A little over a year ago, Pope Francis did something that no pope has had the courage to do in nearly 100years...he canonized Blessed John Henry Newman as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Why had previous popes hesitated to do this, and why was this act so controversial? Because Newman was an Anglican convert, who endured much criticism, loss of status and theological credentials, and banishment from his noteworthy position at Oxford University. Yet, he simply could not "remain Protestant" (ala G.K.Chesterton) after having studied the Early Church Fathers.
This conversion shook the entire Christian world - especially the Churches of The Reformation, and full canonizations could be seen as an affront to our Anglican brothers in Christ. Sometimes truth hurts, and only the most courageous among us can proclaim it in plain, unabashed words.
As I look at the state of our Church today, I find many similarities between the Modern Church of Rome, and the late 19th century Church of England. I thought it might be appropriate to point out some of the similarities, along with a few situational facts which are surprisingly similar to today's church.
Why St. John Henry Newman Studied the Early Church Fathers…Why we should too.
At the heart of St. John Henry Newman's conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism was his study of the early Christians, the Fathers of the Church. As an Anglican clergyman, he believed that they held the answer to his denomination's problem — fragmentation in doctrinal and practical matters. Newman sought a purer reflection upon Scripture in the writings of the Fathers, an interpretation untainted by modern politics and controversies.
Newman read the Fathers deeply, and not merely to extract theoretical propositions. He wanted to enter their world — to "see" divine worship as they saw it, to experience the prayers as they prayed them, to insert himself into the drama of the ancient arguments.
He immersed himself in the works of the Fathers, so that he could recount their stories in his brief "Historical Sketches," in his book-length studies and, later, in one of his novels. After decades of such labors, he concluded that, "of all existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers .... Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own:'
An interesting thing had happened. His study of the Fathers of the Church had caused him to desire "The Church of the Fathers" (yet another of his book titles). He wanted to place himself in real communion with the ancients, with Athanasius and Ambrose. A notional or theoretical connection wasn't enough, and could never be. He wanted to move out of the shadows of hypothetical churches, based on a selective reading of the Church Fathers, and into the reality of the Fathers' Church.
Like St. John Henry Newman and his contemporaries, so many people today hold a lively curiosity about Christian origins. Many ordinary Christians would like to move beyond the rather petty preoccupations of today's tenure-track historians and documentarians (gender and conflict, conflict and gender). They would like to find their own imaginative entry into the world of the Church Fathers. They would like "Historical Sketches" that were vivid enough to see with an attentive mind's eye.
And what would we see, as we pored over the works of the Fathers? What would we see as we gazed through the window provided by archaeology of early Christian sites? We would see many familiar sights and sounds, fragrances and gestures:
• A Church gathered around the Eucharist. This emerges most vividly, not only in the Scriptures, but in the generation immediately after that of the Apostles, the generation of the so-called Apostolic Fathers. The document called The Didache (circa AD 48) includes the earliest Eucharistic prayers. Clement of Rome (circa AD 67) sets out the different roles of clergy and laity as they come together for Mass. Ignatius of Antioch (circa AD 107) describes the Eucharist as "the flesh of Christ" and treats the Sacrament as the principle of the Church's unity. By the time we get to Justin Martyr (circa AD 155) we find a full description of the Roman Mass that's recognizable enough to be reproduced verbatim in the Church's Catechism today.
• A Church that practices sacramental Confession. The Fathers argued amongst themselves about whether the Church should be strict or lenient in dispensing penance — but none of them denied that this was the right and role of the Church and her clergy. The Fathers heard confessions. They pronounced absolution.
• A Church whose members make the Sign of the Cross. At the end of the second century, Tertullian spoke of the sign as if it were the hallmark of ordinary, everyday Christian living. Among his wife's beautiful qualities he mentioned the way she made the Sign of the Cross at night.
• A Church whose members bless themselves with holy water. The "prayerbook' of St. Serapion of Egypt (fourth century) includes a blessing for holy water. Eusebius (late third century) describes the familiar font at the entrance to a church.
• A Church with an established, sacramental hierarchy. St. Ignatius of Antioch shows us that, as the first century turned over to the second, the order of the Church was already well established everywhere. As he wrote letters to various churches, he assumed that each church was governed by bishops, presbyters, and deacons. He didn't explain this. He didn't argue for it. He just assumed it. At the turn of the next century, Clement of Alexandria also presented this order as traditional — an imitation of the hierarchy of angels in heaven.
• A Church that venerates the saints. This shows up in the graffiti on the walls of the Roman catacombs. It shows up in the art of the cemeteries of the Fayoum in Egypt. It shows up in many lamps and medals and signet rings. St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine wrote numerous homilies on the lives of the saints. The most ancient liturgies invoke their intercession. This is especially true of the Virgin Mary, whose prayers are included in canonical collections by the early third century.
• A Church that prays for the dead. In the 100s, devotional literature describes votive Masses celebrated at gravesides. The earliest tombstones in Christian Rome ask prayers for the deceased. The prison diary of St. Perpetua (North Africa, early third century) includes a vision of purgatory — whose existence is explained theologically by Origen (Egypt, third century). At the end of the AD 100s, Tertullian describes prayer for the dead as already an ancient practice!
• A Church with a distinctive sexual ethic and clear ideas about marriage and family. The early Christians stood almost alone in their refusal to acknowledge divorce, to engage in homosexual activity; to procure or practice abortion, or to use contraception.
In short, we would see a First Century Church which so closely resembles the Church described in the Catechism of The Roman Catholic Church as to be strikingly similar. This is why I highly recommend reading the Catechism for every Catholic today. The press coming out of Rome and the US has so distorted the true faith that most loyal Catholics have a hard time recognizing Her. In addition, modern day so-called “theologians” have added to this confusion by failing to distinguish their particular thoughts and biases from those of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. That’s why it is important to study the Scriptures, and to become familiar with the writings of the Early Fathers.
2 Corinthians 11:13 “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.”
2 Peter 2: 1-3 “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
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