If the word ‘history’ is mentioned, many will roll their eyes and immediately think whatever comes next will be a boring commentation with a bunch of dates thrown in which confuse the listeners. Yet in researching Church history for an RCIA presentation, I found myself wishing there was a way I could better understand and communicate the rich, diverse, volatile, and holy activities woven throughout the last two thousand years.
Some may compare the Church to an old, lumbering lady — slow to change and only when it is absolutely necessary. But the Church is not about what each individual thinks and feels, rather it is concerned about bringing about the love and mercy of Christ to each person so they can have an intimate relationship with God. From its infancy, the Church has had to address challenges and misconceptions; just peruse the Acts of the Apostles and the various letters within the New Testament. Each Sunday, and particularly in the Easter season, within the liturgy as portions of these Scriptures are read, we realize that some of the same struggles in the early Church continue today. While the circumstances may be different, as well as the subject matter, the scenarios can be way too familiar to our day. It’s one of the reasons why these letters are so important: we can see ourselves in history (which has already occurred) and learn from it instead of being destined to repeat it.
Jesus’ message was radical and His actions were scandalous to the Jews of His time. He talked to a Samaritan woman (a double no-no). He touched lepers (ritually unclean) to heal them. He charged His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood (the Eucharist) in order to have eternal life, and He willingly gave up His life by dying on a cross and being buried only to rise on the third day from the dead. Any one of these could send a potential disciple running in the opposite direction.
With persecutions, a common practice in the first 300 years of the Church, it’s quite amazing how it continued to grow. Start sprinkling in various heresies that weakened beliefs along with political aspirations that infiltrated the hierarchy at times and miraculous is the only way to describe the Church’s survival over those years. But the core mission of the Church influenced many men and women throughout the ages to help wrangle it back to its foundation and purpose. These saints helped shape the way the Church proclaimed the Good News.
St. Francis of Assisi may be remembered as the saint who talked to animals and is credited for bringing the crèche to the Christmas decor, yet his response to Jesus was a radical devotion of himself to God. This saint of the 12th and 13th centuries gave up all wealth to minister to the poor and live among them. Thousands of men followed his example, even down to this very day. In our modern times: Saint Teresa of Kolkata, fondly remembered as Mother Teresa, served the poorest of the poor in India, ministering to them personally. The Missionaries of Charities, founded by Mother Teresa, includes branches of active and contemplative sisters and brothers as well as priests in countries all over the globe.
Under the guidance and influence of the Holy Spirit, the Church has taken the time to reflect and refocus the lens of perception on its mission and purpose throughout the changing times and societies. It has seen the rise and fall of empires, political powers, and revolutions. It’s call is the same across the ages: The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.