Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Founding of the Church

Reading N° 1 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Baptism of Christ
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip his brother tetrarch of Iturea and the country of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilina; under the high priests Annas and Caiphas; the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of penance for the remission of sins. [...] Now it came to pass, when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also being baptized and praying, heaven was opened; and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape as a dove upon Him; and a voice came from heaven: "Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased."
In these words the Evangelist St. Luke relates the first public manifestation of Him whom His disciples soon afterward acclaimed as "their Lord and their God," and the Church acknowledged as its Head.

Jesus had been born of the Virgin Mary about thirty years before,[1] in a stable at Bethlehem, a town in the kingdom of Juda, as the ancient prophets had foretold. Thus far His life had been hidden from the eyes of the world; but the hour was now at hand for Him to manifest Himself.

His public ministry began on the day of His baptism. Then for three years He went about Galilee and Judea doing good. "He declares high mysteries, but confirms them by great miracles; He enjoins great virtues, but gives, at the same time, great lights, great examples, and great graces."[2]

The doctrine that He preached was very old and yet very new. "Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old."[3] He gathered, as in a sheaf, the religious truths and divine precepts that had been spread in the world, from the beginning, by the patriarchal and the Mosaic religion, and He supplemented them by a revelation of deeper mysteries and the preaching of more perfect virtues.

Belief in one God, the expectation of a liberator (Messias) and the hope of a restoration of Israel were the chief foundations of the Jewish faith. Christ taught them that the God they adored was Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,[4] that the Messias they expected was truly the Son of God,[5] and that the restoration for which they hoped was nothing but the redemption of the world.[6]

Until then the Jews had been aroused to obedience to God by the hope of earthly rewards. "Jesus Christ sets forth to them a future life, and keeping them suspended in that expectation, He teaches them to disengage themselves from all things of sense. [...] Not satisfied with telling us that a life eternally happy was reserved for the children of God, the Messias has also told us wherein it consists. And this is life eternal, to be with Him where He is in the glory of God the Father; life eternal is to behold the glory He has in the bosom of the Father; life eternal, in a word, is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent."[7]

"With such new rewards, Jesus Christ must propose also ideas of virtue, practices more perfect and more refined. He proposes to us the love of God even to the hating of ourselves. He proposes to us the love of our neighbor so as to extend that kind disposition towards all men. He proposes to us humility, even to the extent of loving shame for the glory of God."[8]

Thus in the realm of morals as in that of doctrine, the old ideal is immeasurably surpassed. Is this the whole message of Christ? By no means. Those who listened to the Master soon understood that He had the future especially in mind. The second year of His ministry, His calling of the twelve Apostles and the choosing of a certain number of disciples laid the foundations of a society with Himself as the center and inspirer. At the head of the Twelve He placed Simon, the son of Jona, whom He named Peter. Peter's primacy is "so manifest a prerogative that the Evangelists, who in the catalogue they make of the Apostles observe no certain order, unanimously agree in naming St. Peter before all the rest as the first."[9]

Christ and the Pharisees
Ernst Karl Georg Zimmermann (1852-1901)

Then, confronted by the misunderstanding of the populace and the ill-will of the Pharisees, the Master, in conformity with the custom of popular teaching in the East, altered the ordinary form of His discourses. Instead of direct exhortation and instruction, He now habitually made use of little figurative stories and popular parables or fables, to make His thought understood or surmised. Yet the subject of a large number of these parables is a mysterious kingdom, sometimes called the kingdom of God, at other times the kingdom of the heavens. This kingdom is compared to a field where cockle, sowed by the devil, chokes the grain,[10] or to a mustard seed that becomes a great tree,[11] or to leaven which a woman kneads in a mass of dough until all the latter is leavened,[12] or to a net which is cast into the sea and filled with all kinds of fishes.[13]

To the eyes of the disciples, the picture of this kingdom was still somewhat dim. It appeared to them in turn as something afar off and very near, as beyond this visible world and as transformed in this world. The fact is that, in the Master's thought, it is near, inasmuch as it is given in this life, but far off, inasmuch as it is consummated and perfected in the next life. In any event, it clearly appears that this future kingdom was to take the form of a society organized about Christ the King. The mother of the sons of Zebedee, understanding it in an earthly manner, asked that her sons be given places of honor in the future kingdom.

Most of the uncertainties disappeared during the forty days of intercourse which the risen Christ granted His disciples. Henceforth it is evident that the word "kingdom," so often used by the Master in the course of His earthly life, while sometimes meaning the reign of God by grace, and more often the supreme revelation of the last days, ordinarily refers to an earthly and militant society or church, with the mission of realizing in every man the individual reign of God and thereby preparing for the coming of a triumphant Church in Heaven.

Christ Giving Peter the Keys to Paradise
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Further, this Church, organized and living, is there before the eyes of all. It is a perfect society, having received from the Master its special purpose, the salvation of the world; its essential doctrine, the gospel teaching; its sacred liturgy, centering in the Eucharist; its divine hierarchy, with degrees marked by the Sacraments of Baptism and Orders; its supreme head, designated by the Savior's special choice. Jesus said: "Simon, Bar-Jona [...] Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church. [...] And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven.[14] [...] Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren."[15]

Jesus ascended into Heaven. No essential element seemed lacking in the divinely organized society which He left upon earth. Yet the attitude of His disciples was still timid. Abandoned to their own weakness, trembling before the Jewish police, they did nothing but pray together and piously keep in their hearts, along with the memory of the Master's conversations, the recollection of the great miracle of the Resurrection, performed to sustain their faith. They awaited the coming of the promised Comforter, because, when Jesus was leaving, He said to them: "If I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you."[16]


[1] Probably in 749 A.U.C. We know that Herod died in 750; and the Gospel insinuates that Jesus was born a short time before. Dionysius Exiguus fixed upon the year 754 A.U.C. as the beginning of our era, but it was found that he was mistaken in his calculations. (Cf. Fouard, The Christ, the Son of God, I, 42 ff.) The same chronology is established by astronomical computations undertaken to determine the year of Christ's death. The work of De la Porte and Pio Emmanuelli, astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, seems to prove that the Savior's death occurred on Friday, the 7th of April, 783 A.U.C., the year 30 of our era. In that year the 14th Nisan began at about 6 o'clock on the evening of April 6. The 7th of April, 783 A.U.C., was a Friday. This coincidence did not occur in any other year between 28 and 34 of our era. (Cf. Cosmos, 1913, pp. 520, 565. A bibliography of this question will be found in the Revue d'histoire ecclesiastique, April 15, 1913.)
[2] Bossuet, The Continuity of Religion, p. 97.
[3] Matt. 13:52.
[4] Matt. 28:19.
[5] John 8:58.
[6] Matt. 26:28.
[7] John 17:3. Bossuet, op. cit., pp. 99, 110.
[8] Bossuet, op. cit., pp. 110 f.
[9] Ibid., p. 97.
[10] Matt. 13:24-30.
[11] Matt. 13:31 f.
[12] Matt. 13:33.
[13] Matt. 13:47-49.
[14] Matt. 16:17-19.
[15] Luke 22: 31 f. "The mighty words which so clearly establish Peter's primacy, also established the episcopacy. He who said to St. Peter: 'Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth [...]' said the same thing to all the Apostles. [...] But the latter promise does not annul the former. Christ's promises, as also His gifts, are not taken back. [...] The power given to several contains a restriction in its partition, whereas the power given to a single one and over all and without exception, conveys plenitude. It was the teaching of a holy bishop of Gaul that the authority in the Church was first established in the person of a single man and was extended to others only on condition of being always referred to the principle of its unity." Bossuet, Sermon sur l'unite de l'Eglise, in Œuvres (Lachat ed.), XI, 599 ft. 
[16] John 16:7.

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  1. Dear Radical Catholic

    Shouldn't it be "Fernand Mourret"?

  2. Dear Anon,

    Of course, you're entirely correct. Thank you for the note.



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