peter and afterwards of St. Ignatius the martyr, the church of Corinth, founded by St. Paul, to which St. Clement of Rome addressed his famous Epistle, the church of Ephesus where St. John the beloved disciple of Our Lord spent the closing years of his life, and where the Blessed Virgin breathed her last.

In Africa the Church made great progress from the earliest times. St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter, went from Rome and founded the church of Alexandria, which on account of its position between the eastern and western world was very important for the spread of Christianity. In Carthage and North Africa the new religion was introduced from Rome, and with such success that in the beginning of the third century, when some disputes arose, a council of seventy bishops could be assembled. Spain and Gaul received the light of the Gospel in the first century. St. Paul is said to have preached in the former of these, but at any rate, we know for certain that in the third century the church of Spain was well organized. Gaul received the faith most probably from Rome, and in a short time the church of Lyons was recognised as one of the great churches, the most famous of its bishops being St. Irenaeus.

The conquest of Britain had been begun by Julius Caesar and had been continued by Claudius, (43 A.D.) and was nearly completed by Agricola, (83 A.D.), who subdued the country northwards towards the Grampian Hills. On account of the close intercourse between the different parts of the empire the Christian religion was soon introduced into Britain. The Venerable Bede states that Lucius, a British prince, sent an embassy to Pope Eleutherius (174–189) inviting him to send missionaries to Britain, a request with which the Pope readily complied. Be this as it may, it is certain that towards the end of the third century the church in Britain was well organized, and we find three British bishops present at the council of Arles. Several bishops from Britain were present at the council of Rimini, and so well known was the church in Britain to men on the continent that St. Hilary of Poitiers dedicated his work, De Synodis, to the British bishops. These facts go to show that from the earliest times the church in Britain was in communion with the rest of Christendom, both in faith and worship.

Causes of the Rapid Spread of Christianity.

The primary cause of the success of Christianity was the divine aid that had been promised by Christ. "I will be with you till the end, of time," Christ assured His apostles, and relying on this they and their successors were not disappointed. As Christ himself had wrought wonderful miracles to prove His divinity and His divine mission, so, too, He gave to His followers the power of working miracles in confirmation of the doctrines they preached. This power was given, as St. Paul indicates not for the sake of believers, but for the sake of unbelievers, and hence, when the Gospel seed had taken root and when the ecclesiastical organisation was fully established, miracles became less numerous, though in no age of the world, not even at the present time, have they completely disappeared from the Church. The truth of these miracles of Christ and His apostles has been called into question, but the evidence for them is so convincing that it can be rejected only by those who start with the belief that miracles are not possible.

Another great influence for the spread of Christianity was the zeal of the early Christians and their readiness to lay down their lives for the faith that was in them. The fact that so many of both sexes and of all ages and positions were willing to die amidst terrible and long drawn out suffering without a murmur and without complaint, made a lasting impression upon their pagan neighbours, and forced them to inquire into the truth of a doctrine for which men and women, boys and girls, senators and slaves were prepared to make such sacrifices.

Again, the Christian religion in itself was one likely to satisfy the cravings of the human heart. Man is naturally religious, but he was not likely to be satisfied with the worship of idols or of a multitude of gods, many of whom were patrons of vice rather than of perfection, nor with Judaism which derived its efficacy only from the fact that it was the herald of the great kingdom to be established by the Messiah. The Christian religion gave a rational explanation of the existence of the world and of men by its doctrine of the one eternal God who created the world and placed the first man and woman in it when it was prepared for their reception, of the existence of evil in the world by its doctrine on the fall of man through the sin of our first parents, of the necessity of leading good lives by its teaching about the rewards for the just and the punishment that await the sinner in the life to come. Its moral code was indeed strict, but at the same time it was in such complete harmony with everything that is best in human nature that it was calculated to bring consolation and happiness to all. More especially it emphasized the fact that all men, Jews and Greeks, Romans and barbarians, rich and poor, masters and slaves, are equal in the sight of God and that their position for all eternity is to be determined solely by the manner in which they fulfil the duties of their state of life. To the rich it recommended generosity, to the learned humility, to the servants obedience, to all charity. Such a code, so perfect, so complete and so harmonious, far surpassing anything that had been conceived by the great sages and philosophers of antiquity, recommended itself to the ancients and recommends itself to-day as one that must have been, and must be, divine in its origin and propagation,

Obstacles to the Progress of Christianity

The fact that Christianity was a new religion was one of the great difficulties that it had to overcome. Men are deeply attached to the religion of their fathers, and they are called upon to make a great sacrifice when they are asked to turn their backs upon the past, to break up old associations, and to go forth into a strange land among a strange people. Besides, the old religion is bound up with the traditions, the literature, the laws, the constitution of a nation and the everyday life of its citizens, The very language, metaphors; analogies, proverbs, are all influenced by the religious belief of the community and present a very serious difficulty to the would-be reformer. In addition to all this, the early Christian missionaries were obliged to overcome the strenuous opposition of both people and priests, some of whom were really zealous for their religion and others more anxious for themselves and their means of support. Judaism and Paganism, though so widely different on other matters, were at one in their opposition to Christianity.

From the Jews

The Jews had looked with suspicion from the beginning on the new religion, but their opposition became more pronounced once they learned that Gentile converts were to be admitted into the new society with all the rights and privileges of membership, and more especially when the apostles declared that circumcision and the ceremonial law were no longer binding upon those who had received the waters of Christian baptism. The unbloody sacrifice that had been foretold by the prophet Malachi had destroyed the efficacy of the sacrifices of the Jewish temple, but still the Jewish priests continued to sacrifice, and still the unbelieving, stubborn people refused to admit that the Messiah had come to set up the reality of which their ceremonial was only the shadow. So long as the temple stood, it was a stumbling block to the Jews and a hindrance to their conversion; but the day foretold by Christ was fast coming when the people should see the abomination of desolation standing in the holy places and when, of the building they revered, not a stone should be left upon a stone.

The Jewish people, groaning under the oppression of the Romans, made several unsuccessful attempts to regain their independence. At last their religious instincts were shocked by the command of the Emperor Caligula that his statue should be placed in the temple to be worshipped by the faithful. They rose in revolt, determined to sell their lives dearly at least; and in the beginning they were successful against the legions sent to subdue them. But soon numbers and organisation told, and they were forced back towards the capital in the defence of which they were resolved to die. The Christians, mindful of the prediction of Christ, fled to Pella while there was yet time and before the Roman army had drawn its lines around the city. The Jews, however, remained, and to make the situation worse, multitudes of their race had assembled from all parts of the world for the feast of the Passover. The siege began and all supplies from the outer world were cut off. Soon a terrible famine raged among the crowded population; men and women died of hunger or devoured their own children; awful scenes of madness and despair were witnessed in the streets of Jerusalem. On the 17th July (70 A.D.) the daily sacrifice was offered up in the temple for the last time, and on the 10th August the temple was taken by the Romans. One of the soldiers set fire to it against the express orders of Titus, the leader of the besieging forces. The city and temple were razed to the ground; the leaders of the Jews were held prisoners to grace the triumph of the conqueror, and the sacred vessels of the Temple were carried to Rome, where the Arch of Triumph still stands as a memorial of the victory of the imperial legions. Thus, the chosen people of God were punished for their unbelief, and thus was the greatest obstacle to the spread of Christianity removed from the world.

From the Pagans

Christianity had much to suffer from the philosophy of the heathens and from the calumnies that were set on foot in order to prejudice men's minds against the new religion. Christians were painted as rebels because they refused to pay divine worship to the emperor, as plotters because they met in secret for their religious observances, as murderers of children because their doctrine on the Eucharist was misrepresented, and as guilty of incest because they were so closely united in the bonds of charity.

Their doctrines were assailed by men like Lucian who, though not unfavourably impressed by the conduct of the Christians, denied that it was possible for man to arrive at truth, or Celsus who asserted that the apostles had been deceived by Christ and that the miracles alleged to prove its divinity were but the result of magic, or Flavius Philostratus who endeavoured to undermine Christ by setting up as a rival against Him Apollonius of Tyana. He did this by transferring to his hero most of the gospel narrative concerning Christ and His miracles.

The great philosophical revival undertaken by the school of Alexandria was also used as a weapon against Christianity. Alexandria was a very important centre and the flourishing school, established there by Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Porphyry and others, was a great source of trouble to the Church. It was partly to counteract the influence of these men that the Catechetical School of Alexandria undertook the scientific defence of Christianity.

The Persecutions

But in addition to all this, the vast power of the Roman Empire was thrown into the scales against the Christian missionaries. The authorities at Rome were opposed to Christianity because it overthrew their Pagan gods, and they determined to crush it by force. For three centuries the struggle went on, but the power of the one true God was greater than the power of Pagan Rome, and at last, in the days of Constantine, the triumph of the Church was recognised and the Christian religion became the religion of the empire.

It is usual to speak of the ten great persecutions of the Church during this period, namely, the persecution of Nero (64–68), of Domitian (95–96), of Trajan (106–117), of Marcus Aurelius (161–180), of Septimius Severus (202–211), of Maximin the Thracian (235–238), of Decius (249–251), of Valerian (257–260), of Aurelian (274–275), and of Diocletian (303–324). Of these the most important and most violent were the persecutions carried on by Nero, Trajan, Septimius Severus, Decius and Diocletian.

The Christians in Rome were regarded at first by the pagans only as a special sect of the Jews, but as their numbers increased the pagans took alarm and sought an opportunity for persecuting them. Nero, well aware of this popular feeling, determined to avert from himself the suspicion of having burned Rome by accusing the Christians of the crime, and at once the mob of Rome set itself to hunt them out and to put them to death. From the capital the persecution spread to the provinces, and vast multitudes were subjected to the most cruel tortures and death. Amongst the first to be arrested were St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Peter was crucified with his head downwards and St. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded. Under the Emperor Domitian a new persecution began, during which Glabrio the consul, Domitilla and Flavius Clemens, relations of the Emperor, were put to death or banished, and St. John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil from which he was rescued by a miracle.

During the opening years of the second century the Christians were not molested, but in the year 106 Trajan, annoyed by the refusal of the Christians to take part in the public thanksgiving for his victory over the Scythians, forbade all secret assemblies and a new onslaught was made on the Christians. They were obliged to retire to the catacombs for the celebration of the Eucharist. Amongst those who suffered death were St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and St. Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem. Under Marcus Aurelius, St. Justin Martyr, St. Polycarp, St. Cecilia and St. Felicitas were put to death. For fifteen years the persecution lasted at intervals, but finally, owing to the miraculous preservation of the Roman army in a battle against a German tribe through the prayers of the Christian soldiers, the persecution ceased.

For the first ten years of the third century the Church enjoyed a comparative peace, but in the year 210 Septimius Severus issued new edicts against religious assemblies. The persecution spread through the provinces, but more especially to Egypt where Leonides, the father of Origen, was put to death, to Carthage, where Perpetua and Felicitas suffered, and to Gaul, where hundreds of the citizens of Lyons were butchered in cold blood. On the accession of the Emperor Decius (249) a determined attempt was made to crush out the last remains of the new religion. Decius resolved to cut off the leaders, and then to submit their followers to slows torture in the hope that they might be led to abandon their faith. Pope Fabian and St. Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, were arrested and executed. Large numbers of the Christians manfully withstood all torments but many of them also fell away. These were known as the "Lapsed," and when the persecution had passed they were obliged to undergo the most severe penances before they could be reconciled with the Church.

The tenth and last persecution was begun by Diocletian. He divided the empire into four parts, reserving for himself the east, with Nicomedia as his capital. In the year 303 Diocletian, alarmed at the number of the Christians and at the open display of their religion, declared war against them. The churches were to be destroyed, the Scriptures were to be burned and the Christians were to be tortured until they renounced their religion. The persecution was carried on in the other divisions of the empire by his imperial colleagues. In 305 Diocletian resigned and his successor, Galerius, continued the persecution for some time.

But relief was at hand, and the power of God was to triumph over paganism. Constantius Chlorus, the ruler of Britain, Gaul and Spain died in 306, and was succeeded by his son Constantine. He was not liked by his colleagues in the empire, and knowing that Maxentius, the governor of Italy, was his sworn enemy, Constantine anticipated him by marching into Italy, and succeeded in driving back the forces of Maxentius towards Rome. The armies of the rival leaders lay facing each other, with only the waters of the Tiber separating them. The hour for the last desperate struggle between Christianity and paganism was at hand, and Constantine, skilled leader though he was, awaited the result with no little anxiety; but suddenly he saw a cross of light in the heavens, around which were woven the words: "In this sign thou shalt conquer." While he was still puzzled at this vision he was told by Christ to adopt the Cross as his standard instead of the Roman eagle. Strengthened by this encouragement he directed his troops against Maxentius who was completely defeated, and Constantine became ruler of the western world (312). Twelve years later he attacked Licinius, the ruler of the East, and overthrew his forces, thus making himself master of the whole Roman Empire. He took up his residence in the east, and Constantinople became the new capital.

Constantine himself, though favourably disposed towards the Christians, did not openly profess the Christian religion till the year 324. But he ordered the persecution to cease, restored the churches that had been confiscated or destroyed, forbade the pagan sacrifices insisted on the observance of Sunday, bestowed many privileges upon the Pope and the bishops and finally recognised Christianity as the religion of the empire. His mother, St. Helena, undertook a journey to Palestine to seek for the True Cross, and her search was rewarded with success. Finally, in the year 337 Constantine fell seriously ill and requested that baptism should be administered to him, he having delayed this ceremony, according to some, in order that he might be baptised in the waters of the Jordan. He died leaving his kingdom to his three sons.