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“FROM THE TIME OF THE APOSTLES DOWN TO THIS PRESENT MOMENT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH HAS NOT CEASED TO BEAR WITNESS”

11 May

“MAKE DISCIPLES OF ALL NATIONS

‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19-20).

THE PROPHETS HAD SAID THAT ALL THE NATIONS WOULD COME TO WORSHIP JAHWEH

The prophets of the Old Testament, in describing the kingdom of the Messias, had said that the nations of the world would come to worship the God of Israel, Jahweh, the true God. Jesus, the Messias, Who had come to establish the kingdom of Jahweh in the world, told His Apostles that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. It was a small seed, but when it was planted it would grow into a great tree, and all the birds of the air would come to nest in it. In the mind of God, as it was revealed to the people of Israel by the prophets and as it was revealed to all men by Jesus the Christ, the Kingdom of God was to embrace men from all the nations of the world.

OUR LORD HAD GIVEN THE MISSION

After His Resurrection Jesus gave to His Apostles the mission to preach His message to all men and to make all men members of His kingdom through Baptism. At the time of the Ascension of Jesus this kingdom already existed in embryo. The Apostles and some disciples had come to believe in Jesus and to accept Baptism into His kingdom. The Apostles and some disciples, to the number of one hundred and twenty, waited in Jerusalem after the Ascension. Jesus had told the Apostles that they were to wait there for the coming of the Holy Spirit. After the Holy Spirit came to them they were to preach Jesus to the whole world.

‘But you shall receive the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem and Samaria and even to the uttermost part of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

The Apostles, then, were men with a mission, a mission to preach Jesus to all men, to induce men to believe in Jesus as their God and Saviour, to accept Baptism into the Kingdom of God on earth, the kingdom established by Jesus for the salvation of men. This mission was to last until the end of time, for Jesus said to the Apostles, when He gave them this mission, ‘And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world’ (Matthew 28:20).

‘I AM WITH YOU ALL DAYS’ – JESUS CHRIST

The Kingdom of God on earth, or the Catholic Church as it has come to be called in history, is, from its beginning, a kingdom with a world-wide mission, a missionary kingdom. In virtue of the command of its divine Master it must preach Jesus to the world of men to the end of time. It is called ‘Catholic’ – a word which means ‘universal’ – because its mission is catholic or universal. It exists to bring all men to Jesus, to God.

From the time of the Apostles down to this present moment the Catholic Church, the Kingdom of God, has not ceased to bear witness to Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of men. The apathy or the sinfulness of men, the opposition of erroneous philosophies or false religions, persecutions by hostile governments or nations, heresies and schisms arising within her own bosom, all these difficulties may hamper the efforts of the Church to make disciples of all nations. But, true to her own inner essence and to the command of her founder, she carries on always the work of bearing witness to Jesus. In the providence of God her work has been blessed with a notable measure of success from the very beginning. Her efforts give testimony to the constant presence of Jesus in His kingdom.

THE FIRST SUCCESSOR OF ONE OF THE APOSTLES

Ten days after the Ascension of Jesus the Apostles were gathered together in the upper room at Jerusalem. Since the departure of Jesus they had elected the disciple Matthias to take the place of Judas. Now the Apostolic band, once more twelve in number, were awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly there was a sound as of a mighty wind rushing about the house where they were met. It filled the room where they waited. Tongues of fire hovered over the heads of the twelve Apostles. The Holy Spirit promised by Jesus had come.

‘THE FUSING FIRE WHICH WOULD REUNITE MEN TO GOD’

It is almost impossible for us to understand the inner experience of the Apostles as God Himself, the Holy Spirit, manifested Himself in their souls. The external signs of His coming we know, the sound of wind, and the tongues of fire; the sound of wind for the Holy Spirit came as the very breath of God, the breath which once made Adam a ‘living soul’ came again to earth to make, to remake men in the likeness of God; tongues of fire, for the Holy Spirit came as the warmth and the glow of divine love for men, as the purging fire which would cleanse the world of sin, as the fusing fire which would reunite men to God.

NOW THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD WERE INVITED TO BECOME MEMBERS OF THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM ON EARTH

The immediate effects of the coming of the Holy Spirit we know also. A crowd gathered, attracted perhaps by the thunder of the wind which announced the advent of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles began to speak to them. To the wonder of all, even though the people in the crowd came from different countries and spoke different languages, each heard one or other of the Apostles announcing the good news of salvation in his own tongue. The Holy Spirit had given to each one of the Apostles the power to speak in a language hitherto unknown to him, so that all present might understand the message of salvation which was being preached to them. No more fitting symbol could have been chosen to signify that the mission of the Apostles was to the whole world, that the Kingdom of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, was for all men. Up to this moment only the Jews had been the Chosen People of God. But now the nations of the world were invited to become members of the heavenly kingdom on earth.

ST PETER PREACHES IN THE SQUARE

At first the people thought that the Apostles, speaking in different tongues, might be drunk with wine. But Peter, the head of the apostolic band, perceiving this, spoke alone to the people. He pointed out to them that Jesus of Nazareth had been a man approved by God, approved by wonders and signs. In spite of these signs the Jews had crucified Him. But God had raised Him up from the grave, as David had foretold He would. The House of Israel, therefore, should recognise that God had made Jesus both Lord and Christ.

Moved by the sincerity and enthusiasm of Peter, inspired also by the Holy Spirit, three thousand of those listening believed and asked to be baptised into the kingdom Jesus had founded. In this marvellous way, in the midst of divine signs and with a divinely procured success, the Church of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth, began to grow at Jerusalem.

THROUGH DIVINE HELP, THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH BEGAN TO GROW

From this time on, the Apostles, once so fearful that they deserted their Master in the hour of His trial, preached the crucified and risen Jesus unceasingly and courageously. True to their Master’s wish, they preached their message first to their own people. As He had foretold, most of the Jews rejected Him. But the Apostles were successful enough to arouse the open opposition of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin persecuted the Apostles and their converts. This persecution, however, in the providence of God, led to the expansion of the new Church beyond Jerusalem. Some of the pilgrims to Jerusalem who had been converted returned to their own towns or cities and the new Church thus began to spread throughout the empire. Philip the Deacon took the message to Samaria and even baptised an Ethopian.

ST PAUL JOINS THE CHURCH

One of the most rabid of the persecutors of the new kingdom, Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, became a follower of Jesus. The Sanhedrin at Jerusalem commissioned him to go to Damascus to harry the followers of Jesus there. While he was on the road to Damascus Jesus appeared to him and spoke to him. Saul, his soul flooded with the grace of God, believed in Jesus and accepted Baptism. Within a few years he was admitted to the band of the Apostles and became the Apostle to the Gentiles, that is, to the non-Jewish nations of the world.

THE APOSTLES EXPAND THEIR ACTIVITIES ABROAD

Although St Paul (Saul changed his name to Paul) is known to history as the Apostle of the Gentiles, it must not be thought it was Paul alone among the Apostles who preached to the non-Jews of the world, nor that it was Paul who first extended the apostolic mission to the nations other than Israel. As we have already noticed, Philip the Deacon preached to the Samaritans and converted an Ethiopian. St Peter, in response to a vision from God, admitted Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his family and friends into the infant Church. St Paul is called the Apostle to the Gentiles because he laboured so zealously and so extensively throughout the Roman Empire to convert the Gentiles to belief in Jesus Christ.

Around the year 42 the Apostles themselves began to preach Jesus throughout the world. Nothing is known for certain about the activities of most of them. St James the Less we know was stoned to death at Jerusalem in the year 62 A.D. St John dwelt for some time in Ephesus, whence he exercised a great influence over the churches established in Asia Minor. St James the Great is said to have gone to Spain and founded the Church there. St Philip is said to have gone to Phrygia, St Thomas to Pathia and India, St Andrew to Scythia, St Bartholomew to India, St Matthew perhaps to Ethiopia, and Thaddeus to Syria.

St Peter, the head of the apostolic band, laboured not only in Jerusalem but also at Antioch, in Pontus, Cappadocia, Bithynia, and at Rome. At Rome he established the centre of the Church. There he was martyred during a persecution of the Christians under the Emperor Nero.

St Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, spread the Kingdom of God throughout Cyprus and Asia Minor on his first missionary journey. On his second mission he preached in Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece. On his third journey he went back to Greece and Macedonia and then to Caesarea. After a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea, he went to Rome, where he remained in prison two years more. After being released he probably went to Spain to preach the Gospel there. Finally he was martyred at Rome during the reign of Nero.

THE KINGDOM WAS THUS BEGINNING TO REACH OUT TO EMBRACE THE WORLD

Within the lifetime of the original Apostles the message of salvation through Jesus was broadcast widely throughout the known world. It was brought to the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The Christian communities (it was at Antioch in Syria that the followers of Jesus first began to be called Christians, that is, believers in Jesus the Christ) founded by the Apostles or their assistants such as Mark and Luke, Timothy and Titus were no doubt small in number. But the message was being preached throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond the boundaries of the empire. The kingdom was beginning to reach out to embrace the world.

Little if anything is known for certain about the fate of the Christian communities founded outside the empire by the Apostles or their first converts. Within the empire itself the Church kept growing.

THE CHURCH IS FACED WITH POLITICAL HOSTILITY

Her growth was not, however, without difficulty. As people became followers of the Christ they ceased to frequent the pagan temples devoted to the ancient gods of Greece and Rome. The priests of these false religions became actively hostile to the new religion of Jesus. Many of the people, perhaps urged on by the pagan priests, blamed every passing calamity, every bad harvest or famine on the increasing numbers of Christians who, they claimed, had offended the old gods by turning to the Christ. The civil government itself saw in a religion whose avowed mission was universal a threat to the imperial power. This led to a series of persecutions of the growing Church.

SOME HERETICS DENY EITHER THE DIVINITY OR HUMANITY OF JESUS CHRIST

Nor was this the only difficulty faced by the Church. Within the Church itself, as it added to its membership men of all classes and persuations and philosophies, the divinely revealed message of Jesus had to find a comfortable lodging in the restless and sometimes proud minds of men. Some found it difficult to conceive that God could have become man, and they denied the real humanity of Jesus. Others, on the contrary, refused to recognise His divinity, while acknowledging His key position in the plans of God for the salvation of mankind. When men persisted obstinately in thus diluting the content of the message of Jesus, while perhaps insisting that they were followers of Jesus, actually they cut themselves off from the true Kingdom of Jesus.

IN SPITE OF THIS DIFFICULTIES THE CHURCH CONTINUED TO GROW

In spite of these difficulties the Church continued to grow throughout the empire. The authority given by Jesus to the Apostles to teach, to govern and to sanctify men in His name was transmitted to others chosen by themselves. These in turn passed on their powers to others. Those thus commissioned became known as bishops. They chose as their assistants priests and deacons and gave to them a share in the powers which had been given to them by Christ through the Apostles. The central authority of the Church was established at Rome by St Peter, the head of the original apostolic band. St Peter himself, as we have seen, died at Rome. The bishops of Rome inherited the authority over the whole Church which Jesus had given to Peter.

It is impossible to give exact figures about the growth of the Church in the Roman Empire before the empire itself began to dissolve. Within three hundred years of its beginning on Pentecost Sunday the Church had grown so much that it is estimated that there may have been about 1750 bishops (heads of local Christian communities) within the empire. It has also been said that by the time of the Emperor Diocletian, at the beginning of the fourth century, the number of Christians within the empire may have been between six and ten million.

Shortly after the reign of Diocletian the spread of the Church was assisted enormously by the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. With this conversion the repressive measures taken by the imperial government against Christianity (with the exception of the efforts of the Emperor Julian the Apostate) ceased. In fact under the immediate successors of Constantine Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

UPHOLDING THE FAITH IN OUR LORD JESUS, OUR REDEEMER, TRUE GOD AND TRUE MAN

Toward the end of the fourth century the peace and internal security of the empire began to crumble before the invasion of numerous barbarian tribes from the North and the East. Some of these invaders, such as the Goths, had already accepted a debased form of Christianity known as Arianism, which denied the divinity of Jesus. Others, such as the Burgundians and the Franks, still adhered to forms of polytheism. It became the task of the Church to convert these peoples to the true faith, faith in Jesus the God-Man, Saviour of the human race. In the chaotic conditions which always follow invasions and pillaging it was also the task of the Church to preserve as much as possible of the culture of the old empire. The Church did succeed in converting these foreign peoples to faith in Jesus the Christ. In many cases the conversion of the leaders of the tribes led to the relatively rapid conversion of whole peoples.

THE CONVERSION OF CLOVIS

The conversion of Clovis, ruler of the Franks, in the fifth century A.D. was an event of great significance. The Franks, a Germanic people, had invaded the Roman province of Gaul (modern France and parts of Belgium and Holland). They were destined to found a great empire embracing most of Western Europe. Thus the conversion of Clovis and the subsequent conversion of his people helped in the expansion of Christianity throughout. Northern Europe.

ST PATRICK, ST COLUMBAN, ST BONIFACE

In the fourth century the Church was established among the Celts in Britain. In the following century St Patrick brought the faith to the Celtic tribes in Ireland. Missionaries from Britain and Ireland, in turn, helped bring the faith to the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. Even before the founding of the Holy Roman Empire by Charles the Great, ruler of the Franks at the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth century, these missionaries laboured for the conversion of the German peoples of the north. The Irish monk Columbanus founded Christian monasteries in Burgundy and preached the Kingdom of God among the Allemanni at Tuggen, Zurich and Bregenz. The Saxon monk Boniface preached to the Frisians, the Hessians and the Thuringians.

COURAGEOUS MISSIONARY ENDEAVOUR – LOVE FOR NEIGHBOUR WITHOUT COUNTING THE PERSONAL COST

When Charles the Great became ruler of the Frankish domains he gave strong assistance to the Church in its efforts to evangelise the still pagan peoples of northern Europe. During his lifetime Christian missionaries converted the Saxons of Germany, the Frisians in Holland and the Carinthians in Austria.

ST ANSGAR’S MISSIONARY ENDEAVOURS BEAR FRUIT

During the reign of his son Louis the Pious the Gospel message was brought to the peoples of Scandinavia. Ansgar founded missions in both Denmark and Sweden. The kings of Norway, having embraced Christianity, helped to convert their countrymen. By the twelfth century Scandinavia (and Iceland and Greenland) were Christian.

PREACHING THE GOSPEL IN EASTERN EUROPE
In Eastern Europe the Serbs and Croatians became Christians in the seventh century. The Bulgarians accepted the faith in the ninth century. In the same century St Cyril and Methodius converted the Moravians. The Bohemians (Czechs) had the Gospel preached to them in the ninth century, but all did not accept it until the tenth century. The evangelisation of the Poles was carried on by Bohemian and German missionaries at the end of the tenth century.

ST CYRIL AND ST METHODIUS

The conversion of the Russians was begun by the Christian Church of Constantinople. The efforts of Vladimir, ruler of Kiev, in the tenth century consolidated the conversion of the Russians.

The Magyars (or Hungarians) were brought into the Church during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Wends (Slavonic tribes east of the Elbe River) were slower to accept Christianity. The Good News was first preached to them in the ninth century, but they were not completely converted until the twelfth century. The Gospel was brought to the Baltic peoples (the Livonians, the Prussians, the Finns and the Lithuanians) in the thirteenth century. With their conversion all Europe was Catholic. The missionary impulse given by Jesus to the Apostles had brought about the conversion of one whole continent of the world.

THE MISSIONARY IMPULSE GIVEN BY JESUS TO THE APOSTLES HAD BROUGHT ABOUT THE CONVERSION OF ONE WHOLE CONTINENT OF THE WORLD

The missionary expansion of the Church, however, was not restricted to the Roman Empire or Europe. Jesus had commanded the Apostles to preach the Gospel to the whole world. From the beginning the Church had tried to fulfil this command. It is possible some of the Apostles reached Parthia and India in the East. Iin the middle of the second century we find a Christian community in Mesopotamia. By the end of the third century the faith had been introduced into Persia and Armenia. In Ethiopia most of the people became Christians in the fourth century.

THE REPRESSIVE LAWS MOSLEMS INTRODUCED AGAINST CHRISTIANITY

In the seventh century the Islamic conquests dealt a severe blow to the practice of Christianity in Arabia, Palestine, Asia Minor and northern Africa. Islam was a new religion founded in Arabia by Mohammed. By a series of military conquests the Moslems (followers of the religion of Mohammed) came to dominate the whole southern shore of the Mediterranean. Their fierce religious zeal and the repressive laws which they enforced against the practice of Christianity made their lands mostly Mohammedan. Their expansion into Asia also made it difficult for the Christian missions there.

PROCLAIMING JESUS CHRIST’S MESSAGE IN CHINA

In the thirteenth century, however, Pope Innocent IV sent Franciscan and Dominican missionaries to establish missions in China. In the same century Raymond Lull, a Spaniard, went to northern Africa to seek to convert the Mohammedans. In the fourteenth century missionary work continued in China, this time with more success. A Christian community of thity thousand was built in Peking.

At the end of the fifteenth century (in 1492) Columbus sailed to the new world in the West. In his wake, Christian missionaries began preaching the Good News in the two American continents.

At the same time Dominicans and Jesuits went to India and China and Japan. Portugese missionaries also brought the news of the Kingdom of God to the peoples of the Malay peninsula. The Spaniards sent missionaries to the Philippines. Jesuits and Franciscans went to the Congo and to East Africa.

ESTABLISHING NATIVE SUCCESSORS OF THE APOSTLES

By the nineteenth century Catholic missionary effort was active throughout the world. It has continued to be so down to our time. Unfortunately [for some time] in countries under communist control or domination, Catholic missionary effort [was] discouraged and foreign missionaries [were] either imprisoned or killed or expelled. On the other side of the balance, however, is the fact that the Church has succeeded in establishing native bishops and priests in many mission territories.

THE MUSTARD SEED HAS GROWN INTO A GREAT TREE

…[I]t is possible to say that the Kingdom of God founded on earth by Jesus Christ is being or has been preached, not to every individual human being but at least to all the nations of the earth. The voice of God, the voice of Christ, has been heard in the world. The mustard seed has grown into a great tree. There are now in the world [over one billion] members of the Catholic Church, the Kingdom of God on earth.

JESUS CHRIST, HER MASTER, WILL LABOUR WITH HIS CHURCH TO THE CONSUMMATION OF TIME

The Kingdom of God has not been false to its essential missionary character. From the beginning until now it has borne witness to Jesus. Its testimony has not been without great fruit. But [many people] are not members of the kingdom. The Catholic Church, true to the command of Jesus, will strive to the end to induce all men of all nations to be baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ, her Master, will labour with her to the consummation of time.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959 (headings in capitals added afterwards)

 

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