Of all the “churches” calling themselves “Christian,” can any one of them irrefutably claim to be the Church founded by Jesus Christ? Does any conform to the clear, precise terms by which this Church of Christ is described in Holy Scripture: “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15); or the “One Body” of which St. Paul repeatedly speaks (Rom.12:4-5; 1 Cor.10:17; 1 Cor.12:12-20; etc.); or the “Kingdom of Heaven” of the synoptic Gospels, and the “Kingdom of God” of Saint John’s? Does any one of them insist that those who fail to hear its decrees are to be treated as “the heathen and publican” (Matt.18:17)?
Yes, there is such a One True Church that meets all these descriptive requirements. The question is, which one is it?
Before we answer that question, we must address an objection that there is a “One True Church.” Many taking the name “Christian” would never claim the sect to which they adhere is the true Church. Rather, they fall into the flagrant error of saying that we are all, somehow, the Church that was founded by Christ. Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Calvinists, Fundamentalists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and, yes, even some Catholics, are all,so they say, part of the universal Church founded by Christ. This, of course, is blasphemy! It is blasphemy for the simple reason that the Holy Ghost is the One Who sustains the Church and informs its members into one body, and this Holy Ghost is also known as the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17), in Whom there can be no error.
Now if all Protestants who claim to be members of the true Church were gathered together, there would be among them Calvinists who believe that Baptism is a Sacrament, and Baptists who do not; Lutherans who call Mary the Mother of God, and Evangelicals who do not; Episcopalians who believe that man has free will, and Presbyterians who do not; Pentecostals who say true believers have to speak in tongues, and Methodists who do not. One would even find, and not infrequently, “Born-Again Believers” who believe Jesus is God, contrary to other “Born-Again Believers” who do not.
To say that the Spirit of Truth would animate a “church” in which there would be so much contradictory doctrine, contradictory leadership, and contradictory worship, as such a church as this would have, is to accuse the Holy Ghost of being a deceiver or schizophrenic. To claim that all these different “Christians” are included in the One True Church is not only absurd: it is blasphemous.
Returning to our question above, we find that there is but one single, united group of Christians who form a Church that meets the qualifications set down in Holy Scripture. It is the Catholic Church. Now it becomes our task to prove that this Catholic Church, which has the Roman Pontiff as its visible head, is the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
We can do so from Holy Scripture, from patristics, and from the various miracles that have been worked by Catholic Saints (which proves the divinity of the religion). We will combine the first two into one and call it, “the historical argument.” The third, because of its wide range of examples, we must leave for another article.
Jesus Founded a Church
We begin with Scripture. The Bible proves that Jesus Himself, the God-Man, established an institution which He called a “Church”: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt.16:18). In addition to this reference, there are one hundred and nine other times that the New Testament uses the word, “church.” But this one reference is enough to prove that Jesus did indeed intend to establish a Church .
A fundamental mark of the Church founded by Jesus is its oneness. Our Lord Himself referred to His Church as “one fold,” and in His agony in Gethsemane He prayed to His Father, “that they may be one, as we also are one.” (Other scriptural texts proving the unity of the Church are Acts 2:42 and 20:27-31; Romans 12:4,5,16; 15:5,6; and 16:17; 1 Cor.1:10-13 and 12:13-29; 1 Peter 3:8; and Jude 17-19; — to name just a few.)
Knowing there is only one true Church of Christ, we proceed to our next point: This Church is an historical reality.
Jesus gave His Apostles a mission: “And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall he condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16) In his account of this mandate, Saint Matthew adds these words of Our Lord (they are the very last words of St. Matthew’s Gospel): “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.”
We know from the Gospels and from the Acts of the Apostles that these men did indeed go out to convert the world. And we also know, both from the Acts and from some of the Epistles, that they were joined by new followers, who accompanied and assisted them in their mission. We know from these books that the Apostles ordained men into the offices of deacon, priest, and bishop to continue this mission. But where the Bible leaves off, where it simply ends as an historical account, the story of Christ’s Church has merely begun. Anyone who believes in the Bible as the inspired word of God must believe that the Church of God continued, and that it existed as the divine institution Jesus Himself founded. For He Himself, the uncreated Word of the Father, promised it His abiding presence. When He said to the Twelve, “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world,” the “you” could not have been just the Twelve, for the world has continued long after their deaths. The “you” then, had to include the true followers of Jesus through the centuries -the members of His one Body, the branches attached to the Vine.
So far, we have established from Scripture that the true Church is one, and that it was founded to continue from the time of Our Lord until the consummation of the world. Logically, the true Church as it exists today is the same as the Church that was founded by Christ, and the same one that has existed in every age from then until now. Therefore, if we study history and take a look at the Church of Christ through the ages, paying attention to what its doctrines were and who were its members, we should be able to establish an historical continuity to some church that exists today. This procedure will serve as an historical “litmus test” for the true religion. But, since most people who contest the claims of the Catholic Church realize that this Church existed at least from the sixth century until the present, we will limit our study to the first five centuries.
Setting the Stage
Human history has often been compared to a drama, and for obvious reasons. Shakespeare said that “all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances…” Now, salvation history, because of its eternal consequences, is a more exciting, interesting, and dreadfully more important drama than secular history. The prehistoric epic battle between God and the devil, between ultimate Good and ultimate evil, continued into this world, where it has become the epic battle between Satan and the Seed of the Woman. In this drama we have villains and heroes. If we were to continue the metaphor to its end, we would have to give all the names of the main characters, good and bad, and this would obviously require more space than we have here. For our present purposes, we will bring onto our little stage only a handful of its heroes — some of the “players” of the first five centuries A.D. who had the more prominent roles in the great drama, whose “exits and entrances” make the plot particularly riveting.
What is of interest to us here about these players is that each one was representative of the Faith of the Christian in the early Church: each was Roman Catholic; each held the same Faith that any faithful Catholic today holds.
We now present them in short biographies followed by excerpts from their works that we have received:
Saint Clement of Rome was, according to St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies, III, 3, 3) and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, III, 15, 24) the third successor of Saint Peter, Eusebius dating his pontificate from 92 to 101. Eusebius and Origen both associate this pope with the Clement whom St. Paul calls his “fellow-laborer” (Phil. IV, 3).
During a sedition at Corinth, when some of the faithful were broken into quibbling factions, and ignoring their bishop, Saint Clement authoritatively declared: “Accept our counsel, and you will have nothing to regret.
If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him (Jesus Christ) through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgressions and in no small danger.
You will afford us joy and gladness if, being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit… (Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers , 28-29)
These words were written some time between the years 96 and 98. According to the third century Church historian Eusebius, the Corinthians received this letter and even read it in the church on Sunday. Eusebius cites the authority of the Bishop of Corinth, Dionysius (c. 170), as having related this fact. We ask the reader to consider: If the Corinthians already had a bishop whose authority was equal to that of St. Clement, they would have railed at the thought of a foreigner intruding in their internal affairs, speaking with such certainty and in such an admonishing tone. But they did not rail; they accepted the ruling and had it read in the church. Even the Anglican author J. B. Lightfoot admits in his Apostolic Fathers (Vol. I Pt. 1, pg. 70) that this is an authentic example of the Bishop of Rome exercising primacy of jurisdiction.
St. Ignatius of Antioch “was the third bishop of Antioch [in Syria]. He was probably the only victim of a local persecution. Condemned to fight wild beasts in the Roman amphitheater, on his way thither he passed through Philadelphia, in Lydia, and traveled by land to Smyrna, where St. Polycarp met him. While in Smyrna he wrote letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, and Romans. From Smyrna he proceeded to Troas, where he wrote to the Philadelphians, Smyrnians, and also to St. Polycarp. He took ship to Neapolis, and finally, via Thessalonica, arrived at Durazzo, on the Adriatic. According to St. Jerome, he was martyred in 109.” (Anne Fremantle, A Treasury of Early Christianity , Roman Catholic Books, first published 1959, Pg. 29)
Writing to the Romans, he says, “Ignatius Theophorus…to the Church in the place of the country of the Romans which holds the primacy. I salute you in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, You are a Church worthy of God, worthy of Honor, felicitation and praise, worthy of attaining of God, a Church without blemish, which holds the primacy of the community of love…” (To the Romans , Introduction)
The operative words here are, “which holds the primacy of the community of love.” The “community of love” is none other than the Church of Christ, whom the Savior had commanded to “love one another.” Since this community is the Church of Christ, and since the local church 1 of Rome is that “which holds primacy” in that Church, then — according to this Syrian bishop, the Roman Church had primacy in the Church of Christ. This testimony of an Eastern Father carries much weight: If some non-Catholic concludes from the above quoted passage in St. Clement that Clement’s affirmation of his own authority was merely an act of partisan self-interest, then what will he have to say of this Syrian, who agrees with St. Clement?
St. Ignatius also gives us an insight into what was believed in the early Church regarding the Blessed Eucharist. In his Epistle to the Romans (7), he expresses his desire for the Bread come down from heaven: “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or in the delights of this life, I want the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who is of the seed of David; and as drink I want his Blood, which is incorruptible love.”
In his Epistle to the Smyrnians (6), he observes how the Gnostic heretics have no regard for this Sacrament: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and whom, in his goodness, the Father raised up.”
Further, writing to the Philadelphians (4), Ignatius shows us that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice, as well as a Banquet and a Thanksgiving: “Be careful to observe one Eucharist; for there is only one Flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of union with his Blood, one altar of sacrifice, as there is one bishop with the presbyters and my fellow-servers, the deacons.”
In Ignatius’ letters, he reflects what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharist: It is Jesus truly present, a sacrifice, a thanksgiving, a pledge of future glory, a spiritual medicine, and a Communion with Christ Himself.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons very happily unites the East and the West in his person. He was born in Asia Minor in 140, either in or near the city of Smyrna. He tells us himself (Against Heresies, III, 3, 4) that he listened to the discourses of the aged St. Polycarp, the Bishop of that city, and disciple of St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus moved to the West, to Lyons in France, where he functioned as a priest during the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. During this persecution, the clergy of Lyons, most of whom were in prison, sent him with a letter to see Pope Elutherius regarding the heresy of the Montanists. When he returned from this mission, he was made bishop of Lyons, succeeding Pothinus, who died a martyr. As bishop he spent a great deal of time fighting the Gnostic heresy, which was ravaging the Church at the time. Though the exact date of his death is unknown, St. Jerome tells us that he was martyred in the persecution of Septimus Severus (193-211).
His principal work was that to which we have referred several times already, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies ). The full title of the work was, Detection and Overthrow of the pretended but false Gnosis . As the name suggests, it was an anti-Gnostic polemic.
A passing familiarity with this heresy would be helpful to put the Saint in his context. The Gnostic heretics claimed that all matter was evil because it was created by the evil god, the Devil, while the good god created only spiritual realities. From this principal error, which denies among other things, the omnipotence of God, many others issued. Various sects, each more perverse than the other, sprang up doing damage to faith and morals wherever they spread their poison.
There are two elements of Irenaeus’ refutation of these errors that concern us here. First, in order to confound the heretics, he established (much as this article sets out to do) that the source and standard of faith is the apostolic tradition that comes from the Church. 2 That tradition is transmitted through a succession of bishops, the first of whom were selected by the Apostles as “very perfect and blameless men” (III, 3,1). These, in turn, passed on the teaching they had received. Thus we see an unbroken continuity of doctrine from Christ to that time, which was the 170’s or 180’s. To establish this continuity, he gives only one example, the Church at Rome:
But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles.
We could stop the quote here and say that this proves our point, calling the Church of Rome the “greatest and most ancient Church known to all.” But the Saint goes further: “For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.” (III, 3, 2, emphasis ours). Thus St. Irenaeus establishes the very principle of the Roman Catholic Faith that is rejected by both the schismatics in the East, and the Protestants in the West.
The second element that is of interest to us in Against Heresies is the Catholic doctrine concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary that it contains. Because the Gnostics attacked flesh as being evil, they naturally denied the Incarnation, God taking flesh. In so doing, they minimized, as do today’s Protestants, the tremendous role of Our Lady in the salvation of men. This is how he stated the greatness of the Virgin:
As Eve, the wife of one man (Adam), though herself yet a virgin, was through her disobedience the cause of death to herself and the entire human race, so Mary, the wife of one man (foreordained for her), and yet herself a virgin, was through her obedience the source of salvation for herself and the whole human race. (III, 22, 4).
In a later book, he says, again comparing the Blessed Virgin to Eve: “If the former had been disobedient to God, the latter was persuaded to obey Him, that the Virgin Mary might be the advocate of the Virgin Eve. And as the human race fell into the slavery of death through a virgin, so should it be saved by a virgin; the balance is made even when virginal obedience is weighed against virginal disobedience” (V, 19, 1).
What Evangelical Protestant, who claims to have the “Faith of the early Church” would dare to say that?
St. Cyprian of Carthage was one of the fiercest defenders of Church unity in the whole history of Christianity. He was born in Africa around the year 200 of pagan parents. He became a celebrated rhetorician, winning for himself great fame in the city of Carthage. In about 246 he was converted to the Faith by a priest from that city. In a remarkable two or three years, he went from being a neophyte (new convert) to being the bishop of Carthage. He was martyred in 258, during the persecution of Valerian.
In his zeal to defend the unity of the Church against the Novatian schismatics and against Catholics who had lapsed during the persecutions, Cyprian wrote On the Unity of the Catholic Church . In this book he writes page after page showing that the true Church is one, and that to shatter that unity is to put oneself on the road to hell. He uses Holy Scripture to defend this unity, quoting both from the Old Testament, which contained many types and figures of the Church, and from the New Testament, which spelled out the unity of the Church explicitly. For Saint Cyprian, the source of unity in the Church is none other than the Roman Pontiff:
On [Peter] He (the Lord) builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles [the power of bishops — Ed.], yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [a bishop -Ed.]; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. …If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? (Jurgens, 555-556)
Our Lord, whose commands we ought to fear and observe, says in the Gospel, by way of assigning the episcopal dignity and settling the plan of His Church: ‘I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock…’ (571)
There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (573)
In at least two passages in his known writings, Saint Cyprian defended the reigning Roman Pontiff, Saint Cornelius, by name:
Cornelius was made bishop of Rome by the judgment of God and His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of all the people who were present at the time when no one had been made bishop before him; when the place of Peter and the Rank of the Apostolic Chair was vacant (Epistle 53 to Antonius).
Writing to that same Pope, Cyprian decries the intrigues of certain schismatics who tried to spread their perfidy in the very city of Rome: “Moreover, after all this, a pseudo bishop, having been set up for themselves by heretics, they dare to sail, and to carry letters from some schismatics and profane persons, to the Chair of Peter, and to the Principal Church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise; nor do they consider that the Romans are those whose faith was praised in the preaching of the Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance” (Epistle 59 to Cornelius).
To Saint Cyprian, Church unity was not just a Christian ideal. The very relation of the individual with God is contingent on that person’s standing in the Church. This idea he succinctly expresses here: “He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” The importance of Church membership was, in addition, a matter of eternal consequence to Cyprian; for it is to this Father of the Church that we owe that consecrated phrase of tradition, extra ecclesiam nulla salus — outside the Church no one is saved. (Epistle 73,21)
St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373), is also called Saint Ephrem the Deacon because he was ordained to that office, probably by St. Basil. The Syrians also call him the “eloquent mouth,” “the prophet of the Syrians,” “the doctor of the world,” and “the Pillar of the Church.” Because of his beautiful hymns and verse, he is also called, “the Lyre of the Holy Ghost.”
He lived a most edifying life as a monk and hermit, devoting himself to austere poverty and bodily penance. Part of the penance practised by the monks in those days was severe and painful physical labor, which was to be accompanied by inward recollection and prayer. So that he could pray constantly as he worked, St. Ephrem was assigned to memorize all the Psalms, which he recited while performing his assigned labor, making ship sails.
His bishop, St. James of Nisibis, had such confidence in the humble deacon that he brought Ephrem to the Council of Nicea. The contents of St. Ephrem’s writing mirror perfectly the Faith of that first Ecumenical Council, in which the Divinity of Christ was defended against the Arian heretics.
Perhaps his most well-known personal trait was his constant compunction, which often manifested itself in tears. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, his biographer, said, “We cannot call to mind his perpetual tears without melting into tears. To weep seemed almost as natural to him as it is for other men to breathe.”
In his writings we find harsh rebukes to some of the prevalent heretics of the day — Manicheans, Novatians, Gnostics, Arians, and Sabellians — as well as to the Jews. He was a veritable font of doctrine and holiness. From his writings can be proved nearly every fine point of Catholic Dogma.
Saint Ephrem defended the primacy of the Petrine office in the following sermon: paraphrasing the words of Our Lord, he says, “Simon, My follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on earth a church for Me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. …I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures” (Jurgens, 706).
Perhaps where the “Lyre of the Holy Ghost” makes the most beautiful sound is when he sings the praises of the Spouse of the Holy Ghost, Mary: “God chose Mary alone from the entire company of virgins to be the instrument of our salvation.” (De divers., Serm. De laudib. Deip ). “Two women are celebrated for their innocence and simplicity, Mary and Eve: one was the source of salvation, the other of our death.” (Ibid.)
Protestants and liberal Catholics often rail at the Marian interpretation of Genesis 3:15, which many devotees of Our Lady piously believe. St. Ephrem is just one of the Fathers who holds this interpretation. Now, the passage in question is: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
Ephrem clearly held that the words woman and she applied to Our Lady: “The Lord said that Satan had fallen from heaven. That cursed one had exalted himself, but was cast down from his exaltation. The foot of Mary trod under her heel him who with his heel had wounded Eve. Blessed is He who by His birth laid him prostrate” (Hymn II, On the Birth of Jesus Christ in the Flesh , 31).
As we will soon prove from St. John Chrysostom’s writings, the Church of history prayed to saints. We have multiple examples of this in the writings of the “Sun of the Syrians.” But, for this study of St. Ephrem, we want to focus on Mary. In a sermon, he thus implores her prayers:
And Mary, the Mother of Christ, who brought forth the Immaculate Fruit. May our souls be preserved from ills by her prayers. Thanks be to the Hidden Father who sent His word to the Virgin, and formed in her a body pure by the Living and Holy Spirit.
The perpetual sinlessness of Mary is thus versed in a prayer by this doctor: “Verily indeed Thou and Thy Mother, alone are you, in being in every respect altogether beautiful. For in Thee, Lord, is no spot, nor any stain in Thy Mother.” (Carmina Nisibena, n. 27). Here St. Ephrem is not only professing Mary’s freedom from actual sin, but also from original sin, since he assigns to her a beauty and spotlessness she shares alone with Christ. It is worth noting too, that elsewhere in his writings, the Syrian consistently says, that above all the saints in heaven are to be ranked the infants who die after baptism without any actual sin. If it were just the fact of Mary’s immunity from actual sin that the saint gives testimony to, and not immunity from original sin, then he would have to place Mary below those infants. But he places Mary above all of the saints in heaven, in her own class. We are forced to conclude that St. Ephrem professed belief in that dogma denied today by every Protestant heretic and many Eastern schismatics as a “popish novelty”: the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Saint John Chrysostom (345?-407), one of the glories of the Greek Church, was celebrated far and wide for his zealous preaching. His surname, Chrysostom, means “golden-mouth.” Brought up by his pious mother, he wedded piety and learning in his very person while still a young man. In 373 he was asked to become a bishop, an honor he refused out of humble awe for the incredible dignity of the priesthood. This occasioned St. John to compose six books on the priesthood, in which he set out to explain to his friend, Basil, why he did not accept that honor. (Basil, who had been offered the same office at the same time, did become a bishop, only because he thought John had also accepted. The books were an apology to Basil.) He spent four years in a mountainous region near Antioch where he learned the ascetic life from an old monk. After that he spent two years in a cave, immersed in the study of Scripture and acts of penance. In 381 he was ordained a deacon by one Meletius and in 386 was made a priest by Flavian. In 397, after the death of Patriarch Nectarius, Chrysostom was consecrated bishop and made Patriarch of Constantinople — a very significant post, since that city was the capital of the Eastern Empire.
The stormy years of Chrysostom’s patriarchate are too complicated to be recounted here. It will suffice to say that he was the victim of clerical avarice and imperial treachery. In the midst of his controversies with the Eastern emperors, he was twice banished, and died a victim of ill-treatment during his second banishment.
The doctrine of Saint John Chrysostom is contained in hundreds of his homilies that have survived. Letters numbering also in the hundreds and a few discourses on moral and ascetic matters complete the works we have. His complete writings fill, in one edition, twelve volumes.
The doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, as the Catholic Church teaches it, is conspicuously present in the works of this Doctor of the Church, who is therefore sometimes called in Latin the doctor eucharistiæ, “the doctor of the Eucharist.” In one sermon, the saint points to the altar and says, “Christ lies here slain” (Homily 1 and 2 de prodit. Iudae ). In another, he says, “His body lies before us now” (Homily 50 on the Gospel of Matthew). Preaching on the first Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Homily 24), he says, “That which is in the Chalice is the same as what flowed from the side of Christ” and, “What is the Bread? The Body of Christ.” His teaching on what the priest does at Mass is identical to what Catholics believe: “It is not man who causes what is present to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but Christ Himself Who was crucified for us. The priest is the representative when he pronounces those words; but the power and the grace are those of the Lord. He says: `This is my Body.’ This word changes the things that lie before us.”
Perhaps the most stunning passage available to us in the Eucharistic Doctor’s works is the following from On the Priesthood (3,4). Please note the reference to our Lord as an immolation and a sacrifice, which is lying upon the altar, over which the priest stands bent over while praying:
“Though the office of the priesthood is exercised on earth, it ranks, nevertheless, in the order of celestial things — and rightly so. It was neither man nor an angel nor an archangel nor any other created power but the Paraclete Himself Who established this ministry and Who ordained that men abiding in the flesh should imitate the ministry of the angels. For that reason it behooves the bearer of the priesthood to be as pure as if he stood in the very heavens amidst those powers… When you see the Lord immolated and lying upon the altar, and the priest bent over that sacrifice praying, and all the people empurpled by that precious Blood, can you think that you are still among men and on earth? Or are you not lifted up to heaven? Is not every carnal affection deposed? Do you not with pure mind and clean heart contemplate the things of heaven?”
Given this awesome understanding of the priesthood, it is no small wonder that Saint John fled from the honor and grave responsibility of that office. Remember, this is the book we mentioned before that he wrote as an apology to his friend Basil, explaining why he refused to become a bishop when he was first asked.
It is a fact of history that devotion to the saints was common in the early Church. Saints were regarded as intercessors for us before the throne of God. Their annual feasts were celebrated and their relics (bodily remains) were enshrined, and given honor in the churches. Saint John confirms this several times. In one sermon (n. 7), On the Saints Bernice and Produce , speaking on devotion to these martyrs and to saints in general, the Golden Mouth says:
You have assuredly an ardent love for these saints; let us then, enkindled with this fire, prostrate ourselves before their relics, and crowd around their shrines. For the very shrines of martyrs are possessed of much power, as certainly the sacred bones of martyrs have great strength. Not only on the day of the feast, but on other days also, let us besiege them, for they have much influence and weight — this not only had they when alive, but have now also that they are dead, nay much more when now dead. For now they bear the stigmata of Christ, and when they show these stigmata, they have all power to persuade the King. Since then they enjoy such great influence and friendship with God, when, by our continued siege, and constant supplication to them, we have made them ours. Let us through them impetrate mercy from God: which may we all obtain by the grace and loving-kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory to the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and for ever world without end. Amen.
In this passage, we italicized certain words, to show their consonance with Catholic doctrine and practice today: relics, shrines, feast, influence, supplication, and the longer reference, “now also that they are dead.” What Protestant would say that this is his faith? — yet Protestants claim to have the Faith of the early Church. The early Church honored the relics of the saints. It built shrines to them and celebrated annual feasts. It believed that the prayers of the saints had influence over God and therefore they entreated their prayers by supplication, even though they were dead. This is the Catholic Faith!
We have already cited several passages from other fathers on the doctrine of papal Primacy. Saint John is no stranger to this teaching either: “By these words: `Feed My lambs and My sheep’ (John 21), Christ committed His flock not only to Peter, but to his successors as well.” (On the Gospel of John in Migne , 59)
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was born of a pagan father (who converted shortly before he died) and a devout Catholic mother (St. Monica) in Tagaste, a town in Numidia, Northern Africa. He was educated at the school of Tagaste in the art of rhetoric, a skill which he acquired in superabundance. As a young man he fell into both an immoral life-style and the clutches of heresy. As a result of the former, he fathered a bastard son, Adeodatus, who was a living reminder of his past iniquity. The heresy that he embraced was that bizarre composite of Persian dualism and Christianity known as Manichaeism.
His burning desire to seek true wisdom, coupled with the prayers and tears of his holy mother, eventually led him out of the way of error and onto the path of true Wisdom. As he was having doubts about the Manichaean religion, he met Faustus of Milevi, the bishop and leader of the sect, whom the heretics considered a wise sage.
Not only did Faustus fail to allay Augustine’s doubts, but this false prophet betrayed what an ignorant charlatan he really was. It wasn’t long before the honest seeker looked elsewhere for wisdom.
Soon after this interior conversion away from Manichaeism, Augustine obtained a chair of rhetoric in Milan, Italy. There he met the esteemed bishop of that city, St. Ambrose. Under the influence of this celebrated Bishop, it did not take long for the rhetorician fully to embrace the Faith and seek entrance into holy Church at the font of Baptism, which he received by the hands of Bishop Ambrose.
In 388 he was back in Africa, where he lived a monastic life for three years. On a trip to the coastal city of Hippo Regius in 391, Augustine was called to Holy Orders. When Bishop Valerius publicly announced the need for ordaining a new priest, all present turned toward Augustine, demanding that he fill the post, which he reluctantly did. In 395 or 396, Augustine succeeded Valerius as bishop of Hippo. The 34-year pontificate of St. Augustine was as rich in works of learning and piety as it was long in duration. While constantly occupied with the problems of his time, the shepherd proved that he was not a hireling in the care of his flock. By the offices of preaching and administering the sacraments, as well as by his holy example, he zealously labored to lead his people to their supernatural Land of Promise. His death in 430 marked the decline of Roman Africa: as he was breathing his last, Genseric’s Vandals were besieging Hippo, which they burned to the ground after the bishop died.
In addition to the heresy of Mani, which St. Augustine once professed, he worked tirelessly to defeat two other sects: the Pelagians and the Donatists. Pelagius was the saint’s last great enemy. Since his heresy is explained in the article on St. Jerome, we will not discuss it here.
The third sect, the Donatists, were a treacherous, murderous, and violent lot. Not content with corrupting men’s souls with heresy, they often resorted to brutal marauding, falling upon groups of Catholics whom they killed and mutilated. They killed Marcellinus, an imperial delegate who judged that Augustine had beaten them in a famous debate in Carthage. They attempted the murder of three bishops, including Augustine himself. Worst of all, they went so far as to forcibly occupy Catholic churches, burning the altars, scraping the walls, and throwing the Most Blessed Sacrament to the dogs.
Their heresy was the false belief that the validity of the sacraments depended on the personal sanctity of the minister. In other words, a bishop in mortal sin could not validly consecrate a priest. Neither could a priest in sin say a valid Mass. To this they added a second error, that the true Church contained no sinners, only the just. Saint Augustine thoroughly refuted them both in debate and in writing. He correctly maintained that the principal agent in all the sacraments was Christ Himself, that the personal sanctity or orthodoxy of the minister did not affect the validity of the sacrament. In addition, the true Church, which contains both sinners and saints, is that Church which has its foundation in Scripture, has spread all over the world since the time of Christ, and is therefore properly called the Catholic Church.
The Donatists had the gall to establish schismatic churches all over north Africa, and in Rome itself. In a poem entitled Psalmus contra partem Donati , Psalm against the Donatists , the saint writes:
Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the vine;
We grieve to see you lie thus cut off from it.
Number your bishops from the very Chair of Peter,
And in that list of Fathers trace the succession.
This is the Rock against which the proud gates of hell do not prevail.
Please note the fact that Augustine equates separation from the Chair of Peter with being cut off from the Vine. It is an allusion to Our Lord’s words in John 15:5, “I am the vine: you are the branches.” As for the vine that withers, Our Lord says, “they shall gather him up and cast him into the fire: and he burneth.”
In On Christian Combat , he depicts the heretics thus: “These miserable wretches, refusing to acknowledge the Rock as Peter, and to believe that the Church has received the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, have lost these very keys from their own hands.” (Migne 40 : 289)
To show that St. Augustine plainly believed that the office of St. Peter did not die with him, but continued on, we provide this terse statement from one of his sermons (Sermon 131:10): Roma locuta est; causa finita est (Rome has spoken; the case is closed.) Note that he speaks of something which had just happened, affirming that the authority of Rome was, at that very time, the highest authority in the Church. Like St. Cyprian — and all the saints here quoted, the authority of the Church was an issue of everlasting life and death to St. Augustine. He firmly believed that — and these are his exact words — extra ecclesiam salus non est, “There is no salvation outside the Church.” (De Bapt. IV, 17, 24)
Anyone who picks up any one of the sermons, letters, tracts, or poems of St. Augustine will immediately see that his writings are filled with passages from Holy Scripture. He defended the Bible, and defended the Faith using the Bible, considering it a great sin to doubt the Gospels. That having been said, the reader will now be able to appreciate the truth present in this statement of his: “I would put no faith in the Gospels unless the authority of the Catholic Church directed me to do so.” (Migne , 42:176)
In his De Civitate Dei (On the City of God ), the doctor says this: “temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment.” (21,13) Who could read that and conclude that Augustine didn’t believe in Purgatory? Perhaps more to the point than this, in book IX of his Confessions, he records that his dying mother asked him to remember her at the altar of the Lord. This is nothing other than the ancient Catholic practice of offering Masses and other prayers for the dead.
Writing to his former idol turned enemy, Faustus, St. Augustine proves that he is no different from St. John Chrysostom, or from any other Catholic in the matter of devotion to the saints:
The Christian people unites in celebrating with religious solemnity the memories of the martyrs, as well to excite imitation, as to have a share in their merits, and to be helped by their prayers. (Contra Faustum XX , 21).
Augustine’s teachings on the Blessed Eucharist are sublime. They are inseparable from his theology of the Mystical Body, a theology that deserves much study since it so admirably unites the doctrines of Christology, the Sacraments, the Moral life, and other areas of Faith so often isolated from each other today (thanks in large part to the Protestant Revolt). He often refers to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, as “the Whole Christ.” The very Catholic concept of Holy Communion being the principle of our union with Jesus — which is both a physical and a spiritual union — has beautiful expression in the Poet-Doctor of Hippo: “That bread that you see on the altar and that has been sanctified by the word of God is the Body of Christ. That chalice — rather, that which the chalice contains — has been sanctified by the word of God and is the Blood of Christ. Through these things the Lord Christ wished to entrust to us his Body and his Blood, which he shed for us unto the remission of sins. If you receive them well, you are that which you receive. The Apostle says, “One bread and we, the many, are one body.” (Sermon CCXXVII: On Easter Sunday )
In another place he says, “We did not know him in the flesh, yet we have deserved to eat his Flesh and to be his members in his Flesh.” (On the Gospel of St. John. , 31,II).
Many members of various Protestant denominations consider that Communion is a sort of sign of Christ’s abiding spiritual presence among us: purely a figurative reality. Catholics, of course, take the words of Our Lord literally, when he said “This is My Body…” In talking to these Protestants, I have found it strange how many of them, wishing not to appear to deny these words, saying things like, “…well, we have communion, too” and “I do eat his body.”
To find out if the Protestant actually believes what he seems to be saying, I have asked something like this: “Well, if it is Christ’s body, can you worship it? Could you put it on an altar and bend your knees before it? Could you put it in a tabernacle and pray to it?” Usually at this point, the Protestant changes the subject. He doesn’t want to give the only answer that he can really give, “no,” because that would show that he does not believe he is eating the Body of Christ. Few Protestants actually believe that the bread they eat and the wine (or grape juice!) they drink is really His Sacred Body and Blood. 3 They reduce the Eucharist to a symbol. But the Early Church did not believe that the partaking of this Bread was merely a symbolic spiritual event. To prove it, here is St. Augustine speaking of the adorability of the Blessed Sacrament. (We should note here that the word adore used in this context is a technical term which means, “that worship which is due to God alone.”):
He took earth from earth, because flesh is from the earth, and he took Flesh of the flesh of Mary. He walked on earth in that same Flesh, and gave that same Flesh to us to be eaten for our salvation. Moreover, no one eats that Flesh unless he has first adored it…and we sin by not adoring. (Sermon 130 , Migne 38,726 our emphasis).
As far as his devotion to Mary is concerned, there is no doubt about Augustine’s Catholicity. In his treatise On Nature and Grace , he affirms Mary’s entire sinlessness. In addition, he affirms her spiritual maternity (motherhood) of all the members of the Church:
“Hence it follows that this One Woman alone, is not only in spirit, but also in body, both Mother and Virgin. Yet Mother in spirit she is, not indeed of our Head which is the Savior Himself, of whom rather she is spiritually born — because all who believe in Him, amongst whom she too is, are rightly called children of the Bridegroom — but clearly Mother of His members, which we are, since she cooperated by her charity that the faithful should be born in the Church; and these are members of that Head.” (De Sancta Virginitate )
He held the Holy Mother of God in such esteem as to say, “She had merited to bring forth the Son of the Most High, and yet was most humble…” (Serm. 51, 2, 18 our emphasis) Elsewhere, he says that she, “pre-merited by pious faith for the holy seed to come into her.” (De pecc. mer. et rem. , II our emphasis) We need not point out that this loving exultation of Mary is uniquely Catholic.
Closing the Curtain
Here we must close the curtain on this all-too-short drama. If we had more room, we could continue on for much longer. Saint Jerome would have been a player on this stage, had we not already included an entire article on him elsewhere in this issue, and so could have St. Dionisius of Carthage, St. Polycrates of Ephesus, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Aphraates of Persia, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Basil the Great, St. Optatus of Milevis, St. Ambrose, St. Paulinus of Nola, St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great; all of the early Popes in unbroken succession from Peter; all of the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils of the East and West, as well as those of countless regional synods; and this is only a partial list. Countless events of Church history could also be marshalled as witnesses of the Catholic truth. But this would take volumes.
Though our little resumé of the first five centuries of Christianity only serves to introduce a few of the principal characters, we can vouch that these people were real, and that they actually uttered the lines we attributed to them, all of which are documented.
Let the Protestant quote the Bible all he wants. He cannot prove that his religion is the religion that Jesus Christ gave His disciples, no matter how many of Christ’s words he utters. “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” said Shakespeare, and in so doing he unwittingly described Protestantism to the tee. Protestants can indeed wrongly cite Scripture for their purpose, thus wresting it “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3,16), but what they cannot do is cite undisputed facts of history to prove that their religion has continuity from the God-Man Himself.
Though they have tried to use history, their attempts are pathetic. Their drama is a comedy. They cite one heretic here, and another there, scattered throughout the history of the Church, in an attempt to establish a continuity among men whose particular heresies did not agree even with each other. In reality, they held only one “doctrine” in common: “The Pope is not our leader!”
In our little study, the reader will notice, we have concentrated principally on those doctrines most offensive to non-Catholics: the Papacy, the Eucharist, and Our Lady. Protestants reject all three, while the Eastern Schismatics (“Orthodox”) reject only the first, the Papacy. 4 We pray that both Protestant and Orthodox alike will learn, from the words of the Christians of the first five centuries, that the Faith of that time was the Catholic Faith: Pope, Sacraments, Mary, Saints and all.
An Incontestable Conclusion
In 1824, the great English historian, William Cobbett, penned these lines, which agree with our assertion that the Christian Church of history is the Catholic Church:
Catholic means universal, and the religion which takes this epithet was called universal because all Christian people of every nation acknowledged it to be the only true religion, and because they all acknowledged one and the same head of the Church, and this was the Pope, who…was the head of the Church…in every part of the world where the Christian religion was professed. But there came a time, when some nations, or rather, parts of some nations, cast off the authority of the Pope, and of course no longer acknowledged him as head of the Christian Church. These nations…declared, or protested against the authority of their former head, and also against the doctrines of that Church… (The History of the Protestant Revolt in England and Ireland , William Cobbett, 1824, reprinted by TAN Books and Publishers)
Mr. Cobbett spoke these words as an historian who was well familiar with many of the facts we have presented here, and many more. His conclusion is an honest one based on his science, not a biased one based on prejudice. We can vouch for this, too, because Mr. Cobbett was a Protestant.
1 We should note here the twofold usage of the word, “church.” In the sense of the one Church founded by Christ it is used in the singular, as in “my church”used in Matt. 16,18 (not “my churches”). But in the sense of the universal Church as it exists in a particular place, it is used in the plural, as in Apocalypse 1,4: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia.”
2 Needless to say, these earliest Fathers who defended the Faith from heretics could not do so from the Bible, at least not as we know the Bible. Although they did know many of the Scriptures, the New Testament was still about two hundred years from being under one cover. St. Irenaeus simply depended on the Tradition of the Apostles to learn and defend the Faith. In his case, remember, he learned from St. Polycarp, who learned from St. John the Apostle himself.
3 Luther and some other reformers believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, though they mutilated the true teaching on the doctrine. This subject is too complex to enter into here. Let it suffice to say that Luther’s Eucharistic heresies came out in his destruction of the Mass and of all Eucharistic devotion. But most Protestants are not even as “catholic” as Luther was on this score.
4 All of the saints we have quoted in this article are revered as saints by the various so-called Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, Albanian, Syrian, Coptic, etc.). All of these saints have feast days on the liturgical calendars of these churches.