History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

First Preaching of the Faith

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I. Spread of the Faith in Jerusalem

Forty days after His glorious Resurrection our Lord ascended into Heaven, and was hidden by a bright cloud from the sight of His Apostles. As they stood on Mount Olivet, gazing after their beloved Master, two angels in shining garments came and spoke to them, telling them that as they had seen Him depart, so Jesus would return again. Filled with joy and consolation, they went back to Jerusalem, and assembled round our Blessed Lady in the room which had witnessed the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist, there to await the coming of the Holy Ghost.

In that upper room a hundred and twenty persons represented the Church, which was to spread over the whole earth like the mighty tree springing from the grain of mustard-seed. The eleven Apostles were there as the pastors and teachers of the faithful, but the place of Judas was still vacant. Rising in the midst, of the assembly, St. Peter proposed that a man should be chosen to complete the number of the twelve. Barsabas and Matthias were named as equally worthy, and, after prayer, lots were cast, with the result that St. Matthias was added to the Apostolic College (Acts i. 1-26).

On the tenth day after the Ascension, whilst our Lady and the Apostles and disciples were assembled in prayer, there was a noise as of a mighty wind coming, which filled the whole house, and the Holy Ghost descended upon all present in a visible form of "parted tongues as it were of fire"(Acts ii. 1-4).

At once they were all filled with the Spirit of God, and going out into the city, they began to preach to the people.

It was Pentecost, one of the three great festivals for which the Jews were wont to assemble in Jerusalem from all parts of the world. Crowds gathered round the Apostles, who spoke in their own language with great force and wisdom, but each man heard what they said in his own native speech. This great wonder so struck all the people that they felt that God was with the Apostles, and three thousand were converted at once by St. Peter's sermon, and, being baptized, joined the Church (Acts ii. 5-41).

The hearts of many more were stirred by grace, and when, a few days afterwards, St. Peter and St. John, going up into the Temple by the Beautiful Gate, healed a man who had been a cripple from his birth, they came round the Apostles in great numbers. St. Peter preached again, and this time five thousand received the Word of God, and were joined to the body of the faithful (Acts iii., iv.).

As yet the Apostles had met with no opposition, but now the Jewish priests, jealous of such power in words and works, and influenced by the Sadducees, caused SS. Peter and John to be cast into prison. The next day they were brought before the Sanhedrim (Great Council of the Jews for settling religious affairs), and forbidden to teach in the name of Jesus Christ. The Apostles answered by declaring that they must obey God rather than men. They were, however, released through fear of the people, and in spite of the threats which had been uttered against them, they resumed their preaching with fresh zeal.

Many of the first Christians were so holy and perfect that they edified all who saw them, and their example influenced both Jews and Gentiles even more than the miracles worked by the Apostles. The faithful listened attentively to the Word of God, and persevered in prayer, and in the Breaking of Bread, as the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist was then called. They were distinguished for their great virtues, especially piety, brotherly love, and charity to all men. The rich impoverished themselves to aid the poor, selling all their possessions and sharing the price with those who had nothing (Acts iv.). This bright picture was marred by the covetousness of Ananias and Saphira, who brought to the Apostles a part of their profits as if it were the whole, intending to keep the rest for themselves. St. Peter, inspired by the Holy Ghost, exposed their falsehood, and the wretched man and his wife fell down dead, victims to the Divine judgment. This miracle brought a holy fear upon the Christians, and prevented those who had not the necessary good dispositions from joining themselves to the Church (Acts v.).

The Apostles continued to work numerous miracles. The sick were brought into the streets in order that, by the shadow of St. Peter passing over them, their diseases might be cured. The number of the faithful increased daily. This aroused afresh the jealousy of the chief priests and of the Sadducees, and all the twelve Apostles were cast into prison. An angel delivered them in the night, and sent them to preach in the Temple. They were instantly seized and brought before the Sanhedrim, where St. Peter boldly confessed Christ. The Jews, unable to resist the power of his words, resolved to put the Apostles to death. But Gamaliel, one of the doctors of the law, said: "Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught. But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it "(Acts v.). This advice was followed, though the Apostles were scourged, and charged again not to preach Jesus Christ. They departed, rejoicing at having suffered something for His Name, and continued to teach both in private and in the Temple.

St. Peter


The number of Christians increased so much that the Apostles were no longer able to attend to all their needs. They therefore chose out seven holy men to help them. At first, these deacons, as they were called, only had charge of looking after the poor and of distributing alms. A little later on they were allowed to assist the priests at the altar when they were celebrating Holy Mass.

St. Stephen was the first among them. His zeal, and the numerous conversions he wrought, caused him to be brought before the High Priest A.D. 37 and accused of blasphemy. The Jews listened to his bold defence of the truth, but when he said he saw the heavens opened above him, and Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God, they stopped their ears, rushed upon him, drew him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Fore-most among those who put St. Stephen to death was a young man named Saul of Tarsus. He held the garments of the others while they stoned their victim. St. Stephen's last words were a prayer for his murderers, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge "—a prayer which bore fruit later on in the conversion of Saul, who became the great Apostle St. Paul (Acts vi., vii., viii.).

II. Spread of the Faith Beyond Jerusalem

Owing chiefly to the efforts of Saul, the persecutions continued with such force that the faithful, with the exception of the Apostles, were obliged to leave Jerusalem. These disciples travelled throughout Judea and Samaria, carrying the know-ledge of the Gospel to the Jewish population of those countries.

Philip the Deacon laboured chiefly in Samaria. His preaching was eagerly listened to by the people, who brought their sick and infirm to be healed. Many were baptized, and SS. Peter and John went down from Jerusalem to confirm them.

One of the recent converts, a magician named Simon Magus, seeing that the Holy Ghost descended upon the faithful at the imposition of hands, offered money to the Apostles to purchase for himself the power of giving the Holy Ghost. St. Peter rebuked him for thinking that the gift of God could be procured with money. The sin of buying or selling spiritual gifts has ever since been known as Simony (Acts viii. 9-24).

St. Stephen


About this time an angel had told Philip the Deacon to go from Samaria into the desert south of Jerusalem. There he met an Ethiopian officer returning from the Pasch.

The Spirit of God inspired Philip to join company with him, and explain to him the passage of Scripture he was reading. His words made so great an impression on the man that he begged to be baptized. Then Philip said, "If thou believest with all thy heart thou mayest," and he answered, "I believe 'that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."

There was a stream by the roadside, and they both got down from the chariot and entered the water. Philip baptized the officer, and immediately after this the Spirit of God took Philip away, and the Ethiopian, rejoicing in his new faith, continued his journey alone. Philip was carried to Azotus, whence he travelled to Caesarea, preaching the Gospel on his way (Acts. viii. 27-40).

About the time when these events were happening in Samaria, St. Paul was miraculously converted on his way to Damascus, A.D. 37. He soon after went to Jerusalem, where St. Peter received him into the number of the Apostles.

At this time, Caligula, who had succeeded Tiberius as Emperor of Rome, treated the Jews with great tyranny because they would not consent to put up a golden statue to him in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Jews were so engaged in resisting the Imperial will that they had no time to persecute the Christians. Hence, throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria the Churches enjoyed peace (Acts ix. 31).

This gave St. Peter an opportunity of making an Apostolic visitation of the Churches, and thus exercising his right of headship over the whole Church. Some incidents of this journey are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

At Lydda, the miraculous cure of a man sick of the palsy caused the conversion of all the people of that city and of Saron.

At Joppa, St. Peter raised a widow named Dorcas to life. This converted many, and the Apostle stayed a few days instructing the newly-baptized Christians.

It was during this time that St. Peter had the vision of clean and unclean animals being let down in a sheet, while a voice was heard saying, "Kill and eat." By this the Apostle understood from God that he was to receive the Gentiles into the Church.

The same evening three men arrived, sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, begging the Apostle to come and instruct him.

Accordingly St. Peter set out for Caesarea, where Cornelius and his companions were waiting to receive him. After he had instructed them, the Holy Ghost came down upon the Gentiles, and they praised God in various tongues. Seeing in this a proof that God willed the reception of Gentile converts into the Church, St. Peter immediately baptized them, and made them partakers of all the privileges of the Faith (Acts x.). Most ancient historians tell us that after this St. Peter travelled through Syria, and visited Antioch, where he fixed his See. This fact is commemorated in the Church by the feast of "St. Peter's Chair at Antioch." He afterwards returned to Jerusalem through Pontus and Galatia.

Chair of St. Peter


The Jews of Antioch had been converted to the Faith before the visitation of St. Peter. The Gospel was carried to them by the disciples who had been scattered throughout Syria and the East by the persecutions in Samaria. \Vhen the Mother Church in Jerusalem heard of the number of converts at Antioch, St. Barnabas was sent to confirm them. He was joined by St. Paul, and they laboured together during one year. It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts xi.).

From quite the earliest times, the greatest union and charity were kept up among the Christians. Thus, when a famine broke out in Palestine, and the faithful there were in great want, those in Antioch, where there was no distress at that time, made rich offerings, which St. Paul and St. Barnabas carried to their suffering brethren in Jerusalem.

Caligula was succeeded by Claudius, A.D. 40. One of the new Emperor's first acts was to make Herod Agrippa King of Judea. This prince stopped the persecution against the Jews, and sought to find favour with them by turning against the Christians. St. James the Greater suffered martyrdom by the sword. His heroic example converted his jailor, who begged St. James to forgive him. The Apostle embraced him, saying, "Peace be to thee," and both were beheaded together. Agrippa also imprisoned St. Peter, meaning to execute him, but, in answer to the prayers, of the Church, the Apostle was released by an angel (Acts xii.).

This persecution caused the Apostles to disperse, and was the means of their preaching the Gospel to "the uttermost part of the earth "(Acts i. 8), according to the last instructions of our Lord.

There is a tradition that, in order to "hold the form of sound words "throughout all the different nations to whom they were going to preach, the Apostles before separating drew up in a short formula the chief doctrines of the Church. This story is supposed to explain the origin of the "Apostles' Creed."

III. The Labours of the Apostles

ST. PETER.—It is evident from what has already been said of St. Peter that from the first he was always looked upon as the chief of the Apostles and the head of the Church. After the Ascension of our Lord, it was St. Peter who proposed the election of St. Matthias; it was he who delivered the first public sermon after the coming of the Holy Ghost; he who worked the first miracle by curing the lame man before the Beautiful Gate. It was St. Peter, again, who answered the Jews in the Sanhedrim, who condemned Ananias and Saphira, and who received the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, into the Church. He presided at the Council of Jerusalem, and was the first to make a visitation of the Churches founded by the other Apostles. We see him everywhere acting as the shepherd both of the sheep and of the lambs of the flock of Christ.

St. Peter


St. Peter's first work was the foundation of the Church in Jerusalem, and in the neighbouring provinces of Judea. He and St. John were twice cast into prison by the Jews. The second time they were released by an angel, but, the persecution continuing, they were obliged to leave Jerusalem. St. Peter's mission was principally to the Jews, whom he evangelized throughout Syria, though he did not shut out the Gentiles from his sermons. After fixing his See at Antioch, St. Peter, with St. Mark as his companion and evangelist, preached throughout Pontus, Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia.

Afterwards St. Peter transferred his bishopric to Rome, the capital of the pagan world. He probably went there after his miraculous release from prison; but though he continued to govern the Church for twenty-five years, he did not always live in Rome. Thus, we know that he was in Jerusalem in A.D. 50–51, when he went there to preside at the Council at which all the Apostles were present.

Mamertine Prisonn


When the persecution under Nero broke out, it is said that the faithful implored St. Peter to leave Rome. The legend goes on to say that he did so, but on his way he had a vision of our Lord bearing His Cross as though going to be crucified again. St. Peter remembered our Lord's prophecy, "When thou wast young, thou didst gird thyself and didst walk whither thou wouldst; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thine hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not "(St. John xxi. 18), and understood that it was now to be fulfilled. He returned to the city, where he was cast into the Mamertine prison with St. Paul. They converted SS. Processus and Martinian, captains of the guard, and forty-seven others. After eight months' imprisonment, St. Peter was martyred, near Nero's palace on the Vatican Hill, by being crucified with his head downwards, about A.D. 67. He was buried near the same spot over which the Church of St. Peter now stands.

ST. PAUL.—Foremost among the early persecutors of the Church was a young Pharisee called Saul of Tarsus. Having procured letters authorizing his persecutions, Saul was on his way to Damascus, when suddenly a bright light appearing in the heavens struck him and his company to the earth. At the same time a voice was heard saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" And to Saul's question, "Who art Thou, Lord?" it replied, "I am Jesus of Nazareth, Whom thou persecutest." Then Saul cried out, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" to which the answer came, "Arise, go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do." Though struck blind, he obeyed, and spent three days in fasting and prayer. In the meantime, God sent a vision to Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, and told him to go to Saul and cure his blindness. As soon as Ananias had laid his hands on him, the scales fell from the eyes of Saul, who, rising up, was instructed and baptized.

Saul, better known to us as St. Paul, very soon began to preach the word of God in the synagogues, to the astonishment of all who heard him, and who knew how bitterly he had persecuted the Christians but a short time before. This change in St. Paul and the number of converts he made angered the Jews against him, so that he was obliged to leave Damascus for Jerusalem. There he was received into the number of the Apostles. The Jews, however, continued to persecute him, so that he left Jerusalem and went to C2esarea and Tarsus, and St. Barnabas brought him afterwards to Antioch. St. Paul devoted himself to the conversion of the Gentiles, of whom the first had been received into the Church by St. Peter in the person of Cornelius. St. Paul's travels can be divided into three great missions.

On his first mission he was accompanied by St. Barnabas. They preached in Cyprus and the south of Asia Minor, returning to Antioch, and from thence to Jerusalem for the Council held there, A.D. 50.

About the year A.D. 52, St. Paul started with Silas, and preached the Gospel in Syria and nearly all the countries in Asia Minor. At Lystra he took St. Timothy as his disciple, and at Troas he was joined by St. Luke, who became his chronicler and evangelist. St. Paul afterwards crossed to Macedonia, but was driven from Thessalonica by persecution. At Athens he preached in the Areopagus the knowledge of the "Unknown God," adored by the Greeks. After visiting Corinth, St. Paul returned to Antioch ( A.D. 54) by Ephesus, Caesarea, and Jerusalem.

St. Paul


The third mission was undertaken by St. Paul in order to revisit the Churches he had founded in Asia Minor. Driven out of Ephesus, he continued his work in Macedonia and Achaia, whence he returned to Jerusalem.

There he was immediately arrested, but he claimed his rights as a Roman citizen, and so was sent to Rome to be judged, A.D. 61. Here he was kept a captive for two years, though allowed to preach freely. Some say that St. Paul, after he was set at liberty, visited Spain, and preached in the churches of Italy. It is certain that he was in Rome in A.D. 65, for he was then arrested and thrown into prison by Nero. St. Paul was martyred on the same day as St. Peter by being beheaded. His martyrdom took place outside Rome, where the church of the Three Fountains now stands. St. Paul wrote numerous letters to the Churches he had founded. Fourteen have come down to us, and are known as his Epistles.

St. John.


ST. JOHN.—St. John, the beloved disciple, first laboured in Palestine. When obliged to leave Jerusalem because of the persecutions of the Jews, he went to Parthia, where he stayed many years. St. John was present at the Council of Jerusalem, A.D. 50, and afterwards preached in Asia Minor, making Ephesus his cathedral city (probably about A.D. 63).

During the second persecution, St. John was taken prisoner and sent to Rome (about A.D. 95). There, outside the Latin Gate, he was thrown into a cauldron of burning oil, but being miraculously preserved, was banished to the island of Patmos. Here he had those wonderful revelations which he has left us in the Apocalypse. On the death of Domitian, St. John returned to Ephesus, A.D. 97, where he remained till his death. He probably wrote his Gospel then, and also his two Epistles to refute the heresies of the Cerinthians and Ebionites against the Divinity of Christ. During the last years of his life, St. John's constant sermon was, "Little children, love one another." When asked. why it was always the same, he said that it was our Blessed Lord's own command to His disciples. It is a tradition that he lived to be a hundred years old.

St. James the Greater.


ST. JAMES THE GREATER.—Little 15 known of St. James after the Ascension of our Lord. He was the first of the Apostles to receive the crown of martyrdom, being beheaded by King Agrippa, A.D. 44. He preached in Palestine and the surrounding countries. There is a tradition that St. James visited Spain, but this is not certain, though he is honoured as the patron Saint of that country, and his body is still kept with veneration in the church at Compostella.

ST. ANDREW.—St. Andrew preached in Scythia (which corresponds to modern Russia in Europe and Asia) and Greece. He was martyred by crucifixion at Patra;, in Greece. In A.D. 357 his body was brought to Constantinople, but was removed in A.D. 1210 to Amalfi, where it still remains.

ST. MATTHEW.—After the dispersion of the Apostles, St. Matthew preached the Gospel in the East among the Persians, Ethiopians, and Parthians. He was martyred at Nandabar in Parthia. Before St. Matthew left Jerusalem, he wrote for the Jewish converts the first of the four Gospels.

ST. JAMES THE LESS.—St. James the Less was a near relation of our Lord, and was commonly known as "the Just." He was made Bishop of Jerusalem soon after the Ascension, and continued to govern this See until his martyrdom in A.D. 63. He was put to death by stoning. St. James wrote one Epistle, addressed to all the Jews scattered throughout the known world.

ST. THOMAS.—Little is known about the labours of the other Apostles. St. Thomas preached in Parthia, India, Media, and Persia. There is a tradition that he baptized the Three Kings. He was martyred near Madras, in India.

St. Philip.


ST. PHILIP.—St. Philip, who was crucified at Hieropolis, laboured in Phrygia and Scythia.

ST. BARTHOLOMEW.—St. Bartholomew spread the Gospel in India, Arabia, Assyria, and Armenia. He was crucified and flayed alive at Aibanopolis, in Armenia.

ST. SIMON THE ZEALOT.—St. Simon the Zealot is said to have preached in North Africa. He afterwards went to Persia, where he was martyred.

ST. JUDE.—St. Jude, known by the name of Thaddeus, laboured in Samaria, Idumea, and Syria. He travelled through Mesopotamia towards the end of his life, and visited Persia, where he was martyred. He wrote an Epistle to the Churches of the East, which is often called the "Catholic Epistle."

ST. MATTHIAS.—St. Matthias, who was elected to supply the place of Judas, preached the Gospel in Ethiopia. The place of his martyrdom is not known.

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