CHURCH HISTORYOf divine institution in its origins but entrusted to the free will of individuals, the Church has its own particular history; one which may be likened to a great drama. On one side God's design, on the other human resistance which delays its implementation. Both are competing for a sublime goal: the make-up of the Church triumphant foreshadowed in the Apocalypse and called "the heavenly Jerusalem".
Now, if history in general is "life's teacher", so too is Church history but it is so in a sense, a manner and to a degree that is quite particular, given the specific mission that the Church had from its founder and head, Jesus Christ.
The teaching which the Church offers us in
its history through the ages emerges clearly when we take into consideration what the Church's history is in its divine cause, in its development and in its consequences.
So before setting out practical norms regarding the compiling of Church history, we prefer to develop the above ideas, for these are issues about which the apostle must be deeply convinced; issues, too, which will supply him with material for countless articles and stories.
Church history in its divine cause
The divine cause of Church history is Jesus Christ, its founder, its head and its guide.
The history of Redemption is well known. Disinherited of grace and of every supernatural and preternatural grace through that original fault, humanity had wretchedly fallen into the black hole of sin, with no possibility of escape through its own power and no hope of ever being able to reach paradise. But God had pity on sinful human beings. He willed to rehabilitate them and in the bountiful richness of the divine economy, he implemented the plan of redemption. He sent his only begotten Son into the world to enlighten and to teach humans anew, to show them the way through his example, and to save them via his self-sacrifice on the Cross.
In accordance with his divine mission, the Redeemer was in his earthly life, way, truth and life for human beings.
He was "way". He gave humans an example of all virtues, even of those ignored up to then in the pagan world. He was perfect in his duties to God, to his neighbor and to himself: perfect in the observance of the Commandments and of the evangelical counsels, which he preached to men and women.
He was "truth". During the three years of his public life he taught the crowds and the Apostles the truths of the faith. These were collected by the Church and set out in her dogmatic, moral, ascetical and pastoral theology.
He was "life". He acquired anew the grace humanity had lost, in order to give it back to us through the Sacraments and prayer, and by becoming himself a door to blessed eternity.
But the earthly life of Jesus Christ was to be short-lived and to unfold within the confines of Palestine.
From the beginning of his mission, therefore, he gathered to himself Apostles and disciples. He taught and trained them in accordance with his own heart. He chose a leader in the person of Peter. He conferred on them his divine powers of teaching, jurisdiction and order. On the eve of the supreme fulfillment of humanity's Redemption he left them himself in the Sacrament of
the Eucharist, confirmed Peter in the primacy and gave the Apostles the order to continue his mission in the world: "And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age'."1 In this way Jesus Christ instituted the Church to which he was to entrust the task of his redeeming mission, thus extending it in space and time.
With the closure of the Teacher's brief earthly day, there thus begins the long day of the Church, his mystical body. Guided by its founder and universal Head, and assisted by the Holy Spirit, the Church will be, down the ages, the guardian and the authentic Teacher of the truth taught by Jesus Christ, the inheritor of his powers and the depository of his Body and Blood. The gates of hell will not prevail against her; Peter will always have the primacy in his successors - the Supreme Pontiff - whose duty will be to have the final word in all matters of controversy, and to define the truth infallibly: Columna, firmamentum veritatis.2
The sole way of salvation will be in the Church, with the Pope and the Bishops. One moral law, not several moral guides; not various schools, but one school, the school of Jesus Christ by way of his representatives.
In the Church the Sacrifice of Calvary will be renewed; the Sacraments will be administered: Baptism opens up the supernatural life for the soul, Confirmation strengthens it, the Eucharist nourishes it, Penance rehabilitates it if it relapses, Extreme Unction comforts it in life-threatening sickness.
The Church administers Orders to provide Sacred Ministers for society's religious needs; it celebrates and blesses Matrimony, for the propagation of God's children in this world. The Church teaches people how to honor and pray to God.
Church history in its development
The Church militant has a history similar to that of Jesus Christ in his earthly life. Faithful to the mission entrusted to her by him, her Founder and Head, the Church has continued and continues the work of redemption becoming herself, in Jesus Christ, the way, truth and life of human beings.
She became "way" through the exercise of the
heroic virtues of her Saints, and through gospel morality; "truth" by defending, propagating and inculcating the Catholic faith; "life" by apportioning the treasures of grace merited by Jesus Christ through the Redemption.
The Church's work for the practice of gospel ideals is a wonder indeed, at both individual and societal level. When the barbarians invaded, the Church began quickly to educate them, subdued them and changed them so much as to prepare the age of the Free Cities. As a matter of fact, it is a Pope, Alexander III, who bears the flag of the Free Cities.
Later on, the Church had to contend with the absolutism of the Emperors; Gregory VII, the most illustrious victim of this conflict, died in exile, but in death he was a victor, as had been Jesus Christ.
Other abuses and scandals laid waste the Church: very serious indeed was the social damage caused, for example, by the French Revolution, Socialism and Liberalism... but the Church emerged always victorious.
Finally, the Church provided human society, by way of a Christian solution, with the true natural remedies first of all and then with the supernatural ones, which Leo XIII,3 Pius X,4 Pius XI,5 instilled in their encyclicals.
At present the most organized and enlightened States, those that rule civilization today, have, for the most part, aligned themselves with the principles of
these encyclicals; principles that indicate the right way. If the world does not follow them it condemns itself!
In every age then the Church upheld the sanctity of the family. She always inculcated the unity and indissolubility of marriage, safeguarded births, defended purity and took charge of youth education by instituting schools and colleges.
The Church abolished slavery, which was the denial of the family. She changed society by means of her tireless efforts - a slow journey but one that was constantly moving forward.
The Church undertook a very important work by transforming Roman law (at the time it was the most powerful, profound, natural and humane), and removing those parts which did not conform to wholesome morality. Little by little she developed Christian law, fashioned no longer as was Roman law, on human authority, right and might, but on the authority of God, religion and faith. A splendid enterprise is the canonization of Saints, for each time it heralds a reawakening of enormous moral progress.
The Church, in short, worked assiduously in every age to see that society, the family, individuals, and people in general were guided by Christian moral principles so that they could become holy.
As regards Catholic doctrine the Church
has continued and continues still the illuminating mission of the Divine Teacher, maintaining the purity of the faith down the ages and spreading it in Christian countries by means of the teaching of the Catechism, preaching, the press apostolate, the missions and so on.
To have an idea of the Church's work to maintain the purity of the faith, it helps to recall the struggles she had to endure in order to fulfill her mission: a gigantic task during the period of the great heresies from the 3rd to the 6th century, and during the period that goes from Luther and the Council of Trent, to Pius X, and up to our own times.
We have the Creed. Each of its articles represents a victory of the Church over heresy or over the attacks of adversaries. We have twenty Ecumenical Councils. Among the most important of these was the Council of Trent. Defined here were the principal dogmas denied by Protestants; here too the compilation of the Roman Catechism for the Clergy. Lastly, the [1st] Vatican Council which comforted the world with the dogma of papal infallibility.
Guardian and infallible teacher of truth, the Church exposed and regularly condemned the errors of every age. When, to keep the faith pure, it was essential to cut away dead branches - those countless heretics and schismatics
who arose in her midst down the centuries - she did so decisively.
To the Church's work for the conservation of the faith was united her work for its expansion. In fact, she toiled constantly in every age to make the Gospel known to everyone.
Saint Peter, Saint Paul and the Apostles carved up the world for evangelization: they were the first missionaries.
Chosen bands of apostles and fervent missionaries followed them in every age. They always saw Rome as their starting point, the center of faith and of Catholic mission.
The Church evangelized not only via the spoken word but also by means of the written word. This can be seen through the work of the Apostles, the Fathers, the Doctors and Church writers, the Popes, the Saints, and zealous pastors.
Just look at the size of Migne's opus! Yet his wish was to reach two thousand volumes. Add to this work all the tracts of dogmatic, moral, ascetical, mystical, and pastoral theology and all the books of sacred sciences.
Lastly the Church continued and continues still the work of the Divine Teacher "Life" in the field of the Sacraments and of Catholic worship apportioning to
souls the grace that he merited through the Redemption.
She does this through three great means: the Sacraments, the Sacramentals, principal among which are the sacred functions, and prayer.
How diligent the Church's concern has been to communicate the life of grace to people can be usefully ascertained from the history of the individual Sacraments, the Sacramentals and Liturgical Prayer. She always aimed to inculcate in the faithful a complete piety that would lead them to love God with their whole mind and will, with all their heart.
Church history in its consequences for eternity
The Church militant is in view of the Church triumphant. The latter, in fact, constitutes the kingdom of Jesus Christ which has no end: "Et regni eius non erit finis."6
Thus the Church guides human beings to their supernatural goal - the vision, the possession and the beatific enjoyment of God - with supernatural means: the faith she spreads throughout the world; the observance of the Commandments which she instills in keeping with the teaching of the Gospel, and prayer. She guides them not as individuals, but as members of a mystical body whose head is Jesus Christ,
because the heavenly Father has arranged to "instaurare omnia in Christo, quæ in cœlis et quæ in terra sunt!"7
Hence, following the Last Judgment, the Divine Redeemer, head of the elect, will be the first to enter heaven, and everyone else will follow. There will then be a multitude of blessed who, in Jesus Christ, will live in love, see God, possess him and enjoy him for all eternity.
It was Jesus Christ's threefold action - doctrinal, moral, sanctifying - that saved the world. The Church continues the threefold action of Christ by teaching, judging and sanctifying human beings in order to guide them to their goal. Thus, to describe how Jesus Christ was the teacher of truth, the example of all perfection and the one who atoned for our life means to write the life of Jesus Christ. To describe how the Church taught the truth, how the Church led people to virtue, how the Church communicated the grace of Jesus Christ, means to write the history of the Catholic Church.
Basically there is only one story, not two: [that of] Jesus Christ who directly or by means of the Church atones for the ruin of original
sin and forms the new human person, the Christian. God will have his glory, and people of good will their peace. The life of Jesus Christ, the History of the Church and Bible History (three parts of one Story rather than three stories), introduce us to a whole series of examples to be followed, truths to be believed, means of grace to share in.
Taking these principles as a solid basis, the apostle writer will keep to the following practical norms in his treatment of Church history:
1. He is to avoid judging and assessing the Church according to the natural principles which rule and judge human society and the State itself.
2. He is always to show the Church as intent to judge, to guide human beings to eternity and as prepared to ask for everything, even the sacrifice of this temporal life, in order to acquire the hidden treasure.
3. What he is to esteem, as the Church's prime and greatest good, is the grace that makes us adopted children of God and thus heirs and coheirs of Christ. Civilization, knowledge, other goods are also goods of the Church but they are secondary. The primary goal is and remains that of Jesus Christ himself: "ut vitam habeant et abundantius habeant."8
4. He is to consider every epoch of Church history as divisible into three parts in such a way that the first comprises all that concerns the spread and establishment of the truth in this world; the second sums up the work of moral uplift and sanctification of human beings, while the third embodies the development of the liturgy and prayer.
In each of these parts he is then to examine two elements: the divine and the human. The Church's divine element as leader is summed up in teaching, morals and grace. The human element is the hierarchy that officiates and the people who learn and follow.
Hence, on the one hand, [there is] the Church's effort to teach, to sanctify and to save and, on the other hand, the effort of human beings to comply. God who comes to meet human beings and human beings on their way to God, in the various epochs and different periods [of world history], give us what we call Church history in its true sense, which is the continuation, down through the ages, of the life of Jesus Christ.
1 Mt 28:18-20.
2 * Cf. 1 Tim 3:15: "...the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."
3 * Leo XIII (1878-1903) issued 60 encyclicals.
4 * Pius X (1903-1914) issued 16 encyclicals.
5 * Pius XI (1922-1939) issued 28 encyclicals. Up to 1944, Pius XII (1939-1958) had already published six, out of an eventual total of 41. Fr Alberione does not mention Benedict XV (1914-1922) who issued 13 encyclicals.
6 * Cf. Lk 1:33: "And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."
7 Eph 1:10. * "To unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth."
8 Jn 10:10. * "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."