What We Can Learn from the Early Church Fathers:
Re-Christianization of America
by Father John Hardon, S.J.
There is one thing that we Catholics today need to learn from the faithful Catholics
in the early Church. We speak of the Church in the early centuries as the
Church of Martyrs. However, the early Church was also the Church of defenders
of the faith.
Already during Christs public ministry, many
of His disciples left Him because they would not accept His teaching. Remember
what St. John described in the sixth chapter of his Gospel? Jesus had just
told the people that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Otherwise
they would not preserve the life of the soul without which no one can enter
heaven. Many of His closest followers said to themselves, This is impossible
language. Who can believe it?
One reason why the apostle John was spared
until the end of the first century was that he might defend Christs teaching
which already then was being questioned and denied by those who called themselves
Christians. With the close of the apostolic age, errors among professed Christians
multiplied and heretical ideas began to penetrate the Church founded by Christ.
All this is an introduction to what I wish
to share with you. My plan is to briefly identify some of these heresies which
the early Fathers of the Church had to refute in order to preserve the true
faith. Then I would like to tell you something about how our own responsibility
to re-christianize our own beloved country.
Heresies in the Early Church
We might begin by briefly defining what a
heretic is. In the strict sense, a heretic is a baptized person who denies
or doubts one or more revealed truths of Christianity.
Immediately we must distinguish the heresies
which arose in the Church before the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), and those
after Nicea. Before the Council of Nicea, the two most serious heresies were
Gnosticism and Montanism. Each of these was the seed bed of all major heresies
that have plagued Christianity over the centuries.
The Gnostics were Gentiles who called themselves
Christians. They claimed a kind of secret superior wisdom regarding the truths
of philosophy and religion, and they handed on this alleged wisdom to those
privileged to gain admittance to their ranks. Gnosticism was a patch-work
of all the errors of its time. In general, Gnostics held that there were two
supreme principles or gods; a god of Spirit, Light and Good, and a god of
Matter, or Darkness, and Evil. They either denied or corrupted the Catholic
doctrine of the Incarnation and consequently most of the teaching of the Church.
Although they condemned bodily pleasure as evil in itself, they went to extremes
of immorality as well as extremes of mortification.
Very similar to Gnosticism was the heresy
of Montanism. Its founder was Montanus, a native of Phrygia. The fundamental
error of Montanism lay in substituting private illumination for the official
teaching of the Church. With the aid of two women associates, Montanus announced
the approaching end of the world. Preparation for the final judgment was to
be made by a rigorous asceticism and a severe morality that allowed no pardon
for mortal sins. Marriage was discouraged and everything was to be held in
common. As a preparation for the end of the world, the Holy Spirit was said
to have become incarnate in Montanus. The prophecies of Montanus were uttered
as part of the spectacular ecstasies.
The first Council of Nicea was also the first
general council of the Catholic Church. It condemned the heresy of Arius.
He was a priest of Alexandria. He preached that Jesus Christ was not incarnate
God. He was supported by Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, and gained thousands
of followers by putting his teaching in popular songs.
The heresy of Arius was solemnly condemned
and the true teaching about Christs divinity was formulated in the Nicene
Creed which still forms part of every Sunday Mass.
How We are to Defend the Catholic Faith in Our Day
We call the early defenders of the true faith
Fathers of the Church. This is not surprising since they were the ones who
preserved the Church from the devastating errors that plagued Christianity
from apostolic times. There are over one hundred Fathers of the Church, whose
principal qualities were orthodoxy, sanctity, and approval by the Church.
These three qualities are the formula for
our own times. But there is one major difference between the conditions in
the early Church and the situation in our day. No doubt there were heresies
since the dawn of Christianity. But there was nothing of what we are now experiencing
in countries like the United States.
has to be re-evangelized because it has become de-Christianized. This is not
my opinion. It is not even an opinion. It is a provable fact.
There are certain basic premises of Christianity
which are easily identified. Even where a person is not professedly Catholic,
there are principles of faith and norms of morality that those who profess
to be Christians should believe and put into practice.
A Christian believes in the existence of a
personal God who is the Creator of the human race. A Christian believes that
God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus Christmas Day is the birthday
of Christ, the Son of the Virgin Mary; and Good Friday is the commemoration
of His death by crucifixion on Calvary. Easter Sunday is the feast of Christ's
resurrection from the dead.
A Christian believes there are certain moral
laws that are divinely binding on all human beings; that pre-marital relations
are fornication, and extra marital sex activity is adultery. A Christian believes
that marital relations between husband and wife are sacred and that artificial
birth control is a sin. A Christian believes that sex activity between two
men or two women is sodomy and a crime that characterized the pagan nations
of antiquity and destroyed their civilizations. A Christian believes that
the willful destruction of unborn human life is murder and abominable in the
eyes of God.
A Christian believes that marriage is a lifetime
commitment and that divorce with remarriage is forbidden by Jesus Christ even
among Christians who are not Catholic. Marital instability was frowned upon
and an embarrassment to Protestants. For Catholics there was never any question
of a "temporary" marriage or of a "part time" commitment
to one's marriage vows.
A Christian welcomed children and Christian
families were sizable and the population growing and our schools flourishing.
Something drastic happened. Every one of the features identified as typical
of a Christian civilization is, to say the least, under trial.
Our Holy Father in speaking to the bishops
from Western countries is telling them in the plainest possible words that
their people need to be re-evangelized. And I believe I know the Pope's mind
well enough to say that he also believes the United States needs to be re-Christianized.
What Does Re-Evangelization Mean?
Our next question is, what does re-evangelization
mean? It means re-conversion. It means bringing people whose ancestry was
Christian; who may even have been baptized; who may even have been professed
Catholics but who no longer believe in the basic truths revealed by Christ
and taught by the Church for 1900 years.
Re-evangelization means more than converting
people from a life of sin. It means converting people's minds to accept on
divine authority what God has revealed. It means bringing unbelievers, who
had abandoned their Christian faith, to become believers.
The very term, "re-evangelization,"
is new to our vocabulary. And the reason is not hard to find. Our century
is witnessing the most widespread and devastating loss of faith among Christians
including Catholics in the history of Christianity. We must make sure
we know what we are saying. In the Western world, there has been a massive
abandonment of Christian belief, and a corresponding abandonment of Christian morality.
Recently I received a phone call from a priest
in California who asked whether Catholics in a given Western state could vote
"Yes" on a ballot which allowed direct abortion under certain circumstances.
The other choice was to vote unrestricted abortion. In other words, American
citizens are no longer being given the option to vote against all direct killing
of the unborn.
We return to our question; "What does
re-evangelization mean?" And we repeat: Re-evangelization means restoring
the Christian faith to millions in our country who no longer believe:
- That God became man in the person of Jesus Christ.
- That Christ died on the Cross for the redemption of the human race.
- That Christ rose from the dead.
- That Christ founded a Church, vested with divine authority to teach revealed truth and command
obedience in His name.
- That Christ instituted the sacraments which confer the grace they signify including the Eucharist
which is Jesus Christ really present in the Blessed Sacrament.
- That there is a heaven and a hell, and that there is, consequently, eternal life for the saved
and eternal death for the lost.
How is the Re-Evangelization of Our Country to be Done?
Our next logical question is: How is this
re-evangelization to be done? The answer is simple to put in words, but not
easy to put into practice. Re-evangelization is to be done in the same way
Of course, re-evangelization is more demanding.
It is always harder to reconvert a former believer than it is to convert a
non-Christian to Christianity; or a non-Catholic to the Catholic Church. Re-evangelization
is more difficult, may be less appealing, and is more costly in time, effort,
energy and human resources.
I would synthesize the answer to, "How
to re- evangelize" by saying, if we are to restore the Christian and
Catholic faith in our country we must:
- Know our Catholic faith
- Live our Catholic faith
- Pray our Catholic faith
- Share our Catholic faith
These are my four recommendations for re-evangelization.
They are also the directives of especially Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul
II. But before going into them, let me make it clear that what all the Popes
are saying, or I am saying, will fall on deaf ears unless we are first deeply
convinced that we are each personally obligated to labor for the
re-evangelization of America.
We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.
On the last day we shall be judged on how selfless we were in giving food
and drink and clothing to those in need. And the deepest need of our fellow
Americans is to recover their lost Christian faith.
I said there were four principal ways that
we are to re-evangelize. We are to:
- KNOW THE CATHOLIC FAITH
We are the most academically educated people
in human history. Yet most Catholics do not really understand their faith.
- What it means to believe. What it means to be baptized.
- What is the Real Presence.
- Why there must be a Catholic priesthood.
- Why a valid sacramental, consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human authority.
- Why all deliberate sexual pleasure outside of marriage is a grave sin.
- Why contraception is a mockery and a travesty of matrimony.
- Why there is a purgatory; and why hell is eternal.
- Why everything in this world is part of God's Providence.
- Why pain is such a blessing and patience makes us more like God, who became man that He might die on the Cross for our sins.
- LIVE OUR CATHOLIC FAITH
- If we are ever going to re-evangelize our country we must not only believe our faith and
know what we believe. We must put our faith into practice.
- I would choose
especially two virtues that we must all practice if we hope to reconvert our
country. They are chastity and charity. Over the years I have been teaching
everyone willing to listen that these two virtues were the ones practiced
by the Christians of the first centuries, which brought about the conversion
of the Roman Empire.
- I make bold to
say that it was the failure to practice these two virtues which has brought
about the widespread de-Christianization of countries like our own.
- Let's face it.
What are the two sins that are most common in the human race? Are they not:
- Re-conversion means just that: bringing people back to the God from whom they have strayed. But
how to do this? By the practice of chastity and charity among those whom
God wants to use as the channels of His grace of re-conversion.
- God uses chaste people to convert sinners to chastity.
- God uses loving,
self-sacrificing people to convert the self-centered and self-willed, and
self-conceited back to His grace and the practice of charity without which
no one will be saved.
- PRAY OUR CATHOLIC FAITH
- We have no choice. Either we become men and women of prayer or all this talk about re-evangelizing
America is so much pious rhetoric.
- The re-conversion of America depends on the grace of God.
- The grace of God depends on our prayers.
- This means many things:
- Praying for the re-conversion of a particular person
- Praying for the re-conversion of our country
- Praying for the re-conversion of those who have lost their faith, which they once possessed.
- Above all, this
means that we become, if we are not yet, men and women who pray: daily, privately,
with others, before the Blessed Sacrament, vocally, and mentally. In a word,
- SHARE OUR CATHOLIC FAITH
There is more to this injunction than meets
the eye. We must sincerely, seriously, strive to share with others what we
ourselves as Catholics believe. In practice this means that we live out the
warning of Christ. He tells us if you proclaim me to others, I will proclaim
you to my heavenly Father. In other words, we are to use every opportunity
to communicate to others what Christ has so generously given to us. Our conversations
should be Catholic. We should talk about what we believe. Our correspondence
should be Catholic, and, dare I say, consciously apostolic.
Above all, we must ask ourselves whether we
are using the media of communication in order to share the divine faith which
the Holy Spirit has given to us. It is now twenty years since I was told by
the Holy See to do everything in my power to alert Catholics in America that
they must use the media to preserve and promote the one true faith. Otherwise,
so Pope Paul VI told his emissary, the Catholic Church in the United States
is in great danger of being not only weakened, but in some parts of our country
even wiped out.
These media include print and radio, television,
and recording, the computer, and the whole science of electronics which the
enemies of Catholicism are exploiting to destroy what God became men to establish
by His death on the cross.
I would like to close with the prayer of St.
Francis Xavier. May I suggest that we offer this prayer together for all those
of our own country who have lost their Christian faith.
"O God, the everlasting Creator of all
things, remember that the souls of unbelievers have been created by you and
formed in your own image and likeness.
"Remember that your Son Jesus endured
a most painful death for their salvation. Permit not; I beseech you, Lord,
that your Son should any longer be despised by unbelievers. But He appeased
by the prayers of saintly men and of the Church, the spouse of your most holy
Son, and be mindful of your mercy.
"Forget their idolatry and unbelief and
bring it about that they, too, may some day acknowledge Him, whom you have
sent, Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who is our salvation, our life and
resurrection, by whom we have been saved and delivered, to whom be glory for
endless ages. Amen."
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica