Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Founding of the Church in Spain

Reading N°34 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

A possible route of St. Paul's Spanish Mission
St. Clement of Rome informs us that the Apostle of the Gentiles was not put to death until after he had reached "the limits of the West."[1] It is natural to suppose these words refer to Spain. We may wonder why St. Paul, at the time of his Epistle to the Romans (AD 60), speaks only of Spain, and not of Gaul and Africa. Perhaps the reason was that Gaul and Africa had already received the true faith. When we know how reluctant St. Paul was to go and preach where other Apostles had preceded him,[2] we are led to suppose that cities like Carthage or Marseilles may have received the Gospel even before the year 60. In the Second Epistle to Timothy we read:
Crescens [is gone] into Gaul, Titus into Dalmatia.[3]
For in this passage, we should read 'Gaul' rather than 'Galatia,' however slender may be this preference.[4] In a word, at the close of the first century, seventy years after the Savior's death, it appears that not only has Europe been traversed from end to end, from east to west, but Asia and Africa have been penetrated far beyond the frontiers of the Empire. Harnack enumerates forty one localities where the existence of Christian communities is historically attested in the course of the first century.[5] We know these communities formed only a very small minority in the Church. Even the Epistles of St. Paul and of St. Peter witness to the presence of many such communities which they do not name; those founded by the other Apostles are even less known. The miracle of Pentecost was verified in a new sense:
Men out of every nation under heaven [...] heard them speak in their own tongue.
And St. Clement of Rome was able to ask in his prayer "that the Creator of the Universe may guard unhurt the number of His elect that has been numbered in all the world."[6]

Was the condition of the ancient world favorable or unfavorable to the spread of Christianity? A great part of the discussion that has arisen over this question rests upon an equivocal statement of the problem. The question can be answered exactly only by a distinction. Whereas, in the ancient world, everything seems to have been providentially disposed to facilitate the rapid spread of Christian doctrine, yet everything appears to have been prepared by the spirit of evil to hinder its acceptance. The unity of the civilized world under a single ruler, the universality of the Greek language, the spread of the Jews, depositaries of a monotheistic faith and of the Messianic prophecies, over the whole world, evidently favored the preaching of the Gospel, while the decadence of the traditional religion, the avowed powerlessness of the philosophical sects, the lassitude engendered by the very excesses of civilization, inclined men's minds to listen to a new preaching. But the powerful unity of the Empire, as soon as it would turn - as in fact it did, against the religion of Christ - was capable of creating a most formidable obstacle to it. Where ever the narrow and carnal spirit of the Jews prevailed - as it did almost everywhere - it made them bitter enemies of Christianity. The cultivation of the Greek language and of the ancient authors of Hellas was sure to make contemptible the speech of a few obscure and unlettered Jews. Although the old mythology had few believers, it was already replaced by the worship of Rome and Augustus, by the whole prestige of a national religion, and by those Oriental mysteries with their purification rites that attracted the lofty-minded, and with their sensual practices that so well suited the instincts of the masses. The philosophical sects prepared rnen's minds for heresies. Pagan Rationalism rebelled against a religion of authority with as great violence as did pagan sensualism against a doctrine of purity and humility. In short, between the worship of Pan - i.e., nature raised and divinized by its own forces - and the worship of Christ, of a God made man and crucified to redeem a fallen world, the opposition was explicit and absolute.

It is no less noteworthy that the geographical spread of Christianity was duplicated by a deep penetration of its spirit into society. This is what Harnack calls its "intensive penetration." Since the day when St. Paul wrote: "There are not many wise according to the flesh among you,"[7] the Church had made many a conquest in the social and intellectual aristocracy. At Athens it won a member of the Areopagus; at Rome under Nero it counted members in Caesar's household;[8] under Domitian among the members of the imperial family. We know also that the Christians of Alexandria did not hesitate to enter upon the philosophical discussion of their faith. By Alexandria the whole eastern civilization would be penetrated with Christianity. By Athens and Rome, the two great nations of Western antiquity would transmit to Europe the spirit of the Gospel. And can we say further that two of the nations destined to play a preponderant role in the history of the West, Spain and France, contained Christian communities even in the first century, and that the Churches of these two countries - that of the "Catholic kingdom" and that of the "most Christian kingdom" - can boast of an Apostolic origin? This question merits the pains of closer study.

Duchesne opines:
St. Paul no doubt took the opportunity to go to Spain, where the first beginnings of Christianity seem to be connected with him.[9]
The thought of evangelizing Spain was early in the mind of the great Apostle. "When I shall begin to take my journey into Spain, I hope that as I pass I shall see you," he wrote from Corinth to the Romans.[10] And again: "I will come by you into Spain."[11] This keen desire is explained by the fact that, although Spain was slowly and with difficulty conquered by the Roman armies, yet, owing to the natural genius of its inhabitants, it rapidly became one of the most cultivated provinces of the Empire. The renown of the two Senecas, Lucan, Martial, Silius Italicus, and Quintilian, all of them Spaniards, was not dimmed by the glory of a Horace or a Virgil. An inner impulse seemed to urge the humble disciples of Christ to carry the gospel to all points of civilization in the ancient world. St. Paul seems to have considered the Spanish mission as the height of his career, after which he might end his course, having brought the faith even to those pillars of Hercules which marked the outermost bounds both of the Empire and of the world.[12] Probably he carried out his intention about the year 63, right after his trial before Caesar and his acquittal, following two years spent in Rome. St. Clement of Rome, well situated for acquiring exact information, declares that Paul "reached the limits of the West."[13] We naturally regard this expression as equivalent to the Hesperia ultima of Horace[14] and the extremique orbis Iberi of Lucan.[15] St. Jerome says that the Apostle's journey was by sea.[16] In that case, he would have landed at Tarragona or Cadiz.

None of the spots where St. Paul may have founded churches is known to us. If these churches existed, we are ignorant of the treatment they received in Nero's persecution.[17] The Marquesia (Maravesar) inscription in Lusitania, lauding Nero for having "purged the province of brigands and of those who teach a new superstition to mankind," is apocryphal.[18] More to be credited is the remark in the Martyrology of Ado, regarding a mission of seven bishops sent to Spain by St. Peter, subsequent to St. Paul's mission.[19] The chief of these missioners, Torquatus, is said to have founded the Church of Acci or Cadiz. A bishop of Cadiz in AD 300 presided over the famous Council of Illiberis (Elvira), and probably this bishop owed his preeminence to the honor of being Torquatus' successor. The soundest proof of the antiquity of the Spanish Church is the very complete organization and development of that Church at the end of the third century, as appears from the Acts of the Council of Elvira.

What is to be said about the coming of the Apostle St. James the Greater to Spain? It seems to be affirmed by a vague text of St. Jerome[20] and an Apostolic Catalogue of dubious authority. But no mention is made of this Apostle by Orosius, Idacius, Martin of Braga, Braulio, John of Biclaro, or Isidore of Seville. The Mozarabic Liturgy contains no mention of a special devotion to St. James as founder of the Spanish Church. Moreover, as the Apostles did not leave Jerusalem before the year 42 , and as St. James the Greater was put to death that very year, it would seem impossible to allow for his journey to Spain. James could have gone there only in the sense that his relics were taken there. Probably they were transported to Spain at some undetermined date and occasioned the celebrated pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela,[21] for centuries the most popular pilgrimage in all Christendom.[22]

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral


[1] Clement, First Epistle, v, 7.
[2] Romans 15:20.
[3] 2 Timothy 4:10.
[4] Cf. Batiffol in the Revue biblique, April 1895, p. 140. The interpretation of 2 Tim. 4: 10, in the sense of Gaul is much disputed. The words Celtia, Galatia, and Gallia appear to have been synonymous in the language of the period. Only the circumstances can determine whether Gaul or Galatia is meant.
[5] Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, II, 91.
[6] St. Clement, First Epistle, L1X, 2; Funk, Patres apostolici, I, 175.
[7] 1 Corinthians 1:26.
[8] Philippians 4:22.
[9] Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, 43.
[10] Romans 15:24.
[11] Romans 15:28.
[12] Cf. Leclercq, L'Espange chrétienne, p. 26.
[13] Clement, First Epistle, v, 7.
[14] Horace, Carmina, I, 36.
[15] Lucanus, Pharsalia, VII, 541. Pliny and Silius Italicus use similar expressions to designate Spain.
[16] "Ad Hispaniam alienigenarum portatus est navibus." (St. Jerome, In Isaiam, cap. IX.) This voyage would necessitate a call at Marseilles. The journey by land would have brought St. Paul to Arles, Nimes, and Narbonne.
[17] Cf. Leclercq, op. cit., p. 29.
[18] Corpus inscrip. lat., II, 25. Cf. Walsh, Marmor Hispaniae antiquum; Leclercq, loco cit.
[19] Gams, Die Kirchengeschichte von Spanien, I, 103-117.
[20] In Isaiam, 12:42.
[21] From Jacomo apostolo, according to some; others say, from Campus stellae, because of a star which in 772 miraculously revealed to Bishop Theodomir the place where the relics of the Apostle would be found.
[22] Upon the question of St. James' coming to Spain, see Leclercq, op. cit., pp. 31-42. About the middle of the sixteenth century, some people of Biscay, not satisfied with claiming connection with three Apostles - St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. James the Greater - made claim to another title in favor of the antiquity of their Church. In their district they had found a tombstone bearing the name of a certain Bilella, serva Christi; thereupon they said that the evangelization of their district was due to St. Bilella, a domestic servant of Christ. (Leclercq, op. cit., p. 40 .)


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