Official preacher of the Pontifical Household, Fr. Cantalamessa, once made reference to the growing concern that we live in a post-Christian world. He said that if the New Evangelization is to have the same success as the Original Evangelization of the Apostles and the Church Fathers, we have to consider their “methods and means” which brought about a Christian civilization. “Such means,” he said, “were fundamentally the announcement ‘in Spirit and power’ of the Paschal mystery of Christ dead and risen, united to the testimony of life.”
The attitudes, practices and influences of the early Christians led to the conversion of the Roman Empire, thus laying down the foundation of Christian civilization. Although the New Evangelization has its own unique character and a unique set of challenges that are shaped by the 21st century, there are, nevertheless, many insights the “Old” Evangelization- the evangelization led by the Apostles and Church Fathers –can offer us. Just as charisms and an abundance of grace were poured forth upon the founding of religious orders, the Catholic Church too, upon her founding, was graced with an abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit. From this outpouring came forth an exemplary demonstration of attitudes and practices which had a profound influence on the world.
These attitudes, practices and influences of the early Christians served as a golden standard of Christianity since its founding. Indeed, their witness was the spiritual and moral compass for both the Church and society during times of crisis. As 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." From this golden standard, there is a great deal that Catholics of the New Evangelization can learn and even emulate.
1. Attitudes: The early Christian attitudes towards their faith were exclusive as their charity was universal. Through their works of charity, all people, without distinction, were accommodated in their physical and emotional needs. But among the many gods that were worshipped and the many religions that existed in ancient pagan civilization, there was no such accommodation or deference. In fact, the Profession of Faith by the early Christians emphasized the exclusive and privileged status of Christianity (i.e. Catholicism). In a world where many gods were honored or tolerated, Christians were inspired to proclaim that only one God was to be worshiped and only one Church was to speak on His behalf. Inspired by this “attitude” of confidence and boldness, the liturgical prayer, the Gloria, made its way into the Mass during the 2nd century. In part, it reads: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.”
However, there was a price to be paid for the exclusivity of the Faith. Pagans persecuted the Christians as being “atheists;” that is, being intolerant of other gods. They were also accused of being disdainful of the human race. Pagans often asked: Who would dare to criticize the religious beliefs of other people as false or even evil? Nevertheless, history bears witness that to the extent Catholics viewed the Faith as being exclusively and singularly privileged as the fullness of God’s revelation- to that extent! –did their missionary zeal grow and intensify over the years. If we could put this early Christian attitude towards the world into words, it might read as follows: “I have something unique and special to offer the world; an invaluable treasure that has benefited me immensely and one that will benefit you too!” This thought, in no small measure, created a thirst for the salvation of souls. It even inspired bishops, the religious and the laity to preach the Gospel and hazard dangers in unbaptized and unknown parts of the world.
If the early Christians were courageous and bold, they were equally full of hope. Just as the Roman Empire was crumbling around them, pagans were looking backward to the glory days of Rome. They were living in the past. But the people of God were looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, their eyes were fixed on heaven where their Fatherland awaited them. Ironically, it was this hopeful anticipation of a better world that paved the way for a new Christian civilization.
2. Practices: Religious instruction was important in the early Church. But it wasn’t the most important instrument in forming souls. The early Christians considered the communication of concepts to a passive audience as being woefully insufficient in the Catechumenate (i.e. the ancient version of the RCIA). For instance, Clement of Alexandria (215 A.D.), a Father of the Church, said, “We do not assert that knowledge consists in merely in concepts, but it is a divine science and a light that has arisen in the soul through obedience to God; it reveals everything to humanity, teaching human beings to know themselves and God.” Fr. Antonio Rosmini, a nineteenth century priest, echoes this insight when he said, “It may be truly said that knowledge sprang from holiness, since the former was sought solely out of love to the latter; knowledge was sought after so far as it was essential to holiness, and no other knowledge was desired.”
It is good to keep in mind that the early Christians did not put the emphasis on concepts alone nor did they maintain that Christian concepts were better than pagan ones. They did not want the Gospel to be chosen because its philosophy or ideas were superior to their pagan counterpart. The non-Christian who wanted to join the Church had to be proven in his or her association with Christians and that his willingness to live out the Life of Christ was sincere. Indeed, enrollment into a class wasn’t emphasized as much as the initiation into the Mysteries of Christ. Moreover, if Christians were convinced that the candidate believed all that Christ taught and that His teaching was from God, their admission eventually followed.
Interestingly, the Catechumenate lasted about three years. And during this formation process, the candidate received several mini-exorcisms-- prayers designed to rid them of evil spirits; not so much from possession but from the Devil’s oppression and obstruction during his or her conversion to Christ. By doing this, the Christian-elect was made keenly aware of the dominion of darkness…a world of sin that he or she was called to renounce and leave behind through repentance. In fact, repentance from deadly or mortal sin was an absolute condition upon which as person was admitted into the Church. This condition is expressed in canon 12 of the Council of Nicea: "Those who by fear and tears and patience and good works prove that their conversion is real and not simulated, when they have completed the prescribed time among the hearers, may fittingly participate in the prayers after which it is at the discretion of the bishop to treat them with an even greater kindness."
There is a saying that goes something like this: That which is easily accessed is valued cheaply. As such, the Sacraments in the early Church were treasured by the ancients because the pastoral standards- the conditions upon they were to be received -were not easy. Catholics who sat the at the heavenly banquet table (the altar) were required to wear, as the King bade his followers to do in the parable, the “white wedding garment” of virtue.
3. Influences: The influence of the early Christians was nothing less than amazing! From 33 A.D. to 313 A.D., the early Christians were persecuted, ostracized, tortured, ridiculed and martyred. Because of this, the celebration of the Divine Liturgy was forced underground into the catacombs. Out of the first 30 popes, 29 died a martyr’s death (FYI- Out of the first 100 popes, 70 were canonized Saints; as for the remaining 166, only 8 popes were canonized. The explanation as to the difference between 70 canonized popes in one era and 8 canonized popes in the next era, will lead us to the reason why Christianity has been less influential in modern times as opposed to the earlier years). Scarcely had the Church of Christ had been founded was she baptized into His sufferings. Nevertheless, in 313 A.D., Christianity was legalized. And almost eighty years later, in 392 A.D., Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. From there, blood sports were banned, abortion and infanticide was declared illegal, the institution of slavery withered on the vine and the status of women was elevated and dignified above and beyond anything that pagan civilization had allowed in the past. And as far as oppressive political rulers were concerned, Lord Acton said that Jesus Christ “gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged…” The foundational and historical truth of Christian civilization is this: Liberation from sin translated into political liberty. That is to say, divine absolution from sin led to liberation from tyranny.
But there is more: Through the preaching of the Gospel and through the multiplication of monasteries over the European landscape, manual labor was ennobled, agricultural methods developed and universal education was provided. Furthermore, hospitals were created for the sick, hospices for the dying, and orphanages for the sick. It also cannot be overlooked that from this Christian environment came forth principles and a framework for democracy, universities, scientific progress and a legal system where every person was equal under the law.
Finally, and no less amazing, was that through sexual purity and the redeeming value of suffering the family was strengthened and the dignity of life for every person was renewed. With the coming of sanctifying grace, the immortal soul was made beautiful again. And that beauty shines brightest wherever the Gospel was preached and where Jesus Christ was enthroned in the hearts of the people.
In the 21st century world where doubt and uncertainty lingers in the air, the attitudes, practices and influences of the early Christians can serve as the golden standard of hope and guidance! After all, if history can repeat itself for ill, sacred history can repeat itself for God's glory.