Below are the pastoral practices of the early Church that are markedly different from our own. The gap that exists between the Original Evangelization of early Christianity and the New Evangelization in modern times needs to be closed before a post-Christian world can become Christian once again. Pope Leo XIII said, "When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to have them return to the principles from which society sprang...Hence, to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery." However, in order for society to follow this course, Catholics- both clergy and laity -must do it first; which is to say that the Church must return to those principles which brought about the rapid growth of early Christianity. Then, and only then, instead of showing decline as she has in recent decades, will she generate growth not unlike those of her spiritual ancestors.
And now for those characteristics which distinguish the Original (or the Old) from the New Evangelization:
1. Eternity was strongly impressed upon the minds of the early Christians. Even as the Roman Empire was falling, the people of God were full of hope and were constantly looking forward. “Thy kingdom come…” was a petition which involved the readiness to leave this earth for a better homeland. Anticipating heaven and being ever conscious of what they were being saved from i.e. hell, the culture of death, sin etc., planted the seeds of a new Christian civilization. It is ironic but true that by dying to world the Christians of the first millenium were able to save it. But as Fr. Cantalamessa asked, “When is the last time you heard a sermon on eternity?” Being daily mindful of eternity generates many unintended consequences...good ones.
2. Repentance was an indispensable condition for communion with the Catholic Church. St. Peter was once asked by the people, "How are we to be saved?" He said in respons, repent and then be baptized. The three year Catechumenate of the first five hundred years- equivalent to the RCIA of today –involved a scrutiny of the candidate’s life by the local bishop for this reason. Cohabitating, using contraception, homosexual activity, publicly advocating abortion, and not observing the Sabbath were grounds on which a candidate would be denied admission into the Church. These deadly or mortal sins would have to have been repented of; publicly, if necessary.
The Fathers of the Church were first and foremost concerned with the salvation of the soul. Avoiding the appearance of being judgmental or rigid, paled in comparison to a person's salvation. To therefore acquiesce and exercise false compassion by giving the sinner the wrong impression that he or she was is in good standing with the Church- and therefore in good standing with God -when in fact they were not, would have been considered the ultimate disservice involving no small consequence. This was especially the case in the first millennium. St. Peter said that repentance comes before the participation in the Sacraments. It is no exaggeration to say that repentance has been made an option by twenty-first century Catholics. The standards by which candidates are admitted into the Catholic Church or by which a person remains in communion with the Church impacts her intergrity, the expression of her unity and her appeal to the outside world.
3. In light of eternity and the need of repentance- a real turning away from sin –disciplinary action by a Pope, a Bishop, or a Council was seen as an act of fatherly love in the early centuries. Disciplinary action involved the deposition of unorthodox or scandalous bishops and the excommunication of public sinners. St. Paul counseled the novice bishop, St. Timothy, to "Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid." (I Timothy 5:20) The Household of God was not seen as a museum of Saints to be sure; the early Christians knew that they were sinners. However, being a member of the Mystical Body of Christ presupposed- and the pastors of the Church took this very seriously –a firm resolve to “keep the commandments of Christ.” When this resolve was lacking, St. Paul told the elders of the Church in Corinth to not associate with such people; that is, with "immoral people." Moreover, with regard to sexual scandal in the church at Corinth, he further added that such sinners were to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh. St. Paul concluded chapter five by saying, "purge the evil from your midst."
It was from this pastoral tradition that St. Leo the Great could say, just three hundred years later, that “he [the sinner] will not be a sharer in our communion who refuses to be a sharer of our discipline.” But the question is: Are these pastoral attitudes and actions of the Apostles and Church Fathers taken seriously today or are they considered outdated? In Pope Leo's day, the Catholic title meant being an active follower of Christ. Today, however, there is a saying: “Once Catholic, always Catholic;” even when one is no longer practicing the Faith. This, in fact, is no better than the “once saved, always saved” doctrine of Protestantism; a doctrine which has been condemned by the Catholic Church. In any case, to say that one is "Catholic" in the twenty-first century is to say any number of things. But if it doesn't mean being an active follower of Christ- one who is destined for eternal life -then what good is it? Unfortunately, the name doesn't mean what it once used to mean...and that is a problem for the Church.
Number 4 & 5 on the next blog-