After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the European continent suffered a period of utter chaos. Institutional government was replaced with anarchy, violent raids were commonplace, the educational system was in shambles and the Christian faith was suppressed. Western civilization needed nothing short of a miracle to recover from this tragedy. Thankfully, that miracle came in the most unlikely form…a young boy named Benedict. Born in 480 AD, he grew up amidst the shattered ruins of a once mighty empire. Benedict witnessed first-hand the devastation of the Barbarian invasions which had destroyed his people’s way of life. For years he and his family hoped someone would lead the Roman empire out of the ashes of destruction and rebuild their civilization; little did he know that it would be him. At the age of twenty, Benedict was sent to study in the city of Rome, but found the life there to be superficial and promiscuous. Even though he excelled in his studies, his heart found no satisfaction in the academic environment. Seeking some sort of purpose, Benedict fled to a cave in the Apennines mountains where he lived for the next three years in solitude. Little is known about this period in the saint’s life except that he underwent a major conversion of mind and soul. St. Gregory the Great in his renowned biography The Life of St. Benedict simply states, Benedict entered the cave a boy and left it a man. He re-enters society with a new way of life hitherto untried in world history and this way of life will re-civilize the Western Europe. Benedict asserts that the answer to reforming civilization is monasticism. The world had forgotten how to live, how to be human and most importantly, how to love God. The young hermit would re-teach the world these basic principles by forming localized communities of monks who would pray, work and study. In so doing, their monasteries would become hubs of culture where every man, woman and child could be introduced to the profundity of holiness. They would learn how to read and write, plant and harvest, build and paint. Above all, the monks would teach the people how to sing and pray, thus re-orienting their lives to God and providing a sure foundation upon which to rebuild their tattered cities. St. Benedict penned what proved to be one of the most important books of all time, The Rule of St. Benedict. The book is short and easy to read. Its purpose is simple, to give a standard of daily living by which to order one’s life. Although intended for monks, its principles of humility, obedience, work ethic and prayer can aid any Christian.
The Splendor of our Faith
There are few writers in history as inspiring and influential as St. Augustine. A prolific author, brilliant theologian and passionate preacher, his works number among the most significant in Western civilization. Although I strongly suggest every Christian to make all of St. Augustine’s writings a staple of their reading regiment, there is one that stands out above the others: The Confessions. It is no exaggeration to say that this book is vital to the existence of modern literature and theology. It is the first auto-biography ever written, detailing the innermost thoughts and actions of a person’s life. The sheer candidness and vulnerability of Augustine’s words are stunning. What is more, the African bishop’s language is nothing short of poetic, a flawless assortment of prose filled with rich imagery. The saint shares his most intimate struggles holding nothing back. From his childhood in the North African city of Thagaste to his party days as a teenager and young adult in the bars of Rome, St. Augustine conveys a story of trial, confusion, scandal and redemption. Perhaps what is most touching however, is the sheer humanity of Augustine’s words. St. Augustine’s Confessions capture the struggles of every human being. His personal tribulation is relatable to everyone who wonders why they exist, how they can satiate their heart’s desires and what is the meaning of life. Passion charges every word in the book. As St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Augustine is a man who dips the quill of his pen in the blood of his heart and thrust it upon the page.” Augustine is on a journey and he takes the reader with him. His is a “hungering heart” a soul tirelessly bound to the quest of contentment. As a child he tried disrespect and thievery. As a teenager and young adult he wallowed in debauchery and lust. As an adult, he sought fame and wealth. Yet, in the end, he realized that all of these pleasures pointed to one ultimate answer: God. Augustine says it most beautifully in his own words. “Late have I loved you [O Lord]. You were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made…[But] You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours…now I know O Lord…our hearts are restless till they rest in You!”
I am often asked, “What happened to the Apostles and other disciples after the New Testament?” Although many of us are familiar with the lives of Christians as recounted in the Bible (especially the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul) there are not many who know the rest of the story. Luckily, there was one man who decided to chronicle the lives of the Apostles and original disciples of Jesus. His name is St. Eusebius Pamphilus. Born in the year, 260 AD, he was one of the first historians of the Church. Thanks to him, we have accounts of the lives of the Apostles as well as many major events and persons who were vital for the formation of Catholicism. Eusebius’ book is entitled The Ecclesiastical History. It is nothing short of fascinating. The first thirteen chapters give a brief summary of Jesus Christ and His life. The second part of the book is where St. Eusebius details the actions of the Apostles after the Ascension of Jesus. He begins telling the story of St. James and his martyrdom. This is followed by a series of accounts about the Twelve Apostles, Pontius Pilate and several of the first bishops. Book II chapter one starts with an account of St. James martyrdom in the city of Jerusalem. This is followed by countless stories of heroism by the first Christians throughout the world from Syria to Gaul (modern-day France). We also hear about the exploits of the apostles in their mission of evangelization: miracles, preaching and teachings. Eusebius also tells us the popes who succeeded Peter. For example, in chapter two of Book III we read that “after the martyrdom of Paul and Peter, Linus was the first to receive the episcopate of Rome.” Another enlightening contribution of Eusebius history book is his portrayal of the many heresies that surrounded the early Church. We know that the men and women who practiced their Catholic faith in the early centuries were constantly being tempted by false teachings: Arianism, Apollinarianism, Manicheism, Sibelienism, ect. Eusebius masterfully describes these heresies and the thought of their founders. He also tells us about the bishops and priests who combatted them, the most famous of whom was St. Irenaeus of Lyons. The Ecclesiastical History ends with the Emperor Constantine and his legalization of the Christian religion around 324 AD.
Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” This assertion is very much validated by the next group of authors we will be discussing: the Church Fathers. The first several centuries of Church history is divided into two parts, the “Apostolic Age” and the “Patristic Age”. The Apostolic Age consists of New Testament history ranging from 30-100AD. This time in Church history details the lives of the Apostles and their immediate successors. The Patristic Age ranges from 100-700AD. This period in the Church is defined by the writings of the first Christians especially bishops. Several of these bishops are direct successors of one of the Apostles. For example, St. Polycarp of Smyrna (65-155AD) personally knew and followed St. John the Apostle. Others preserved and promoted essential teachings in Catholic theology most importantly the Incarnation and the Motherhood of Mary as the theotokos or “God-bearer”, both of which are absolutely crucial for the preservation of the Christian Gospel. All of the teachings and writings of this era are known as “Patristics”. Needless to say, it is vital for every Christian to read Patristic literature. As a matter of fact, much of the debate nowadays revolving around the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary and other such Catholic dogmas would become non-issues if more people read the works of the Church Fathers. Not only do they defend the sacraments and theology of the Catholic Church, but they also understand them as non-negotiables in Christian discipleship. If you were to tell St. Basil the Great or St. Augustine that going to Mass is not necessary to be a Christian, they would be both infuriated and scandalized. The same can be said of today’s author. St. Ignatius of Antioch was one of the first bishops of the Church. Born in 50AD in Modern-day Syria. This dynamic preacher evangelized thousands in his lifetime. But, his most influential accomplishments are seven letters he wrote during his imprisonment before execution. Chained like a common criminal and dragged from Syria to Rome, Ignatius managed to pen a series of reflections on the Catholic faith which remain among the most ancient and inspiring texts in history. These seven letters discuss the indispensable aspects of the Christian religion: the Eucharist, Prayer, etc… Yet, what is most striking is the well-organized hierarchy described by Ignatius as well as his vivid elaboration on the Church as “Body of Christ”. He is writing these letters in 106-107AD and he is already referring to bishops, dioceses (which he calls churches) and the necessary obedience of the faithful to the Church! In the end, The Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch are a “must-read” for every Catholic.
Didache is the oldest known Christian text outside of the New Testament. Written around 90 AD, it the first in a series of works composed during the so-called “Apostolic Period”. Its English name, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is more indicative of the content. This book is a collection of commentaries on the Catholic faith handed down by the Twelve Apostles to their episcopal successors and disciples. It is the most ancient example of a Catechism we possess. The beginning chapters summarize the “two ways”: the way of death and the way of life. The way of death is sourced in sin leading to misery through selfishness and superficiality. The way of life comes from Christ and His merciful love which frees us to be filled with His joy and peace. These are the only two ways of living; there is no middle road. Each person, regardless of their personal opinion about religion, chooses one of these paths. After elaborating on these two ways of life in the first 6 chapters of the book, the Apostles begin explaining how to obtain the “way of life” in chapter seven starting with the sacrament of Baptism. A proper Christian baptism must be made with water which is poured “thrice upon the head in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” The Holy Eucharist is discussed in chapter 9. What is most astounding about this text is its familiarity even to the contemporary Catholic. Anyone who practices their faith will immediately recognize this description from the chapter on the Eucharist: “Now in regards to Eucharist: take the cup and say, ‘We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; Blessed be God forever’…then take the bread and say, ‘We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; Blessed be God forever’…” Here we see an exact representation of the Preparation of the Gifts. Even now, this same preparation is made every day during the celebration of Holy Mass. After elucidation on Baptism and the Eucharist, the Didache talks about the reception of new Christians (RCIA) as well as the hierarchical structure of the Church. It ends with a chapter on “watchfulness” exhorting every Christian to be pious, prayerful and devotional as we await the Second Coming of Christ. There is sometimes a debate about the origins of Catholic dogma. Some Protestants claim that many of the Church’s beliefs are “invented” and “not founded on the Bible”. But, in this ancient book we find the Twelve Apostles themselves celebrating Holy Mass recognizing a Church hierarchy and defending other Catholic teachings. I think we can trust they would not teach anything against Jesus Christ and the Sacred Scriptures.