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TODAY’S BIBLE READING (GALATIANS 1:13-24)

(Week 27 of the year: Tuesday)

GOD REVEALED HIS SON IN ME, SO THAT I MIGHT PREACH THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT HIM TO THE PAGANS.

For you have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion: how that, beyond measure, I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.

And I made progress in the Jews’ religion above many of my equals in my own nation, being more abundantly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

But when it pleased him, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace,

To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, immediately I condescended not to flesh and blood.

Neither went I to Jerusalem, to the apostles who were before me: but I went into Arabia, and again I returned to Damascus.

Then, after three years, I went to Jerusalem, to see Peter, and I tarried with him fifteen days.

But other of the apostles I saw none, saving James the brother of the Lord.

Now the things which I write to you, behold, before God, I lie not.

Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.

And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea, which were in Christ:

But they had heard only: He, who persecuted us in times past, doth now preach the faith which once he impugned:

And they glorified God in me.

V. The word of the Lord.
R. Thanks be to God.

 
 

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“THE CHURCH OF CHRIST, THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH, HAS BEEN HATED AND PERSECUTED ALWAYS”

“FOR MY NAME’S SAKE

‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you… If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know him who sent me… Yes, the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering worship to God. And these things they will do because they have not known the Father nor me. But these things I have spoken to you, that when the time for them has come you may remember that I told you.” (John 15:18-19, 20-21; 16:2-4).

GOD HAS CHOSEN TO RESPECT THE FREE WILLS OF MEN

One of the most convincing signs that free will – the free wills of God, men and the devils – is the basic significant factor in the course of human history is to be seen in the fact that the world has not accepted Jesus and His kingdom without opposition, without violence.

Since God is all powerful it is easy to imagine that He might, if He had so willed, have compelled all men to accept Him and to accept membership in His kingdom. Whether or not this is really possible, the fact is that He has not done so. By a sovereign decision of His own free will God has chosen to respect the free wills of men and of the demonic spirits who have rejected Him and hate men.

THE CONTINUATION OF JESUS HIMSELF IN HUMAN HISTORY

When God became man as Jesus of Nazareth, He subjected Himself to the free wills of men and the devils. He did not overwhelm the devils with His almighty power and prevent them completely from interfering in the affairs of men. Nor did He subjugate the free wills of men and compel them by force to enter His kingdom. Instead He allowed the devils to influence men as they would, and to men He appealed only with the weapons of truth, divine signs and His grace. He left it to the free wills of men to make the choice between sin and redemption, between hating Him and loving Him, between working with Him and working against Him.

IN HIS KINGDOM ON EARTH, AS IN HIMSELF, MEN COULD FIND REDEMPTION

His kingdom on earth, so He said, the continuation of Himself in human history, would be in the same position as He Himself had been. In it, as in Himself, men could find redemption. But they would be free to enter it, to leave it or to reject it; to work with it for the redemption of the world or to work against it to their own condemnation. And thus, through the ignorance, the weakness and the malice of men and devils the kingdom would, like Jesus Himself, be hated and persecuted.

IN ITS INFANCY THE CHURCH OF CHRIST, THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH, WAS PERSECUTED BY THE JEWS

The Church of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth, has been hated and persecuted always. In its infancy it was persecuted by the Jews. The Sanhedrin arrested the Apostles, had them beaten and cast into prison for preaching the message of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. In the year 42 A.D., Herod Agrippa instituted a systematic persecution of the Christians in his land. St James the Greater perished during this persecution and the other Apostles left Jerusalem.

THE PERSECUTION UNDER EMPEROR NERO

As the Christian Church grew throughout the Roman Empire it became subject to persecution by the government, both local and imperial. The first known persecution of the Christians by the imperial government took place during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Nero had ordered the burning of part of the city of Rome. To divert the anger of the populace from himself he blamed the atrocity on the Christians. In the year 64 there was a mass execution of some Christians, who were coated with pitch and burned like torches in the gardens on the Vatican Hill. In the year 67 St Peter was crucified, head downwards, and St Paul was beheaded.

WERE THERE ROMAN LAWS TO KILL CHRISTIANS?

Whether or not Nero passed a law against the profession and practice of Christianity is still a matter of dispute among historians. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 230) , who became a Christian in the year 197, seems to say that Nero had done so. Later historians think that Christians may have been persecuted under already existing laws.

THE REIGN OF DOMITIAN

At any rate, persecution of Christians broke out again during the reign of Domitian (81-96). Flavius Clemens (a relative of Domitian) and his wife and niece suffered during this persecution. Flavius was put to death and his wife and niece were banished.

THERE IS EVIDENCE THAT CHRISTIANS WERE PERSECUTED SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY BELONGED TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

At the beginning of the third century during the reign of Trajan there is evidence that Christians were persecuted simply because they belonged to the Catholic Church. Pliny the Younger had been sent by the emperor to administer the province of Bithynia. There he found that so many of the people had become Christians that a large number of the old pagan temples were no longer functioning. The farmers and merchants who had previously provided animals, birds, grains and wine for the pagan sacrifices were angry at the loss of their business. They complained about it to Pliny. Christians were denounced.

‘I OREDERED THEM TO BE EXECUTED’

Pliny was not quite sure what to do about the situation. Writing to the Emperor Trajan for advice, he said, ‘I do not know what means and limits are to be observed in examining or punishing them… This is the way I have dealt with those who have been denounced to me as Christians: I asked them if they were Christians. If they admitted that they were, I asked them again a second and a third time, threatening them with capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For I felt certain that whatever it was that they professed, their contumacy and inflexible obstinacy obviously demanded punishment.’

‘FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN THAT THEY WERE MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH’

Trajan in his reply set down some norms for handling the situation. The authorities were not to institute a search for Christians on their own initiative. But if anyone was denounced to the magistrates as a Christian, and he admitted it, he was to be punished, ‘but with this restriction: if anyone says that he is not a Christian, and shall actually prove it by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned as being repentant, even though he may have been suspect in the past.’

This letter of Trajan makes it clear that Christians were persecuted for no other reason than that they were members of the Christian Church and, as such, refused to adore the gods of the state. It is clear also that a Christian might escape punishment simply by performing a ritual act of adoration to the pagan gods of Rome. The simplicity with which Christians might escape punishment makes it all the more remarkable that many remained faithful to their belief in Jesus and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The fact that magistrates must punish Christians when they are denounced meant, too, that Christians were at the mercy of the whims or the hate of their non-Christian neighbours.

MARCUS AURELIUS REWARDED THOSE WHO DENOUNCED CHRISTIANS TO THE AUTHORITIES

That the people generally were opposed to Christians is shown by the fact that during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138) a governor in Asia asked the emperor how he should deal with anti-Christian riots. Hadrian and Antonius Pius (138-161) forbade mob action against Christians but reaffirmed the position of Trajan. Marcus Aurelius (161-180), moved by the popular outcry that Christians were responsible for the calamities which afflicted his reign, persecuted Christians more actively and rewarded those who denounced them to the authorities.

EMPEROR SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS, IN TURN, FORBADE ANYONE TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN

In the year 202 A.D. the. Emperor Septimius Severus. Forbade anyone to become a Christian. Maximin the Thracian (235-238) published a general edict for the whole empire aimed against the leaders of the Christian people. His persecution was of short duration, but it established the dangerous precedent of general edicts against Christians.

‘CHRISTIANITY HAD TO BE DESTROYED’

This precedent was taken up vigorously by the Emperor Decius. Decius, in an attempt to reinvigorate within the empire the old Roman ideals and virtues, decided to strengthen the hold of the old Roman gods on the people. Christianity therefore had to be destroyed. By imperial edict it was decreed that on a certain day throughout the empire those suspected of being unwilling to worship the old gods were to appear before the magistrates and show their loyalty by sacrificing to the old gods. Certificates would be issued to all those who showed themselves to be good pagans. For those who refused the ultimate penalty was death.

POPE FABIAN AND BISHOP ALEXANDER WERE EXECUTED FOR REFUSING TO SACRIFICE TO THE PAGAN GODS

The simultaneous carrying out of this edict throughout the empire took the Christians by surprise. Many of them fell victim to panic and performed the pagan ritual act prescribed and were given certificates which saved them from imprisonment and death. But many, even in these trying circumstances, remained faithful to Jesus and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Some of these such as Pope Fabian and Bishop Alexander at Jerusalem were executed. Other less important figures were thrown into prison and tortured in the attempt to make them give up their membership in the Church.

IN 257 IT WAS DECREED THAT ALL THE CHURCH’S PRIESTS AND BISHOPS WERE TO BE SUMMONED TO FORCE THEM TO LEAVE THE CHURCH AND WORSHIP THE ANCIENT ROMAN GODS INSTEAD OF JESUS CHRIST

Under the Emperor Valerian another general persecution was undertaken by the imperial government. In 257 it was decreed that all the bishops and priests of the Church were to be summoned and made to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The faithful were not to take part in any of the liturgical reunions of the Church. The priests who refused were to be exiled. Cemeteries belonging to Christians and other places of worship were seized by the state. In 258 Valerian decreed that priests who refused to sacrifice to the gods were to be executed. Members of the aristocracy who refused to renounce their membership in the Church were to be exiled and their estates confiscated. When Valerian was taken captive by the Persians, the persecution died down.”

‘MOST HORRIBLE TORTURES IN THE ATTEMPT TO DESTROY THE CHURCH’

It was renewed during the reign of Diocletian in the year 303. Urged on by Galerius, whom he had associated with himself in the government of the empire, Diocletian took measures to stamp out the Christian religion. In his first edict of February 24, 303, Diocletian ordered that Christians were not to assemble for worship, Christian Churches were to be closed, the sacred writings of the Church were to be destroyed. Nobles who refused to renounce Christianity were to lose their rank, free men who refused were to be enslaved, and slaves were to remain forever slaves. A little later Diocletian decreed that those who refused to give up their profession of Christianity were to be put to death. This was the most severe of all the Roman persecutions of the Church. Christians were arrested wholesale throughout the empire and submitted to the most terrible tortures in the attempt to destroy the Church.

IN FACT THE CHURCH HAS ENCOUNTERED THIS HATRED IN EVERY AGE

In the Eastern empire the persecutions lasted until 311. In the Western empire it ceased when Constantine the Great became emperor in 306. In 313 the edict of Milan made Christianity one of the recognised religions of the empire, and the persecution of the Church within the empire ceased.

We have no certain knowledge of the number of Christians who were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, deprived of rank or property, or executed during these persecutions. It is quite probable, however, that the number of those afflicted during the troubled times of the third and fourth centuries far exceeded the number of those who suffered in the first two centuries. In the persecutions under Decius, Valerian and Diocletian it is probable that many thousands suffered. What is more important than the number of those who actually suffered for their faith is the fact that all during the first three centuries of its existence the members of the Kingdom of God on earth had to live constantly in fear of having to suffer for their adherence to Jesus Christ. As Jesus had suffered for them, so they had to be ready to suffer for Him.

Though the Church gained the right to a peaceful existence within the empire by the edict of Milan [under Emperor Constantine], this did not mean that the world which hated Christ ceased to hate His Church. In fact the Church has encountered this hatred in every age.

During the Roman persecutions many Christians had fled from the empire to Persia. There, because of the hostility of the Persians to the empire, they had been welcomed. But when peace was established between the Church and the empire, the attitude of the Persians changed. From 410 on, the Persians began to persecute the Church.

From the end of the seventh century and on, the Moslems, followers of Mohammed, made it difficult for Christians to practise their faith in all the lands which they conquered, chiefly the lands on the southern side of the Mediterranean basin.

We must remember also that many of the missionaries who carried the Gospel to the pagan lands and many of their first converts had to suffer at the hands of their non-Christian countrymen.

Violent opposition to the Kingdom of God, such as was manifested by imperial Rome, has occurred every so often during the centuries from Jesus to the present time. Sometimes it was due to a hatred of Jesus and His followers. For this reason the Persians harassed Christians in the fifth and sixth centuries. In the seventh century twenty thousand Christians were put to death by Dhu Nuwas in Yemen. In the ninth century the Muslims attacked Christians in Egypt. In the twelfth century the Albigensians in Languedoc attacked the Catholics there. In the twentieth century communist foes in Russia, Mexico, Spain, China, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Jugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania have imprisoned or killed bishops and priests and laymen.

BISHOPS, PRIESTS AND LAYMEN IMPRISONED OR KILLED

At other times the Kingdom of God has been subject to persecution even by those who profess to follow Jesus and be members of His kingdom. Thus in the eighth century the emperors at Constantinople, rejecting the use of images in public worship, deposed, arrested and in some cases put to death bishops and priests who refused to accept the imperial iconoclasm. In the sixteenth century, when the so-called Protestant Reform of the Church took place, Catholics, members of the true Kingdom of God, were subjected to harassment in the kingdoms or principalities where Protestantism triumphed. The true faith was outlawed, priests were expelled or killed for administering the sacraments of the Church. Active opposition to the true Church on the part of Protestant states has continued down to the present, though with lessening severity.

Frequently, too (one is tempted to say, almost constantly), relations between earthly governments and the Church of God have been strained, so severely strained as to prevent the Church from acting freely in its mission to save mankind. Thus, in the fourth century some of the emperors favoured the Arian heresy against the true faith. In the eighth, as we have already mentioned, the emperors sought to promote iconoclasm. From the Middle Ages down to recent times many Christian rulers attempted to gain control of the Church by claiming for themselves the right to nominate bishops in the Church. Popes Gregory VII, Innocent III and Boniface VIII had to struggle to prevent the sovereigns of Europe from seizing control of the Church. The energy displayed by the Papacy in repulsing these attempts led to opposition to the Papacy. This, in part, accounts for the eagerness with which the Germanic princes of northern Europe gave up their allegiance to the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. By joining the Protestant revolt they were enabled to gain control of religion in their own territories. Opposition to the Papacy also accounts in part for the rise of Gallicanism in France and Josephism in Austria and the Netherlands.

DENYING THE EXISTENCE OF GOD ALTOGETHER

Opposition to the Church has been found also in the world of thought and intellect. In the time of imperial Rome the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote against the Church. In modern times the philosophers of subjectivism, idealism, positivism, materialism, and their intellectual children, the socialists and the communists, have attacked the Church. By denying the existence of God or the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, they have attempted to destroy those fundamental beliefs of mankind which provide a rational basis for religion.

‘GROWING PAINS’

It should be mentioned also that the Kingdom of God in its growing life in the world has experienced a constant succession of growing pains in the form of heresies, deviations from the true content of the divine revelation which Jesus gave to mankind. From the beginning until now the minds of some men, confronted with the profound mysteries which God has revealed, have gone astray. Refusing to listen to the voice of God’s appointed heralds, the Apostles and their successors (the Pope and Bishops of the Church), they have invented doctrines of their own and presented them to the world as God’s message to men.

In this world, then, the Kingdom of God is as Jesus had said it would be, a kingdom persecuted by men, its members hailed before kings and princes and put to death for their faith in Christ, sometimes even put to death in His Name.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959 (Headings in capital letters added afterwards)

 

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

“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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COURAGEOUS CHRISTIAN SURVIVAL IN A HOSTILE ATHEIST ENVIRONMENT

THE ATTEMPTS TO KILL THE FAITH

“In the midst of this winter of atheism in the West, it is heartening to travel to distant parts of the globe and find that spring has arrived. For decades in Russia, thousands of Catholic priests, religious and laypersons were persecuted, imprisoned without trial or merely taken away and shot by the Soviet Communists in their attempt to kill the Faith. It was an experiment in state-sponsored atheism. But today you can walk into a Catholic church in Irkutsk, eastern Siberia, and find Mass being celebrated every day of the week. The experiment has failed and what Russia’s brutal Communists could not achieve is surely beyond the reach of the West’s extremist but essentially spineless secularists.

THE EXPERIMENT HAS FAILED

The Church of the Assumption in Irkutsk stands on the corner of Kirov Square. It was built in 1889, replacing the original wooden church that was burnt down in the great fire of 1879 that destroyed much of the town. Across the street is the bleak, grey government building that embodied Soviet power, the hammer and sickle still visible in the stonework. A beautiful Orthodox cathedral with six golden cupolas used to occupy the spot but the Communists tore it down in the 1930s. Remarkably, the neighbouring Catholic church survived. Perhaps its acoustics saved it, because, after stealing it from the Church, the Communists handed it over to the Philharmonic Society which to this day uses it for organ concerts. The Russian government has yet to return the stolen property and the Church is obliged to pay rent to hold daily Mass in the lower chapel and Sunday Mass upstairs in the main church.

I came across this church in the summer of 2012, on my first Sunday in Irkutsk. It was an unexpected delight to be able to attend daily Mass in distant Siberia, to meet several priests and religious as well as members of the congregation. Through them I built a picture of how the Catholic Church came to Siberia, how the Communists tried to wipe it out and how it has survived against all the odds and is now attracting new converts.

SURVIVING AGAINST ALL THE ODDS

On the opposite bank of the Angara River, up a steep road beyond the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway, stands the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was consecrated in 2000 and contains a beautiful, golden statue of the Virgin Mary against a stylised map of Russia, a reference to the second secret of Fatima that spoke of the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary.

It was at the Cathedral that I met Sister Danuta, one of the four members of the Divine Word Missionaries working there alongside two Polish and one Indonesian Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS). Sr Danuta told me that about 200 parishioners attend Sunday Mass at the Cathedral and about 40 children attend catechism classes. The Church organises marriage encounter weekends that attract even non-Catholics. Later during my stay I was to meet a group of young altar boys who had travelled from all over the vast diocese of St Joseph at Irkutsk (the Catholic Church’s largest in terms of square miles) to attend a retreat. One 17-year-old had come from Yakutsk, a journey of five days by rail and road.

SIBERIAN EXILES

Sister Danuta, who arrived in Irkutsk from Poland over a decade ago, gave me my first introduction to the history of the Church there and an insight into its contemporary conditions. She told me of the Polish uprisings of 1863 and 1864 and how the Russian Tsar exiled about 40,000 Poles, mostly Catholics, to Siberia. They included over 500 priests who were forced to stay in the isolated town of Tunka, 200km south-west of Irkutsk. In fact, the first Polish exiles to Siberia, numbering around 5,000, arrived as early as 1772, following the failed Bar Confederation, one of the first attempts to throw off the Russian yoke. More Poles were exiled following the failure of Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s revolt in 1795 and the November Uprising in 1830. Not all Catholics came under duress. Some were traders and there were Catholics amongst the worforce that built the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The first priests in Irkutsk were Jesuits who arrived in 1812 and it was they who built the first wooden church. There were about 1,200 Catholics in the Irkutsk parish at the time. In 1820 the Jesuits were expelled from Russia and the Franciscans came to replace them. By the early nineteenth century there were about 30,000 Catholics in the Irkutsk region.

SAINTS AND MARTYRS

ST JOSEPH KALINOWSKI

It was also from Sister Danuta that I heard for the first time of one of the many saints and martyrs numbered amongst the exiles and deportees in Siberia: St Joseph Kalinowski (1835-1907), a boyhood hero of Pope John Paul II. He was condemned to death for his part in the 1863 Polish Uprising, but the sentence was commuted to ten years hard labour in the salt-mines near Irkutsk. Carrying with him only the Gospels and the ‘Imitation of Christ’ he discovered, amidst the extreme hardships of Siberia, his priestly vocation. After returning to Poland he was ordained at the age of 47 and later did much to restore the Carmelite Order in that country. Pope John Paul II canonised him in 1991.

ALL RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY BECAME ILLEGAL

The Soviet regime took up where the Tsarist regime had left off and deported not tens, but hundreds of thousands, from Belarus, western Ukraine and the Baltic states. The 19th-century exiles had arrived on foot in Siberia. Their 20th-century counterparts came packed into goods trains. But unlike the earlier arrivals, they would not be allowed to practise their Faith openly. The 1929 Soviet constitution and the Law on Religious Associations made it illegal to try to defend religion against atheist arguments or engage in religious activity. In 1917 all education had been handed over to the state. The family remained the last and only bulwark against Soviet totalitarianism. But also, by the law of unintended consequences the mass deportations of these ‘enemies of the people’ brought a new wave of Catholics to Siberia, the parents and grandparents of the people I was now kneeling next to in this church in Irkutsk.

I tried to learn from those parishioners how their faith had remained alive over all those years. Many remembered learning prayers from their grandparents, but in many cases it was just a vague recollection… One parishioner, Margarita, told me of how she had come to the Faith after discovering a medal with the image of St Benedict. She was curious enough to research the saint, leading her to discover more about the Catholic Church until she was finally baptised.

FR BUKOVINSKI

Her husband gave me his collection of magazines entitled the ‘Siberian Catholic Gazette’ dating back to 1999. Its articles contain so many testimonies to the bravery of Catholics under communist persecution. One figure in particular stands out: that of Fr Bukovinski (1904-74). The ‘Gazette’ has published excerpts from his memoirs that tell of his work as an underground priest throughout the Soviet Union. He was imprisoned on several occasions by the Communists and came close to death in 1941 and 1949. He is now buried in the grounds of the newly opened Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima in his native town of Karaganda in Kazakhstan.

In one of Fr Bukovinski’s articles he recalls a young Latvian student from a family of deportees in Siberia. A Catholic, he secretly attended Mass offered by a Latvian priest who was conducting his mission clandestinely. The student’s professor got to know about this and ordered a meeting of students to conduct a public recantation of his anti-Soviet activities. However, once the professor had finished accusing him of going to Mass and believing in God, the student stood up and, rather than recanting, announced
, ‘I hereby state that I do believe in God and will do so till the day I die.’

‘I HEREBY STATE THAT I DO BELIEVE IN GOD AND WILL DO SO TILL THE DAY I DIE”

There was a long moment of silence in the group and then all the other students broke out into applause. His courage and defiance had impressed them although there was not a single Catholic amongst them.

SHE WAS PARTICULARLY ATTRACTED TO PRAYING THE ROSARY

In the September 2002 edition of the ‘Gazette’ there is a letter which echoes of Dostoyevsky. It is from a prisoner serving a life sentence in Solikamsk Prison Camp in the Ural Mountains. He speaks of how he recently converted to Catholicism thanks to a certain Brother Dionysus. But his mentor had since returned to Poland, leaving him in a spiritual vacuum, the only Catholic in the prison. He appeals simply for readers to write to him to break his isolation and help his spiritual development. He signs his letter, Yuri, The Sinner.

I also read Sister Aloysius’s account of her vocation. Living in the small town of Prokopyevsk, south-east of Novosibirsk, her mother chanced upon a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and started to attend secret meetings with a small group of local Catholics. The young girl, curious about where her mother disappeared to each week, began to ‘spy’ on her and found out where the meetings were being held. She was invited to join the group, and, in her turn, was converted. She was particularly attracted to praying the Rosary in front of the two icons in the family home, one of the Sacred Heart and one of the Virgin Mary. Her schoolmates found out about her Catholicism and taunted and harassed her. But she remained firm in her faith and, after the fall of Communism, became a nun with the Sisters of St Joseph. It was only then that her mother told her that she had wanted to abort her, but on the two occasions she set out for the doctor’s surgery, fortuitous events stopped her in her steps.

HER MOTHER HAD WANTED TO ABORT HER

It was in 1991 that the Church celebrated its first Christmas Mass in Irkutsk after the government had lifted the ban on public worship for the first time in decades. In the same year, Caritas opened its first centre in Novosibirsk and it continues to work along with other Catholic organisations such as St Vincent de Paul. Siberia has its own pre-seminary in Novosibirsk, opened in 1993, from where postulants graduate to the seminary in Moscow or St Petersburg.

PERSECUTION AND HARASSMENT CONTINUED

However, persecution and harassment continued. The first bishop of St Joseph’s diocese in Irkutsk, Bishop Jerzy Mazur, was denied re-entry into Russia in 2002 on his return from Warsaw and was declared persona non grata by the Putin government. The Russian Duma on several occasions has discussed ways to stop the growth of the Catholic Church in Russia and there was strong official opposition to John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine in 2001. (It was during that visit that he beatified 27 Catholic martyrs, many from Siberia.) In 1992 the Catholic parish in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (on Sakhalin island off the Far East coast of Russia) was re-opened thanks to aid from South Korean missionaries, but five years later those same missionaries were forced to leave by the authorities in Moscow…

AMIDST AGGRESSIVE ATHEISM, DO WE ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE HAVE THE COURAGE TO STAND UP FOR GOD AND THE FAITH?

Fr Bukovinski wrote that, ‘In the Soviet Union, everything is at the service of atheism: the press, cinema, schools, theatre, radio and TV. Atheism, in one way or another addresses the people, while believers, although there are more of them, remain silent.’ He could well be describing our own society. As this aggressive atheism unfurls, how many of us will have the courage of that Latvian student in deepest Siberia and risk all by asserting our Catholic faith?”
– This article by Paul McGregor entitled “Glimpsing a miracle in Siberia” was published in “The Catholic Herald” issue August 23 2013. For subscriptions please visit http://www.catholicherald.co.uk (external link).

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Prayers for Ordinary Time

 

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