Short Catechism of Church History - J. Oechtering




Constantine's Conversion


The Great Heresies and the Fathers of the Church


39. Q. How did God give peace to His Church?

R. God gave peace to His Church through the miraculous conversion of Emperor Constantine, in the year 312.

40. Q. How was Constantine converted?

R. A cross, surrounded by the words, "In this sign thou shalt conquer," appeared in the heavens to him and his army. Adopting the cross as his standard, he marched against the pagan Emperor Maxentius and gained a glorious victory by which he became the sole Christian emperor of the world.

41. Q. What did Constantine do for the Church?

R. He became the zealous protector of the Church, gave her full liberty, honored popes and bishops, and built magnificent churches; so that, in a short time, Christianity became the chief religion of the Roman Empire. His mother, St. Helena, brought the holy cross and many sacred relics from Jerusalem to Rome.

In the year 313 the imperial edict of Milan was published. It abolished all laws against the Christian religion, granted liberty of worship, restored all confiscated property, entitled the Church to acquire real estate and to accept testamentary bequests, and made the celebration of the Sunday obligatory for the empire.

42. Q. What countries were converted during the Constantine era?

R. Ethiopia was converted by St. Frumentius, who had been brought a captive to the king's court, and was consecrated bishop by St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

St. Gregory, called Illuminator, became the Apostle of Armenia, and after suffering dreadful tortures for the faith, brought king Tiridates and the whole nation into the Church. The gospel was spread in Persia, Southern Arabia, and even in India and Ceylon.

43. Q. What happened after the external enemies of the Church had been conquered?

R. The Church of God, which is and always will be the Church militant on earth, had to conquer internal foes, i.e., the false prophets of heresy, as Christ had foretold.

44. Q. Name the prominent heresies.

R. 1) Arianism.—Arius, an apostate priest of Alexandria; aTout the year 320 denied the divinity of the Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity and taught the blasphemy, that Jesus Christ is only the first and highest of God's creatures. His heresy, supported by several emperors of Constantinople, spread far and wide and lasted till the seventh century. In the height of his success he was struck by sudden death at Constantinople and died like Judas, the entrails bursting forth from his body.

2) Macedonianism.—Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity.

3) Pelagianisin.—Pelagins, a British monk, about the year 400, denied original sin and the necessity of grace, a heresy, held by the unbelievers of our time who claim, that natural goodness is sufficient to save man.

4) Nestorianism.—Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, taught the existence of two persons in Christ, a divine and a human, inferring therefrom that Mary should not be called Mother of God. When he defended his heresy from the pulpit, the indignant people forced him to leave. the church. The haughty enemy of our Lady's exalted dignity died impenitent and excommunicated in exile.

5) Heresy of the Monophysites.—Eutyches, abbot of a convent near Constantinople, taught that there was but one nature in Christ, the divine; from which it would follow, that Christ could not have died to redeem us.

6) Heresy of the Monothelites.—Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, and' his followers taught that there was only one will in Christ, the divine and not a human; a doctrine, contrary to the mystery of the Redemption.

7) Iconoclastism.—Leo, the Isaurian, emperor of Constantinople, attacked the use and veneration of holy images. He and his adherents were called Iconoclasts or image-breakers.

It is a notable fact that these heresies, Pelagianism excepted, sought and found support with the imperial government and often used armed force against ecclesiastical authority. They prepared the way for the Greek Schism of the ninth century.

45. Q. How did the Church combat these heresies?

R. 1) By general or ecumenical councils, i.e., assemblies of bishops under the direction of the popes.

2) By the decisions and authority of the popes, who defended the purity of faith with unremitting watchfulness and zeal, and even suffered persecution for its sake. (St. Martin, St. Liberius and St. Silverius. See list of popes.)

Almost every one of these heresies was condemned by the popes before the councils could meet, and the councils solemnly adopted these papal decisions as infallible utterances of the successors of St. Peter.

46. Q. Name some of these councils.

R. 1) The Council of Nicaea in Asia Minor, opposite Constantinople, condemned Arianism, and declared that the Son is true God, consubstantial—i.e., of the same substance—with the Father.

After the council, Arianism, supported by the government, began a fierce struggle for power, but met with unflinching opposition from the papacy. St. Athanasius and other faithful bishops, who had been driven from their sees by Arian violence, appealed to Rome and were upheld in their rights by Pope Julius. When at the synod of Rimini, Emperor Constantius forced the bishops to sign a semi-arian formula, Pope Liberius firmly rejected it and was sent into exile. But the Christian ladies of Rome united in solemn protest against the installation of another pope with the words: "One God, one Christ, one bishop," and made the emperor recall Liberius. Like all heresies Arianism split into sects and steadily declined. In the Roman empire it was suppressed by an edict of Emperor Theodosius, the Great, in the year 380.

2) The Council of Constantinople ( A.D. 381) condemned Macedonius and declared the divinity of the Holy Ghost. (See list of Popes)

3) The heresy of Pelagius was condemned by the provincial Council of Carthage, and finally by Pope Innocent I ( A.D. 417).

When the decision of the pope reached the African bishops, St. Augustine wrote the famous words: "The acts of two councils have been sent to the apostolic see and the answer has arrived. The case is finished, let heresy now have an end."

4) The Council of Ephesus ( A.D. 431) condemned Nestorius and declared, amidst the rejoicing of the whole world, that Mary is truly the Mother of God.

The Fathers of the council replied to the letter of instruction, sent by Pope Celestine: "This synod thanks Celestine, the new Paul, the guardian of the faith."

5) The Council of Chalcedon ( A.D. 451) condemned Eutyches, and declared that there are two natures in Christ, a human and a divine, both in one person. When at this council the letter of Pope Leo I. was read, the assembled bishops cried out: "St. Peter has spoken through Leo," and adopted his decision.

6) The Council of Constantinople (called the Trullanum from the church in which it was held, A.D. 680) condemned the heresy of the Monothelites, and declared that there are two wills in Christ, the divine and the human, both under the control of the one divine Person in Christ.

The council replied to Pope Agatho's letter: "We have received your letter as if written by the prince of the apostles under divine inspiration, and instructed by it have condemned error."

7) Iconoclasm was condemned by Pope St. Gregory II., but the fanatical emperors caused a bloody persecution in which sacred images were ruthlessly destroyed and many of their defenders martyred. In the reign of the pious Empress Irene, Pope Hadrian convened the Second Council of Nicaea by which this heresy was silenced. ( A.D. 787.)

A few thousand Nestorians and Monophysites survive in Persia and Egypt. With the exception of their particular heresy they hold the same articles of faith which the Catholic Church teaches to-day (f. i. 7 sacraments, b. mass, purgatory etc.) and thus bear witness to her unchanged tradition since the beginning of the 5th century.

47. Q. Who were the holy and learned men that took a prominent part in these combats against heresy?

R. The "Fathers of the Church," who lived during these times, were the chief opponents of heresy.

48. Q. To whom was given the title "Fathers of the Church"?

R. The title "Fathers of the Church" was given to men, of great holiness and learning whom God sent to His Church during the first centuries, to nourish the faith of her children with their sacred knowledge, and whose writings have for all times become standard witnesses of Catholic truth.

49. Q. Name the most noted among the Fathers of the Church.

R. The most noted among the Greek Fathers are St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzum, and St. John Chrysostom; among the Latin Fathers, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

50. Q. Give a brief sketch of the lives of the four Greek Fathers.

R. 1) St. Athanasius, the Great (296 to 373), bishop of Alexandria.—His long life was a continual warfare against the Arian heresy. At the Council of Nicaea, where his learning and zeal prevailed, he completely defeated Arius in open debate. Five times the Arian rulers sent him into exile, but the great confessor of the faith never flinched. At his death, Arianism was in a dying state all over the Roman empire.

2) St. Basil, the Great (330 to 374), bishop of Caesarea.—A saint, as great and cultured in mind as he was ascetic and frail in body. He defeated Arianism in the greater portion of Asia Minor and composed the monastic rule which has been followed by the religious Orders of the East up to the present time.

So complete was his renunciation of the world, that he replied with calm dignity to the violent threats of the Arian emperor: "You cannot frighten me with confiscation; for I own nothing but this faded dress and a few books; nor with exile, for the earth is God's and therefore I am at home everywhere; nor with death, for what is that to a man (here he lifted up the wrinkled skin on his emaciated hand) who is half dead and longs for God."

3) St. Gregory of Nazianzum (330 to 390), an intimate friend of St. Basil.—His writings were considered of such authority, that the historian Rufinus wrote of him: "It is the general verdict, that whosoever does not agree with St. Gregory, cannot be right in his faith."

4) St. John Chrysostom (344 to 407), patriarch of Constantinople, called "the golden-mouthed" on account of his wonderful eloquence.—His zeal against the vices of his time brought him persecution and banishment, which he bore with heroic patience. He died on his way to exile uttering the words: "Praise to God for all this."

51. Q. Give a brief sketch of the life of the four great Latin Fathers.

R. 1) St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (344 to 397), honored by rulers and people.—Through his energy the last remnants of paganism were removed and Arianism was destroyed throughout Italy. He is said to have composed the famous hymn Te Deum. When emperor Valentinian demanded a church for the Arians of Milan, St. Ambrose answered: "I cannot yield; the emperor is in the Church, but not above the Church." To Theodosius, the Great, who had rashly ordered a bloody massacre in the rebellious city of Thessalonica, St. Ambrose fearlessly refused entrance into his cathedral, until he had expiated his sin by public penance. The great emperor showed his greatness by submitting to the just demand of so holy a bishop.

2) St. Jerome (331 to 424).—He was a man of vast learning, and a personal friend of Pope Damasus, at whose command he translated the Holy Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. This translation, called the Vulgate, became the official and standard textbook of the Church.

3) St. Augustine (354 to 430), bishop of Hippo, Northern Africa.—In his youth he had fallen into heresy and immorality, but was converted through the prayers of his holy mother Monica and the preaching of St. Ambrose. He gave up his brilliant career of lawyer and became one of the greatest lights of sacred learning the Church ever had. He refuted the heresies of the Donatists and the Pelagians.

St. Augustine embodied the experience of his eventful life in the words: "Our heart has been made for God and is restless, until it rests in God."

4) St. Gregory, the Great (540 to 606).—One of the greatest popes in the see of St. Peter, and a true reformer of Church discipline. He is the father of plain chant, which is prescribed for the solemn service of the Church and is called after him "Gregorian Chant."

Other prominent Fathers of this period were:

St. Cyril of Alexandria, the great opponent of Nestorius. St. Cyril of Jerusalem who left profound works on the Bl. Sacrament. St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Epiphanius. St. Ephrem of Syria, a devout servant of the Bl. Virgin. St. Hilary of Poitiers, who saved France from the bane of Arianism. St. Isidore of Spain ( A.D. 636), who embodied in his numerous works the learning of the great epoch of the Fathers as an heirloom for succeeding ages. St. John of Damascus (eighth century), the last of the Greek Fathers, whose writings contain the tradition of the Eastern Church before the schism.

52. Q. Did the successors of Constantine imitate his devotedness to the Church?

R. While many emperors like Theodosius, the Great, followed Constantine's example and protected the Church, others, like Constantius, favored heresy, and nearly all attempted to rule in Church affairs according to the laws of pagan Rome.

Constantius went so far as to threaten the pope and the synod of Milan with drawn sword: "My will shall be your law; choose between obedience and exile." Pope Liberius rebuked the tyrant with the words: "Meddle not in Church affairs and give not precepts, but rather learn them from us."

53. Q. What emperor tried to revive paganism?

R. Emperor Julian, called the Apostate, about the year 361, tried to revive paganism and to suppress the Church, but he failed and fell in a battle against the Persians, crying out in despair: "Galilean, Galilean, thou hast conquered!"

Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan writer of that time, relates, that Julian, in order to defeat the prophecy of Christ, commanded the Jews to rebuild the temple, and that an earthquake and fiery balls, issuing from the ground, frustrated his blasphemous undertaking.

NOTE.—Heresies and false prophets had been foretold by Christ and His Apostles. Blinded by passion or by the suggestion of the devil, men set up their own teaching against divine truth and the authority of the Church. But the Church, guided by the unerring light of the Holy Ghost, always detects and condemns these false doctrines, so that divine truth is vindicated before the world and thus stands forever in clear and distinct outlines before the Christian mind (dogma). These constant victories of the Church over the heresies of every age prove her infallibility.