Christ compared the Church to a grain of mustard-seed, which is the smallest of seeds, but grows into a tree in which the birds of the air build their nests (Matt. xiii. 31, 32).
1. Christ laid the foundation of the Church when, in the course of His teaching, He gathered a number of disciples, and chose twelve of these to preside over the rest and one to be Head of all.
2. The Church first began its life on Pentecost, when some three thousand people were baptized.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. After the miracle at the gate of the Temple some two thousand more were baptized.
3. Soon after the descent of the Holy Ghost the apostles began to preach the Gospel throughout the world, in accordance with the commands of Christ (Mark xvi. 15), and founded Christian communities in many places.
St. Paul, after his conversion in 34 A.D., labored more abundantly than all the apostles (1 Cor. xv. 10); he traversed Asia Minor, the greater part of Southern Europe, and many islands of the Mediterranean. After him St. Peter labored most. After escaping by a miracle from his prison in Jerusalem, he founded his see at Rome where, in company with St. Paul, he suffered martyrdom. St. John, the beloved disciple, lived at Ephesus with our blessed Lady, and governed the Church in Asia Minor. His brother, St. James the Greater, travelled as far as Spain, and was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 A.D. His body rests at Compostella. St. James the Less governed the Church at Jerusalem, and was cast down from a pinnacle of the Temple in A.D. 63. St. Andrew preached to the people living along the lower Danube, and died on a cross in Achaia. St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew made their way to the Euphrates and Tigris, and as far as India. St. Simon evangelized Egypt and North Africa.
The apostles established their communities after the following plan: having converted and baptized a number of men in a place, they chose assistants, to whom they imparted a greater or less portion of their own powers; and before leaving the place they made choice of a successor, and gave him full powers (Acts xiv. 22).
Those who received only a small portion of the apostolic power were called deacons, and priests those who had ampler faculties. The representatives of the apostles were called bishops. Christ gave the apostles power to choose successors when He gave to them the self-same power which He had received from the Father (John xx. 21); and it was His wish that they should choose successors, for He told the apostles that their mission should continue to the end of the world (Matt. xxviii. 20).
Among all the Christian communities that of Rome took the highest rank, because it was presided over by St. Peter, the chief of the apostles, and because to the Head of that community as successor of St. Peter the primacy of St. Peter was transferred.
St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (107 A.D.) in a letter to the Christians of Rome, begs them not to set him free and calls the Roman community the “chief community of the holy band of the faithful;” and St. Iremeus, Bishop of Lyons (202 A.D.), says “All the faithful over the whole world must conform to the Roman Church on account of its principality.”
All Christian communities which have been formed in the course of time professed the same faith, and acknowledged the same means of grace and the same Head. Hence they formed one large community the Catholic Church.
4. When the great persecutions broke out, the Church spread more rapidly over the earth.
During the first three centuries there were ten persecutions, the severest being under Nero and Diocletian (284-385 A.D.), the latter monster condemning some 2,000,000 Christians. They were martyred in various ways; they were beheaded like St. Paul, crucified like St. Peter, stoned like St. Stephen, thrown to the lions like St. Ignatius of Antioch, roasted on gridirons like St. Lawrence, drowned like St. Florian, flayed like St. Bartholomew, cast over cliffs or from high places like St. James, burned at the scaffold like St. Polycarp, buried alive like St. Chrysanthus, etc. The very means adopted to exterminate the Christian religion helped to propagate it. The speeches of the Christians before their judges often converted the hearers. The joy with which they faced death, their superhuman patience, and their love of their enemies, were powerful influences on the heathen. Added to this were the miracles which often happened during the martyrdoms, as for instance in the case of St. Polycarp and St. John at the Lateran Gate. In the words of St. Rupert, the martyrs are like the seed which is buried in the earth, and sprouts and brings forth much fruit; or of St. Leo tho Great, if the storm scatters the seed this benefit results that instead of one, some fifty other trees grow up. “The blood of the martyrs,” says Tertullian, “is the seed of Christians.” The life of the Christians was then a model, and they abounded in saints. At the risk of their life they prayed to God in the catacombs. Two years of probation were demanded of the catechumens before reception.
When the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, had permitted his subjects to become Christians and later made the Christian religion the State religion (324 A.D.), the Church indeed nourished externally, but fervor and religious discipline soon began to suffer.
Constantino was led to this step by the appearance of the luminous cross in the heavens (312 A.D.), and still more by his holy mother St. Helena. The following were some of his ordinances: Sundays and feast days were to be observed with solemnity; the temples of the heathen were to be handed over to the bishops; the gladiatorial combats and the crucifixion of criminals were forbidden, and many churches were built. By the miraculous draught of fishes related in the fifth chapter of St. Luke and the two boats almost sunk with the weight of fish, was prefigured the future of the Church, which should suffer schism with the increase of its members, while Christians should sink down to earthly things. The heresy of Arius (318 A.D.) began its deadly work in the time of Constantine, and had a great following. At this time also ceased the test of the catechumens, so that it was easier to become a member of the Church. St. Augustine had reason to say: “If the Church is harassed by external foes, there are many in her bosom who by their unruly life make sad the hearts of the faithful.”
5. In the Middle Ages nearly all the heathen nations began to enter the Church.
In Austria about 450 A.D., the monk Severinus preached the Gospel for thirty years along the banks of the Danube. St. Gregory the Great, in 600 A.D., sent St. Augustine at the head of a number of missioners to convert England; eighty years later the country was Christian and had twenty-six sees. Germany owes most to St. Boniface, who preached the Gospel there for about forty years (755 A.D.). The Greek monks Saints Cyril and Methodius worked among the Slavs, mainly of Bohemia and Moravia, with great success. The Hungarians were converted by their holy king Stephen (1038 A.D.) “the apostolic king.” Christianity was gradually introduced into Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Russia and Poland after 1000 A.D.
The Church was hard pressed by Islam during the Middle Ages.
Islamism or Mohammedanism was founded by Mohammed, a native of Mecca, who gave himself out to be a prophet of the one true God, promised sensual joy after death, allowed plurality of wives, imposed a pilgrimage to Mecca, taught fatalism, and after propagating his doctrines by fire and sword, was poisoned in 632 A.D., by a Jewish woman. The Koran is the sacred book of the Mohammedans. They keep the Friday with great solemnity, and pray five times a day turned towards Mecca. Mohammed’s successors were the caliphs, who undertook wars of conquest on a large scale, every where rooting out the Christian religion. They overran a great part of Asia, North Africa, Spain and the islands of the Mediterranean. Charles Martel, in a series of victories (732-738 A.D.), arrested their advance into France, and ever since their failure in 1638 before Vienna, their progress in the West was arrested.
In addition the Church lost many adherents in the Middle Ages by the Greek schism.
The causes of the schism were as follows: The emperors of the East kept trying to make the patriarchs of Constantinople independent of Rome, while these were often for their heresies put under ban by the councils. In time it came about that the ambitious Photius, backed up by the emperor, held a council of the Eastern bishops, and broke away from Rome (867 A.D.). The succeeding emperor re-established the old relations with Rome. Two hundred years later, how ever, the patriarch Michael Cerularius renewed the contest (1054 A.D.), and the schism effected by him lasts till the present day. They call themselves the Orthodox Greeks, while we call them the Schismatic Greeks, in opposition to the United Greeks or Uniates, who preserved their allegiance to Rome.
6. In later times many nations of the newly discovered countries were converted.
The Spaniards and Portuguese led the van of missionary enterprise. One of the most famous of these missionaries is St. Francis Xavier, the apostle of the Indies, who used to call the little children together with a bell, as he made his way through the cities of India, the islands of Molucca, and Japan, to teach them the truths of religion (1552 A.D.); he had the gift of tongues, and baptized some two million heathens. After his death great work was done in China by the Jesuits, especially Ricci and Schall. Another great missionary is St. Peter Claver (1654 A.D.) whose work was mostly among the negroes in South America. Cardinal Lavigerie in our own time has done much in Africa, especially in resisting the slave trade, and founding a congregation for the conversion of the natives. The College of Propaganda was founded at Rome in 1662 for the train ing of young men from all nations for a missionary career. At present some 15,000 priests, 5,000 lay brothers and 50,000 nuns are at work in the foreign missions; the missionaries belong for the most part to the Orders of Jesuits, Franciscans, Capuchins, Benedictines, and Lazarists. The organizations for the support of the missions are the Propagation of the Faith and the Holy Childhood. It is a sacred obligation to help in such work, and the efforts of non- Catholics in this direction may well put us to shame.
In later times the Church has lost many members by the Lutheran and Anglican heresies.
Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk of Erfurt, and later teacher in the high school at Wittenburg, took offense because he thought that he was not sufficiently held in esteem at Rome. When Pope Leo X., anxious to complete the building of St. Peter s, gave indulgences to those who should subscribe to the work, and sent out preachers to promulgate these indulgences, Luther came forward with his ninety-five propositions on indulgences, and nailed them to the door of the church at Wittenburg. These propositions at first condemned only the abuses of indulgences in the Church, but later went on to combat the teaching of the Church on the subject (1517).
Refusing to withdraw them at the command of the Pope he was excommunicated (1520), and also outlawed by the emperor for not answering the summons requiring him to appear before the council at Worms. He sought protection from the Elector of Saxony. His heresy soon spread over Germany and led to many religious wars. The name Protestant was assumed by the Lutherans at Spires in 1529, on account of their protest against Catholic doctrine. The Peace of Augsburg secured to the Protestants the same rights as Catholics (1555). The Council of Trent set forth the points in dispute between Catholics and Protestants (1545-1563). Luther died in 1546. His chief errors are contained in the following propositions: (1). There is no supreme teaching power in the Church. (2). The temporal sovereign has supreme power in matters ecclesiastical. (3). There are no priests. (4). All that is to be believed is in the Scripture. (5). Each one may interpret the Holy Scriptures as he likes. (6). Faith alone saves, good works are superfluous. (7). This last follows from the fact that man lost his free will by original sin. (8). There are no saints, no Christian sacrifice, no sacrament of confession, no purgatory. The Jesuits, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1540), won many back again to the fold of the Church. Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland, and Henry VIII. in England, about the same time helped in Luther’s deadly work. The errors of the Anglican Church were drawn up later in the form of Thirty-nine Articles, which are quite Lutheran in tone.
7. At present the Catholic Church numbers about 260,000,000 members. *
These are under the direction of about 1200 bishops, counting about 15 patriarchs, 200 archbishops and 20 prelates with dioceses. There are some 350,000 Catholic priests in the whole world. The in habitants of Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Belgium, and Ireland are nearly all Catholics. In Switzerland about half are Catholics; in Germany over a third of the population, and in Russia 11,000,000. In Europe about three-quarters of the entire population are Catholic. In America there are 80,000,000 Catholics, of whom there are 10,000 000 in the United States, forming one-seventh of the entire population, while Mexico, south and central America, with the exception of Brazil, are almost entirely Catholic. The adjacent islands are mainly Catholic. In Asia there are only 10,000,000 Catholics, in Africa 3,000,000, in Australia 1,000,000. The Protestants, comprising the various sects of Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, etc., number 150,000,000; they inhabit England, North and Central Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, parts of Switzerland and Hungary, and the United States of America. The Oriental Greeks or Schismatic Greeks number about 100,000,000. They occupy for the most part the Balkan peninsula and Russia. Besides these there are some 10,000,000 of various other Christian sects, hence a total of 520,000,000 Christians. Since the inhabitants of the earth amount to about 1,500,000,000 only a little over one-third of the human race is Christian. The Mohammedans number 170,000,000; they inhabit Arabia, Western Asia, the northern half of Africa, and part of Turkey. In addition there are 8,000,000 Jews; they are for the greater part in Russia and Austria. Finally there are still 800,000,000 heathens, dwelling for the most part in Southern Africa, India, China and Japan.
Ed. Note: The later edition of this text had 288,000,00 Catholics worldwide, 1478 bishops, 15 patriarchs, 314 archbishops, and 20 prelates. 375,000 priests in the world. It reported a worldwide population of 1,700,000,00. 1,116,000,000 heathens. Today, after the great scourge of death in WWII, by Nazis, the Soviets, and the Marxist regimes in Asian, the world population has grown by 7X. It would appear God wanted to make it more difficult for the Marxist and Trotskyite murderers to kill everyone.
This article, 4. FOUNDATION AND SPREAD OF THE CHURCH is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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