Category Archives: Persecution

Murder in the Cathedral

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Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Archbishop Thomas Becket
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Elliot

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The Apostasy that Wasn’t Part II: Traditions, Scriptures and the Council

For the first part: The Apostasy that Wasn’t Part I: The Council and the Martyrs

Traditions, Scriptures and the Council

Rod Bennett shines a bright light on the role of tradition, biblical interpretation and orthodoxy. Biblical interpretation and tradition were at the heart of the dispute between the Catholic understanding of the divinity of Chris and that claims made by a priest named Arius who posited that the Son of God was a created being, albeit with all the attributes of God the Father. A common refrain of the Arians was: “there was a time when the Son of God was not”. Today heirs of the Arian heresy can be found in groups like the Jehovah Witness and the Church of the Latter Day Saints. This is only to the extent that both groups assert that Jesus is a created being. Bennett points out that both camps were well equipped with biblical passages to argue in favor of their respective positions. However, the Arians were introducing novel biblical interpretations to substantiate their positions. Interpretations that directly opposed the traditions that have been taught by the Church since apostolic times:

“What was that tradition? It might well be described simply as stubbornness: a tradition of stolid, donkey-like stubbornness born out of humility and fear of God. There was a list, that’s all-an unwritten list of four rock–solid facts of our Faith, handed down by the saints gone before us. And the list- well, the list was the list:

1. That the Father is God;
2. That Jesus, his Son, is also God;
3. That Father and Son are not, however mere names but real personalities who can
relate not only to us but to one another;

4. Yet there is only one God”.

Rod Bennett
The Apostasy that Wasn’t

It is important to remember that during the time of the Arian heresy there was no theological treaty that harmonizes a philosophical argument with the gospel teachings about the Holy Trinity. As a matter of fact the word ‘trinity’ was not even common in the lexicon of the council’s father neither did it appear in the bible. Instead the early Church faithfully relied on the traditions taught by the Apostles, as St. Paul urged them in 2 Thessalonians 2:15:

“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours”.

2 Thessalonians 2:15

It is clear from the writings of the early disciples of the Apostles that the Church universally proclaimed the divinity of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the regenerative nature of baptism, and the authority of the Bishop. It was precisely this stubborn faithfulness of the early Church that preserved the teachings of the Apostles against many unorthodox teachings that disputed the nature of the Divinity of Christ, way before Arius was preaching his views. Gnostic for example, claiming that matter is evil and thereby denied that Jesus was truly man, whereas Sabellianism taught that Jesus and God the Father were not distinct person but two aspects of the same person. As with Arianism the Church stood firm against these heresies.

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This juxtaposition between scripture and tradition evident in the Arian controversy is reminiscent of today’s theological disputes between Catholics and some Protestants. Is the “bible alone” necessary and sufficient to resolve matters of faith or as Jesus said in Matthew 18:17-18, it is the Church that ultimately has that authority? The Church assembled in the council composed of an estimated 300 bishops from around the know-world resoundingly affirmed the gospel as taught by the Church since apostolic times.

The declaration of Arianism as a heresy is not an indictment against the development of doctrine or theological speculations, but an indictment against a world view that divorce scriptures from its apostolic traditions. One that puts in perils the teaching of the Apostle Paul:

“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours”.

2 Thessalonians 2:15

The First Council Of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed

The Church gathers at Nicaea universally reaffirmed the divinity of Christ except for two holdup Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais who were anathematized. The council condemned the Arian heresy and gave us part of the Nicene Creed, which is professed by many Christians churches around the world.

As Theodoret writes in his Ecclesiastical History, the council’s father represented an army of martyrs. These were the stoics Christians who survived the blunt of the Diocletian persecution and bore in their bodies the sign of the Cross. They were a living witness for Christ and for his Church. Are we willing to bear the same witness today?

Nicene Creed

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes”.

  Nicaea_icon

The Apostasy That Wasn’t Part I: The Council and the Martyrs

One of the most common historical objections against the Catholic Church goes something like:

“The Catholic Church was founded by the Emperor Constantine forcing the early church to fall away from preaching the simple gospel and into the arms of pagan rituals and traditions like worshiping of idols”.

Historians have repudiated this old canard over and over, but it still manages to make its way into the lips of anti-Catholics who used it as a blunt instrument against the Catholic Church. However, the witness of history firmly disabused many accusations made to discredit the historical and doctrinal claims made by the Catholic Church. As Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, wrote in his conversion story to the Catholic Church:

“To be deep into history is to cease to be protestant.”

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman

He wrote these words after a long journey, which he first started as a quest to disprove the historical claims of the Catholic Church in favor of those made by the Church of England.

Today many claim that the simple gospel of Christ was lost in early Christianity and the church that Christ founded fall into apostasy. The problem with such statement is that it is simply false. This is the main point that historian Rod Bennett makes in his new book: “The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church”. In it the author traces the events that led to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D and the tumultuous time that ensued it.

the-apostasy

The Apostasy That Wasn’t is a truly riveting story of the heroic early Christian church that defended Christianity against the threats of heresy, schism and court intrigue. It shines a bright light on the unbroken continuity of church teachings and the heroes that defended it.

The “Ghetto Church” and Martyrs

The book highlights the growth of Christianity post-apostolic times and the role that the Jewish diaspora and God fearing people (gentiles that became acquainted and adopted many, if not all elements of the Jewish religion) played in fueling the growth of the early Christian church.

The author does not shy away from what he calls the “ghetto church” which grew at a time of relative peace and acceptance of Christianity that occurred after the major early persecutions of Roman authorities against Christian and prior to the Diocletian persecution of the early 300’s. The “ghetto church” slowly grew out as Christians became indifferent about their faith as evident by the number of scandalous behaviors committed not only by the laity but also by the clergy. The moral state of many churches is very well documented by a number of synods convened by bishops to address their scandalous behavior.

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The shallowness of some Christians became self-evident when the Diocletian persecution started in full force. Whole parishes renounce their Christian faith as soon as the persecution was in full swing. One cannot help but to think of today’s stagnant Christians, those who are neither warm nor cold, but just going along with the culture. What would be on them if faced with such persecution? However, this only had the effect to prune the flock. Many more Christians remained faithful. As the author points out soon after the persecution started many in the Empire knew of a Christian who was either tortured or killed by the pagan authorities. Some years later Emperor Constantine witnessed with his own eyes the cruelty committed by his predecessor when he called the Council of Nicaea:

“At this period many individuals were richly endowed with gifts; and many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. James, bishop of Antioch, a city of Mygdonia, which is called Nisibis by the Syrians and Assyrians, raised the dead and restored them to life, and performed many other wonders which it would be superfluous to mention again in detail in this history, as I have already given an account of them in my work, entitled Philotheus. Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs”.

Theodoret
Ecclesiastical History, Chapter 6

Such witness not bore in words, but with their own body cannot only move mountains, but also tear a pagan heart and replace them with a human heart…

St. Athanasius the “black dwarf” and the Dessert Fathers 

Rod Bennett continuously hits high marks in his narrative approach to the story by allowing history to speak for itself. He accomplished this by extensively quoting contemporary sources, such documents from the council or from historians that were fairly close to the events.

One figure that comes to life through the witness of contemporary historians is St. Athanasius of Alexandria a “short and dark priest from Alexandria. He was the assistant to the Bishop of Alexandria named Alexander during the Council of Nicaea and as his successor, he heroically defended orthodoxy in the tumultuous times that followed the council.

St. Athanasius was one of the ascetics from the dessert. A humble Christian community of hermits who renounced all wordily good in favor of a devout life dedicated to prayer, self denial and fasting. It is from this community that emerge the early prototype of monastic life that later would have not only change Europe, but save civilization from the dark ages of the Barbarians that occurred after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. It was this saintly community who adopted St. Athanasius as a young child in order to provide him a safe haven from the full blunt of the Roman persecution.

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History tells us that this community was founded by young and rich Christian Roman, named Anthony of Coma, who, after hearing a sermon decided to give up everything to the poor and devoted himself to a secluded and ascetic life of prayer in the dessert. Not long after, many others joined him and formed a community known today as the desert fathers. Many miracles and conversion were attributed to the desert fathers:

“Many sufferers in body who where present did the Lord heal by [Anthony’s hand]; and other he purged from demons….And certainly Anthony did not heal by his own authority, but by praying and calling on Christ; so that it was plain to all that was not he who did it, but the Lord, who through Anthony showed love to men, and healed the sufferers”.

Life of Anthony
Athanasius

(Quoted from The Apostasy that Wasn’t)

This was the community that received young Athanasius and instructed him in the fullness of the gospel of Christ with humility and obedience. His brilliant clarity and orthodoxy were evident in a treaty that he published early in his career titled: “On the Incarnation”. Today it is universally viewed as a theological masterpiece. C.S. Lewis the great 20th Christian apologist wrote:

Link to “On the Incarnation”:

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm

“When I first opened De Incarnatione [On the Incarnation] I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece, for only a master mind could have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.”

C.S. Lewis

On the Incarnation” gives us yet another window of what Christians believed in the early fourth century. Its clarity and simplicity reflects greatly the integrity of the teachings of the Christian church in the early centuries of Christianity. One key component of the doctrine of the incarnation is the fact that God was made flesh. That is: Jesus was truly man and truly God. In that way as Christ hung from the Cross so did death and corruption, ultimately meeting their demise in the Resurrection:

“The death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.”

St. Anthanasious
On the Incarnation

It was this young priest who wasn’t even old enough to vote at the council that stood up with clarity and conviction along with the council fathers against those who denied the divinity of Christ.

 To be continued…

The Witness of the Early Christian Church: St. Ignatius of Antioch

In his conversion story to the Catholic Church from Calvinism Dr. Peter Kreeft conveys a story in which a professor warned him that “some day you are going to meet a Roman Catholic and they are going to say you that you are in the wrong church because our church was founded by Christ and is 2,000 years old and your church was only founded by Calvin and 450 years old”. The professor argued that they better be well equipped to respond to such allegations. That Catholics were wrong that the reformation actually restored Christianity in its early form. That Christ found a church and that it was a protestant church, but like an Ark after 1,500 years of sailing it accumulated barnacles on its hull. What the reformers did was to scrap off those barnacles; they didn’t make anything new they restored something old. Dr. Kreeft was elated by the professor’s response and follows up with a question:

“If I took a time machine and when back 1900 years to the early church like around the one hundred you are saying to me that I would find it that it was a protestant church and if a Catholic and I both took the same time machine I would feel more at home than he would? The professors said “exactly”.

He was elated because at least he would have empirical proof to disprove the historical claims of the Catholic Church all he had to do was to read the accounts of the early Christian and show that they weren’t Catholic. And so it began, as many others before him, Dr. Kreeft was on the way to Rome.

So, what is it about early Christians that speaks so deeply and faithfully about the catholicity of the Church that Christ founded?

Their witness is one covered in the blood of martyrs and embedded in an intense and unflinching love for Christ and his Church. These are the Christians who heard the gospel from the apostles and were entrusted by them to boldly preach the name of Christ to all nations. Their writing gives us a first hand account of what it meant to be a Christian in the first century, but above all they give us a witness of how to be a Christian in the middle of persecutions and even in the confusion of heretical teachings:

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“Pray unceasingly for others; in their case there is hope for repentance, that they may obtain God. Permit them to become disciples by [seeing] your works. With regard to their expressions of anger; be meek; with regard to their boasts, be humble. Meet their blasphemies with your prayers and their deception with your steadfastness of faith. Meet their unruly life with your gentleness, and be diligent not to imitate them. Let us be found to be their brothers in gentleness and diligent to be imitators of the Lord. Who has been more wronged? Who has been defrauded? Who has been rejected? This is so that no wee of the devil may be found among you but that in purity and sobriety you may remain in Jesus Christ both bodily and spiritually”.

St. Ignatius of Antioch
Letter to the Ephesians

Their writings give us a clear description of the universality of the Church, the authority of the Bishop, and the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome in addition to a firm believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. One of such witness is St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Trajan earlier around the year 110. He was the third bishop of Antioch (a city in modern day Turkey) and knew the apostle John, the beloved disciple. On the way to his execution, he wrote six letters to different churches and one to St. Polycarp another witness of the early Church. His writings, reflect an intense devotion to Christ and an ardent love for his fellow Christians. He fervently talks about the unity of the Church under the bishop and the universality of the Church:

“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans

 and the supremacy of the bishop of Rome:

” Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the Church that has found mercy in the greatness of the Most High Father and in Jesus Christ, his only son; to the Church beloved and enlightened after the love of Jesus Christ, our God, by the will of him that has willed everything which is; to the Church which also holds the presidency in the place of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and because you hold the presidency of love, named after Christ and named after the Father; here therefore do I salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father”.

 Letter to the Romans

 On the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist:

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans

The early writings of Christians are a treasure for all. They tell the stories of people who were in love with Christ to the point that they gave their lives for the Cross. It is our history and they serve as a reminder that Christ is with us until the end of the age:

“…I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:20

To ignore them is a tragedy.

I highly recommend Dr. Peter Kreeft talk “Seven Reasons to be Catholic” distributed by Light House Media.

I strongly encourage readers to go the source! That is go out and read the Apostolic Fathers in their own words:

The epistle of Ignatius of Antioch.

St. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna

Clement of Alexadria: The Exhortation to the Greek The Rich Man’s Salvation. To the Newly Baptized

Among many others…

Another great books are: Four Witnesses and the Apostasy that wasn’t both books by historian Rod Bennett.

 

Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.

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It is easy to be discouraged. All we have to do is to make a fair and honest assessment of today’s culture from the news to pop culture. The evidence of a fallen world abounds and if we are honest and look ourselves the picture doesn’t look any better. We are fallen creatures in constant need of conversion, prayer and growth in faith, hope and charity.

As our culture becomes more and more secularized and the memory of a Christian West starts fading into the history it will become more and more difficult to abide by the side of the everlasting man. As Cardinal Francis George said:

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square”.

Yet many people who quote him often forget to quote what he says next:

His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

A time may come when Christianity will be brutally persecuted in the West, but it will not be the end. It will only be a new beginning. History has proven this over and over again from the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire to the persecution Orthodox Christianity by the Arian heretics during the early centuries of Christianity; from the persecution of the Catholic Church in England during the revolt of King Henry VIII to the brutal persecution of the priesthood during the French revolution, the Church has always emerged to pick up the pieces and stand for Truth and the Light of Christ.

A few weeks ago the teens from my parish were confirmed in their Catholic faith through the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation. That is the laying of the hands and the infusion of the Holy Spirit into their hearts:

“Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the holy Spirit”.

Acts 19:6

“Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And we shall do this, if only God permits”.

Hebrew 6:1-3

Confirmation is one of the most beautiful modern rite of passage. It is an opportunity for teens not only to learn about their Christian faith but also to take ownership of their Faith. The catechism of the Catholic Church explains it very beautifully:

“Confirmation…gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross…”

CC paragraph 1303

This is a call to boldly confess the name of Christ and to never be ashamed of the Cross. This can be especially hard for Christians today because it is such a counter cultural statement to profess the sanctity of life, the beauty of chastity as a single and as a married person, to defend the poor, the weak and the dying and to promote the reference to that which is holy.

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God gives us the graces to accomplish all these things through the Holy Spirit. The question is:

What are we going to do with the Graces that God has given us?

There can only be two answers to this question: either we take these graces seriously and become saints or ignored them and become indifferent. Indifference always leads to death.

Indifference implies certain a level of understanding, for you can’t be indifferent about things that you know. For Christian indifference mainly arises out of willful ignorance because people are afraid of genuinely committing to understand because they know what it will demand of them. After all Jesus said:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. He gave us everything and yet we are hesitant of giving anything back.

Mathew 16:24-25

These are tough words! But he also said talking to Peter, who was sinking in the middle of a storm:

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Mathew 14:27

He is speaking to you and me today as he was speaking to his disciples:

Be not afraid of your own weakness because He will be there to strengthen you.

Be not afraid of your own ignorance because He will be there to enlighten you.

Be not afraid of your own impurities because He will be there to purify you.

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

He also says:

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.* And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Mathew 28:18-20

He promised us to be with us until the end of the age!

He is really there in the Holy Eucharist, His Body, His Blood, His Soul and His Divinity. Just waiting for you!

He is there when we go to Confession; when the Priest says: “I absolve you of your sin”. That is Christ telling you: “I absolve you of your sins”.

He is there preaching the gospel to all nations through His Church.

He is there in the silence of your heart. When you say: father, please show me the way because I don’t know.

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Mathew 14:27

This is how we are able to boldly proclaim his name and never be ashamed of the Cross because he is always going to be with us!

As we look forward to the Week that changed the world, let us look at Him on the Cross, look at his tortured body, at his pierced holy hands, at the wound in his chest from which blood and water pour for the salvation of the world…and listen, just listen to him…

He yearns for you.
He did it for you.
How can you be afraid?