"If it should ever be impossible to maintain the present number, it is better to have a few good priests than a multitude of bad ones."
-The Lateran Council
Into Thy Hands: The Making of Great Men was Sky View's first series of posts in 2010. Due to its length I have divided it up into two sections. This piece was inspired by Fr. Antonio Rosmini's book entitled, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church. It was published in 1832.
Certain messages need to be repeated. As such, I like to repost Rosmini's insights at least twice a year. He unearths pastoral priorities and practices of the Catholic Church in the first millennium which led to a robust evangelization and widespread conversions. Going into the second millennium, these biblically and patristic (i.e. Church Fathers) based pastoral standards resulted in a flourishing of cultural activity and innovation. Unfortunately, during the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church departed from these effective pastoral priorities and practices. Nevertheless, it is evident that a renewal is slowly underway in the Catholic Church. Indeed, there are sparks of hope.
Millennial Imbalance of Canonized Popes:
Only great men can make great men. Great systems, great programs and great schools do not make great men.
Out of 265 popes, the majority of them have been good men and good leaders. Some prove to be great and only a handful turned out to be a real disappointment.
However, if one takes a look at the list of these 265 popes, one cannot help but notice something. If you were to divide the list of popes into two equal parts, you will see that the first half of this list is front-loaded with Saints; the second half contains just a few Saints.
For instance, in the first millennium of Christianity there were 74 canonized popes; popes who reached sainthood. In the second millennium, however, there were only 5 canonized popes. Out of all the popes of the first thousand years, about 54% of them were Saints (74 out of 139). In the second thousand years, however, there was a precipitous drop of saintly popes; a little over 4% of all the popes reached Sainthood (5 out of 119).
You might be asking: So what? The reasons behind the huge gap between the first and the second millennium popes will go a long way in explaining why the Catholic Church does not have the influence on civilization it once had.
As a matter of fact, Pope Benedict XV in 1917 asked a very important question in his encyclical, On Preaching the Word. Indeed, many Catholics are asking this same question today: Why is it that the Church in the twentieth-century does not enjoy the same success as the Church in the first three or four centuries?
Great Men Led To Rapid Growth:
After all, Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D. with Christians only making up about 10% of the total population of the ancient world. Just 50-60 years later, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. In just over 300 years, beginning with the Apostles, the Gospel spread like wildfire. The most powerful empire ever to exist went from suppressing Christianity and executing Christians to worshipping Christ and honoring the Saints. Soon thereafter a Christian civilization was born.
Pope Benedict XV goes on to remind us that Catholic Church in modern times possesses the same Sacraments, the same Gospel, and the same Holy Spirit as did the early Church. So, why do we have different results? Why is it that Christianity seems to be losing ground while Secularism appears to be making great strides?
The answer to this last question has a great deal to do with why the first thousand years of Christianity enjoyed so many popes who were Saints; popes who were truly great men!
Whatever can be said about the Popes of the last two millennia can be said of the Bishops and Priests as well. Like the father of a family, the Pontiff, the supreme head of the Catholic Church, quite often sets the tone for the rest of its members.
To ask the same question another way: What was it about the Popes of the second thousand years of Christianity that differed from their predecessors of the first thousand years?
Rosmini's 1832 Book:
A book published in 1832 titled, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church, points us in the right direction. It was written by a Catholic priest by the name of Fr. Antonio Rosmini. In his book, he unearths common pastoral practices of the early Church Fathers that had literally been forgotten. So novel (but yet so traditional) were his ideas that his book was censored by the Vatican. A year before his death, however, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church was vindicated and no longer censored. Like most men ahead of their times, his ideas were treated with suspicion. With that said- and despite the opposition he merited from his book -he managed to win the favor of Pope Pius VIII, Gregory XVI and Pius XI.
The Original Seminary: Bishop's House
Arguably one of Fr. Rosmini’s most important points is this: “In the early ages of the Church, the Bishop’s house was the seminary of his priests and deacons.” He goes on to say the following:
• “It is to this system that we owe the eminent Pastors for whom the first six centuries of the Church were so remarkable. By means of this full and perfect system the sacred deposit of Divine and Apostolic doctrine was faithfully transmitted from one to another through informal and oral communication.”
• "They believed that the words of the Pastor, appointed by Christ to rule and teach the Church, derived a special and unique efficacy from the Divine Founder. This belief imparted supernatural life and energy to the doctrines taught, so that they made and indelible impression on men’s minds. As a result, there was a constant supply of great men…the Bishop of old diffused and reproduced himself in the young clergy, being to them teacher, pastor, and father; adding dignity to the compact body of the priesthood, and securing a healthy influence over the people."
Christ personally formed his Apostles not only by preaching and giving instruction but through informal conversations and spending time with them. During his three year public ministry Jesus did not rely on formal and systematic education. He did not send his disciples off to school. He took the responsibility upon himself to make them into his own image.
So that his Apostles and their successors could do the same, Christ conferred on them a special power. This power is none other than the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The fullness of this sacrament resided in the Apostles but was then transmitted to the Bishops. With this power, the Bishop not only to educated in the first several centuries, but he personally inspired, formed and guided his seminarians and priests. Truly, his house was the seminary!
Unfortunately, this responsibility of the Bishop ended up being delegated to other priests and professors towards the end of the first millennium. Seminaries and universities eventually took over what the Bishop used to do. Hence, the Bishop, who is endowed to form hearts and minds with the full force of Holy Orders, became less of a factor in this process of raising the next generation of priests. “The constant supply of great men” began to wane.