Reading N°20 in the History of the Catholic Church
Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.
|Early manuscript of Romans 1:1-7|
It is not certain that Paul went as far as Rome on his first missionary journey in Europe. But it is beyond doubt that, from the time Claudius began his persecution, Paul was ceaselessly in relation with Rome, whether by voice or by writing. In 58, while staying at Corinth, he thought the time had come to send to the Christians of Rome, in the form of a letter, the great doctrinal exposition now known as the Epistle to the Romans.
The mere enumeration of the twenty-four persons whom the Apostle greets at the close of this letter is like a roll call of the Christian community of Rome as it was in the middle of the first century. We see that, at this period, several members of the Roman Church are known to the Apostle, at least by name, and that he counts many friends among them. We also observe that, from the time of Claudius' decree, the Christian community, which at first was recruited on the spot in the Jewries and among a few strangers, chance arrivals from the Orient, has now made a daring opening in the most aristocratic families of the Empire. Besides Jewish-born Christians, such as Prisca and Aquila or people in the household of Aristobulus (grandson of Herod), we meet such of the Roman race, as Urbanus, Ampliatus, Rufus, and Julia, not to speak of those of Narcissus' household, and genuine Greeks, such as Phlegon, Hermes, Epenetus, Philologus, and Nereus.
We have no indication that, in a gathering made up of such diverse elements, painful clashes occurred. Pagans and Jews, rich and poor, fraternized in the love of Christ. It is none the less true that, from the contact of the Jewish with the Hellenic or Roman element, misunderstandings may have arisen. Greeks and Romans were proud of their material civilization with its untold wonders and an intellectual culture which they highly esteemed. Naturally, they were inclined to look down upon this insignificant Jewish race, whose ceremonies seemed so odd and whose mission, in any case, appeared to be ended. On the other hand, the Jews were no less proud of their ancient law, which they had from God Himself, and of the promises given to their father Abraham. They were reluctant to see themselves placed on the same footing as the Gentiles with regard to salvation.
Paul had an idea, very dear to him, which he called his gospel, because he was convinced that God had given him the mission of spreading it and furthering its success. This idea was that paganism without the law and Judaism with the law had given proof of their impotence, and that both must give way to a higher form of religion, "so that the religion of Christ, taking the place of the law of Israel and the error of the Gentiles, would gather in the net of the Church both Jew and Gentile together." This is the whole teaching of the Epistle to the Romans, "the most important and the most vigorous of Paul's epistles, the one we may regard as the summary of his theology."
The Apostle says:
There is no respect of persons with God. For whosoever have sinned without the law, shall perish without the law; and whosoever have sinned in the law, shall be judged by the law. [...] But now without the law the justice of God is made manifest, being witnessed by the law and the prophets. Even the justice of God, by faith of Jesus Christ. [...] There is no distinction [between Jew and Gentile]: for all have sinned, and do need the glory of God; being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
In this thought of redemption by the blood of Christ, Paul wishes to reconcile Jews and Gentiles by love; at this thought his heart is thrilled, and from his soul come forth those accents, perhaps the most vehement that have ever come from a human soul:
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who is against us? He that spared not even His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how hath He not also, with Him, given us all things? [...] Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or famine or nakedness or danger or persecution or the sword? [...] I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things to come nor might nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the last chapters of his epistle, St. Paul deduces certain practical conclusions which are worth noting in order to see the attitude of the Church at Rome toward the Empire. Since henceforth Jews and Gentiles are fused into a single society open to all, the time has come for the Jew to abjure every thought of revolt. St. Paul speaks particularly to those Israelites whose seething nationalism would not consent to fusion in the great Roman unity:
Let every soul be subject to higher powers. [...] He that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. [...] The prince is God's minister. Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake.
When the Apostle wrote these lines, Seneca and Burrus were governing the Empire in Nero's name, and the latter had not yet given his people any reason for cursing him. But the accidental circumstances of the government at the time when the Epistle to the Romans was written are of little moment. St. Paul was proclaiming a principle that the Church was to repeat after him with the same energy, namely, that a Christian should be second to none in obedience to the just laws of his country and in respect for its magistrates. This commandment would but make more striking her uncompromising attitude when the higher rights of God and of justice were at stake. The young Roman Church and St. Paul himself were soon to give a brilliant example of this heroic resistance.
 Rom. 16.
 Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, III, 314.
 Ibidem, p. 315.
 Rom. 2:11 f.; 3:21-24.
 Rom. 8:31-39.
 Rom. 13:1-5.
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