The Origin of Christianity
Jesus did not just leave behind a collection of teachings and commandments, he left a community of his followers, who had been with him through all his public life, who were witnesses to the way he died and to the fact that he rose again from the dead. He promised them that they would receive the Holy Spirit, who would enable them to understand the meaning of all that Jesus said and did in his life on earth, and inspire them to spread the word about him throughout the world.
This community of Christ's followers formed the basis of the larger, more structured Organisation that we now call the Church. In terms of its structure, it responded to the circumstances and the needs of the times. In terms of its teaching, it used the language and the concepts available at the time, to explain as clearly as possible its understanding of Christ -- who he was (and is), what he did and what he said.
The essence of the faith of the early followers of Jesus is summed up very neatly in the Letter to the Hebrews: 'At various times in the past, and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son' (ch1:1-2). Not just in what he said, but also in himself as a person, Jesus reveals the fullness of the truth, which God had been leading up to, so to speak, with all the writings contained in what we now call the 'Old Testament'. He reveals the truth about the meaning of our life, the essence of what it is to be human, our relationship with God and the way we must live if we want to be happy.
Because of this, the Church has always felt an absolute need to remain true to the teaching of Christ. It can be explained in various ways, it needs to be applied to the varying circumstances of the times, but it cannot be altered. This applies above all to our primary source for the words and deeds of Jesus: the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and also to the teachings of the first generation of his followers, as we find in the other books of the New Testament (the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St Paul and others, and the Apocalypse).
This also applies to a lesser extent to the teachings of later generations of Christians, because we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in its explanation and its interpretation of Christ, and in its moral teaching based on Christ's words and on the rest of the New Testament. This teaching has to be applied to new situations and new problems that arise in the course of history (such as nuclear weapons and genetic engineering, in our own time, for instance). But the new answers must be consistent with the earlier teaching -- they must be a genuine development, not a deviation. This is not because Christians are naturally conservative and unwilling to change, but because either Christ revealed the full truth about God and human beings, or he didn't. If he did, then we have to remain true to his teaching, whether or not it happens to be fashionable, convenient or politically correct. If he didn't, then the whole of Christianity falls to the ground. It has to be one or the other; there's nothing in between.
What is the Catholic Church
Most people over the ages have believed in a creator. This creator has a purpose for his creation. In particular for his human creatures. It must be so that we could be happy with him forever. However, intelligent as we may be, we cannot be sure and we cannot know the details.
So, it is our belief that God has revealed some of himself and some of his plan to us. And he has done this bit by bit in types and shadows in so far as we were able to understand and in a way that we could understand. First to a chosen few, then to a whole nation. This revealed knowledge of God has been in simple human terms, often using stories to explain a point. So it was often misunderstood. But though we might KNOW God to some extent and his plan for us and even partly how we could achieve it, ultimately no creature can know God or achieve the perfection of eternal life by himself.
The only one who can know God must be God himself.
God graciously became one of us so that he could teach us and save us.
He is the BRIDGE between God and mankind.
First we believe that God sent different sorts of messengers, (prophets). These taught that God is ONE, unlike so many nations who believed in a multiplicity of gods. Next he gave us a suggestion of his deeper nature which is that God is Three-in One (The Trinity). And this was finally revealed to us by God himself when at last The Second Person of the Trinity came born as a human. His name is Jesus.
Jesus, called The Christ (anointed), being both God and man, was able to forge the essential link, the bridge, between God and all humanity. By his death and resurrection from the dead he has overcome the separation caused by sin between God and man and man and man. He has opened the way for all to be resurrected and live with Him forever.
Now to continue the work for all time, Jesus set up The Catholic Church on twelve apostles with Simon as the leader. Jesus gave him a new name, Peter (the rock). Then God separately converted St Paul. The Church is in fact what we call the Mystical Body of Christ. In other words, the Church is Jesus working today just as he did while on earth though now with a resurrected body. So the Church is not just a human Organisation which preaches salvation but is Christ preaching and Christ doing. This work is especially by Word and Sacrament. Sacrament means a sacred sign which actually does what it signifies. Happily, this means that salvation for people does not depend on the goodness or cleverness of the ministers or people but of Christ himself. He works through the ministers and people. Sadly, many in the Church have sinned grievously and set a bad example. Outside their spiritual remit they have taught wrong things. But since it is Christ who acts, the official acts of the Church and the official spiritual teachings must always be beneficial even in spite of the weakness of her members.
We believe that Christ set up his ministers to teach and to make present his graces through the Mass (The offering of God-made-man to the Father) the Prayer of the Church and the seven Sacraments. He also offers graces through our good works. We also believe that He works through ALL people of good will whether they know him of not. However, since ALL graces must flow from Christ, they must do so in some way from his body, the Church.
Wherever in the early days the gospel was preached in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and Asia, Christian communities were set up which were called, 'Churches' or gathering. They gathered to hear the Word of God and for the 'breaking of bread'(Eucharist). Peter and Paul both separately went to Rome and were put to their death for their beliefs. Since Peter was the leader in Rome, the then capital of the Roman empire, the Church of Rome became pre-eminent.
In AD 313 the Emperor was converted, so after a period of occasional persecutions Catholicism at last became the official religion of the empire. She was called 'Catholic' since She was to be the means of salvation for ALL people. Bit by bit, usually because of someone questioning a teaching, the Church came to understand more and more about what God wanted for his people and how the Church was to bring it about (Doctrine and Practice). The Bible (Book) was formed by the Church. She wrote the New Testament after the death and resurrection of the Lord and declared which books of the Jewish Old Testament were the inspired word of God.
When the emperor moved his capital to Constantinople the question arose as to which church leader, or bishop, was in future to be the successor of Peter with overall care and authority? Hence though East and West Catholicism was united, there was a certain tension between East and West from time to time. In AD 1472 much of the Eastern Catholic Church sadly broke from the Roman Catholic Church, though she kept all of the practices and 99% of the teachings. They are now called The Orthodox Church. They dispute the position of the Bishop of Rome (Pope).
From AD 1521 others in Europe broke with the Church, coming up with their own doctrines and practices. They are often called as a group, 'Protestants', since they protested against the Church. Sadly, Protestants sometimes persecuted Catholics, Catholics occasionally Protestants. By and large Protestants denied the main practice of the Catholics which is the Mass and 5 of the 7 sacraments. They put an emphasis on using The Bible, not the Church or Church leaders as their source of authority.
Happily from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, The Catholic Church has taught that, although we still disagree about more or less of the doctrines, we should all work together in mutual respect with all who are baptised.
The Church also taught that whilst not sharing the fundamental unity of baptism and belief we should work with people of other faiths.
Catholics believe that Christ has stayed with his Church in a mystical way. It is through Her that salvation is brought to mankind, whether directly or indirectly. So that we can be ASSURED of this and that we have the correct understanding of the teachings of Christ enough for salvation, Christ set up an infallible Church. Since Christ is infallible his body must be too. That does not mean that Jesus was right in all things, he was a man of his day. But he was right in all things necessary for salvation. Likewise, the Catholic Church claims that She must be infallible, but only in those things necessary for salvation. Indeed, she is made up of sinners and ignorant people. We believe that this infallibility lies with the Bishop of Rome in conjunction with all his fellow bishops. NB. Bishops and par excellence The Pope are called Pontiffs from the Latin pontifex or bridge. The Pontiff is to be the bridge since he acts for Christ the supreme bridge between God and mankind.
The Formation of the Gospels
Since we depend mostly on the Gospels for our knowledge about Christ, it is important that we understand how they came to be written and that we have some idea of how reliable they are. This is particularly so in modern times, when so many people -- who know little or nothing about it! -- take it for granted that we have no reliable knowledge about Jesus.
To start with, there was the period when the first disciples of Christ were still living -- say up to roughly 70 AD. The stories about Christ -- what he did, what he said -- were handed on by word of mouth. This sounds like rather an unreliable method, but we have to remember that we are talking about a culture where writing was comparatively rare, and that memorizing the teaching of a religious leader was quite normal. The teachers of the time were used to presenting their ideas, using repeated patterns and similar techniques, in ways which made them easier to remember and to pass on to others. There are signs of this in Christ's teaching -- for example in the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables.
As the Apostolic generation drew to a close, the people we know as Evangelists (Gospel-writers) brought together elements of this 'oral tradition' into written form. They selected amongst the material available to them, so as to give not only a record of his deeds and sayings, but also a true picture of Christ's identity and his significance. It seems to me that this is rather like what an artist does when he comes to paint a portrait. He emphasizes what he feels are the significant features in such a way as to bring out the true character of the person. In this way, different portraits of the same person will vary to a certain extent -- and all of them will be different to a straightforward photograph -- but each portrait will convey a particular insight into the true nature of the subject, in a way which the photograph cannot do. In the same way, the Gospels vary in their style and in some of their details, but each presents the truth about Christ in a way which a simple matter-of-fact biography would not be able to do.
Before the Gospels reached the form in which we now have them, there was a further stage where a different writer added further material from the same basic tradition. We are fairly sure about this because some passages are in a slightly different style and also interrupt the flow of the story, which resumes immediately afterwards. There are also passages added at the beginning or the end of the Gospels. The last chapter of John's Gospel is a famous example of this: the previous chapter reads so clearly like a conclusion that it must have been the original ending. The later writers are sometimes called Redactors, meaning 'editors'. They were always very careful not to change any of the original writing, or to adjust it to make it fit better with what they were adding. They themselves had authentic material about Jesus, which they did not want to be lost, but the texts they were adding to already had such an authority that they did not feel able to alter them in any way, beyond simply adding a passage here and there.
This view of how the Gospels came to be written is the result of a long process of careful studying over the past hundred years or more. Some of the earlier theories were rather extreme, but there is now general agreement about the general picture I have described, which has now been officially accepted by the Church authorities.
Sometimes people ask, 'If there were so many stages in the forming of the Gospels, where does the inspiration come in?' Traditionally we think of one person -- St Matthew, for instance -- sitting down to write his Gospel, with the Holy Spirit (so to speak) whispering into his ear and telling him what to write. But really there is no problem here. The Holy Spirit would have been involved at each stage; the whole process would have taken place under his inspiration. We don't need to speculate about whether the Evangelists were more inspired than the Redactors; the point is that what we ended up with are four true portraits of Christ -- the ones that God meant us to have.
Finally there is the question of how these four Gospels came down to us. For hundreds of years, until the invention of printing, they were carefully copied by hand. Naturally, however carefully this was done, mistakes were made -- but this need not cause us any concern about the accuracy of the Gospels we now have. During the last couple of centuries several quite early manuscripts have been discovered, together with a vast number of later ones. Scholars have examined them in great detail -- and by comparing the small differences that exist, they have constructed a sort of 'family tree' of the manuscripts, showing how the earlier ones are related to the later ones. From this, and using a few basic principles of logic, it is possible to establish with certainty almost the whole of the Gospel texts. If you look carefully at an accurate translation (such as the Revised Standard Version) you will see occasional footnotes along the lines: 'Other ancient authorities read "...".' This is the easiest way to get an idea of the degree of variation and uncertainty in the text of the Gospels -- and really it is remarkably small.
Institutions and Doctrines
During the earliest days, such as we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, Christianity spread through the missionary work of the Apostles, such as Paul and Barnabas. Once established, the local church would continue under the leadership of the 'elders' authorized by the Apostles to continue the work they had begun. By about the second or third generation, the church had begun to distinguish two levels of leadership: one word for 'elders', episkopoi, came to mean what we now call 'bishops', the other, presbyteroi, what we now call 'priests'. As time went on, the bishops of certain major cities came to enjoy a certain pre-eminence. These became what we now call 'patriarchs'. Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria were the main 'patriarchal sees' originally. Later on, Constantinople became prominent. Because of its association with St Peter and St Paul, Rome had a certain primacy and a particular authority even from the very early days, which later led to the institution of the Papacy as we now k now it.
One problem which faced the Church, right from the earliest days, was how to find the right words to express its faith in Christ. We can see this developing, even in the New Testament, from the earliest expressions such as 'Jesus is Lord' (1 Cor 12:3), to ones which speak more clearly of Christ as divine: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God' (Mt 16:16), 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (Jn 1:1) and 'My Lord and my God' (Jn 20:28). During the first few centuries there were many bitter controversies about the appropriate language to use about Christ. At crucial moments, the bishops gathered at an 'Ecumenical Council', in order to resolve particular disputes and to establish what was to become the orthodox position. The best-known result of these was the so-called Nicene Creed, which is said at Masses on Sundays and major feasts.
The purpose of a Council is not to define completely the truth about Christ (or any other aspect of religion). That simply isn't possible, because of the limitations of human language and understanding. The purpose is to determine the broad boundaries of Christian doctrine: to decide whether or not a particular way of talking about Jesus fits in with the Church's tradition. For example, it eventually became clear that if we are to do justice to the reality of Christ, we have to admit that he is both God and man. To rule out either one or the other would leave us with a distorted and inadequate picture of him -- even though we can never understand how the same person could be both human and divine.
Because of this emphasis on what we believe, it is often said that Christians (and Catholics in particular) are told what they have to think. This is understandable up to a point -- but it isn't quite as simple as that. If we believe in Christ, we have to accept what he taught -- and if we believe in the Church, we have to accept that it has the authority to interpret Christ's teaching, to decide what its implications are. There are varying degrees of importance in the doctrines taught by the Church. For example, the teaching on birth control isn't as fundamental as the doctrine of Christ's divinity. But if there is some fundamental point of the Church's teaching that we genuinely believe is wrong, then we have to follow our conscience rather than the Church. At the same time, though, we have to accept that we can no longer belong to the Church, because we are outside the range of beliefs that it upholds.
Although this is an emotive issue, it is logically no different to a vegetarian society excluding any meat-eaters from its membership; with the best will in the world, there is clearly no way that a meat-eater can be a vegetarian. The two things are completely incompatible. Similarly, a Christian is generally defined as someone who believes in the basic Christian doctrines, and a Catholic is further defined as one who accepts the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. No one is forced to accept this authority, but if he doesn't he can't call himself a Catholic.
At various stages in the history of the Church, there were groups which did not accept the decisions of the bishops on a major point of doctrine, such as the divinity of Christ. As a result, they broke away from the main body of the Church and went their own way. At the time, some of these groups were quite large, though most of them gradually diminished over the centuries after they broke away. In many cases, this was because they happened to be located in areas which were eventually taken over by Islam. Some of them still exist in isolated pockets in the Middle East.
More serious was the gradual drifting apart of East and West over a period of several centuries, which took place in various stages leading up to about the end of the first millennium. On the doctrinal level, the Eastern Churches objected to the Western Church's addition of the phrase and the Son to the Creed's description of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father. This was not so much because they disagreed with the doctrine, as that they disputed the right of the Western Church to alter the Creed without calling a full Ecumenical Council. On the political level, relations were certainly not helped by the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade! Despite these divisions, which still exist today, the differences in doctrine between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are very small indeed, and each fully recognizes the other's priesthood, sacraments and so on.
The differences in doctrine which arose during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation were much more fundamental, and are complicated by the fact that further divisions between the Protestant Churches appeared during the following century. This process continued to accelerate towards the first half of the twentieth century, since when there have been moves to reverse the trend (such as the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches combining to form the United Reformed Church). The Anglican Communion is rather a special case, as it combines features of Catholic and Protestant belief and practice. The Reformation was obviously a complex historical phenomenon, but I would summarize it very roughly as a reaction against abuses existing within the Catholic Church. (These, by the way, were also recognized and addressed by movements for reform with the Catholic Church itself, including the Council of Trent -- which was much more than just a reaction against the Protestant Reformation.) The Protestant view w as that the Catholic Church was corrupt beyond the possibility of reform, so that it was necessary to make a new beginning and to go back to the purity of the early centuries of the Church.
The Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the characteristic beliefs of Protestantism as 'justification by grace through faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the authority of the Holy Scriptures'. Very roughly, this means:
1. Salvation is a free gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to deserve it.
2. Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and through him we all have access to God.
3. The Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals.
In fact, these are beliefs that have been common to all Christians throughout history. In the early years of the Reformation, the differences were in the interpretation and emphasis which were given to these doctrines. Later on, as a result of the increasingly bitter controversies, each side tended to misrepresent the beliefs of the other, and to adopt more extreme positions in opposition to it. Over the past fifty years or so there has been an increasing understanding between Protestant and Catholic theologians, so that although there are still significant differences, each is in a much better position to understand and appreciate the alternative point of view.
My impression, for what it's worth, is that the main difference between Catholics and (at least some) Protestants is in their understanding of the concept of a Sacrament -- but that topic needs a new section to itself...
What is the Mass?
In celebrating the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and in the custom of sacrificing all first-born animals and redeeming all first-born sons, the Jews reminded themselves of the great events that took place when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. 'When your son asks you in days to come, "What does this mean?" you will tell him, "By his mighty power the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery"' (Exodus 13:14, and similarly 12:26-27; 13:8). The Passover celebration, to this day, contains a similar question-and-answer ritual.
This is more than just remembering the past, however important. What happened in the escape from Egypt is fundamental to the identity of the Jewish people, not just in the past, but also here and now. In celebrating the Passover, the people confirm and renew the relationship with God which was established when those events first took place. In a sense, the past is brought into the present, and becomes effective here and now.
Christians see Christ as the climax or turning-point of the whole of human history, and particularly of the history of God's relationship with the human race as recorded in the Old Testament. For example, the institution of the monarchy, even under David, the greatest of the kings, was limited and imperfect. The promises that God made in relation to the office of king are only completely fulfilled in the person of Christ, the Messiah, Son of David. Similarly, the Passover says something very profound about the relationship between God and his people -- but it is only a hint or a clue to what was going to happen in the death and resurrection of Christ. The Passover is part of a pattern whose significance only becomes clear when we see the key to that pattern in the events of the first Easter.
From the earliest days of Christianity, the disciples gathered for the 'breaking of bread', commemorating what Jesus did at the Last Supper and remembering how he died and rose again. The celebration developed with time, into what we now call the Mass. It became more fixed in its general format and the prayers became rather more formal and less spontaneous -- but it remained the same in its essence. As the Passover is in some ways the center of the Jewish identity, so the Mass has a similar place in the life of the Church. Like the Passover, it is more than just a celebration. Unlike the Passover, it doesn't only bring the past into the present in a certain sense, but in reality. Just as the Jews recalled in words and actions the events of the first Passover, so we do the same with the events of the first Easter -- and as we do so, we are drawn into the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, so that it becomes a power to renew and reform our own lives, and Christ comes among us in the forms of bread and wine.
For this is what I received from the Lord, and in turn pass on to you: that on the same night that he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said
'This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.'
In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said,
'This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.'
Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death, and so anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone is to recollect himself before eating this bread and drinking this cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognizing the Body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. (1 Cor 11:23-29 -- the earliest account of the Last Supper).
The central prayers of every Mass contain, in one form or another, the following elements:
1. A prayer asking the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gifts of bread and wine,
so that they may become the body and blood of Christ.
2. A brief account of Christ's words at the Last Supper, along the lines of the
section in bold italics in the above passage.
3. A prayer which calls to mind the fact that Christ died for our sake, rose from the
dead, and one day will come again in glory.
4. A prayer for the Holy Spirit to come upon those who are gathered in this
celebration, so that the events we recall may be effective in their lives.
There was some controversy, during the period of the Reformation, over the idea that the Mass is supposed to repeat the events it describes. This was probably due to the Catholic habit of speaking of the Mass as a sacrifice, and was quickly corrected by official Catholic teaching. Christ's death and resurrection were once-and-for-all, never to be repeated. The Mass does not repeat them, it re-presents them -- it makes them present and effective here and now amongst us. The Mass is a sacrifice insofar as it unites us with the one and only sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and in the sense that -- in a manner of speaking -- we offer to the Father all that Christ did on our behalf.
What is the Rosary?