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History of Religious Life
Christian Perfection in the First Two Centuries after Christ - Part 1

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you the second in a series of lectures given by Father John A. Hardon, S. J. on the theme: History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a Professor of Theology at St. Johns University in New York. He is a well-known lecturer and consultant to various national religious and educational enterprises and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is the author of many articles and books including Holiness in the Church and The Catholic Catechism which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother Church. In the following lecture Fr. Hardon speaks on the subject: Christian Perfection in the First Two Centuries after Christ. Father Hardon.

We now begin to reflect and I would hope to finish this matter before our finish of this class today. We’re on the Christian community in the early post-Apostolic age. My reason for doing this is to give some historical context for seeing what happened immediately after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven and, indeed, after the apostles had gone to their reward and the Church began, as it were, on Her own. We first note that from the very beginning that early Church which, for our purpose, would extend from Pentecost up to, say, the end of the third century. So it’s about the two hundred fifty years after Pentecost by which time, as we shall see, we have the first beginnings of organized religious life much more as we know it now.

We, first of all, find that Christian life structured, it was not just as though anybody who is a Christian, well, call him or herself a believer and there was no distinction though there were differences, major differences in the type of people that belonged to the Church. First, the one largest difference: the hierarchy and the laity. We find already after the coming of the Holy Spirit- that means in the first century already the hierarchy composed of bishops, presbyters, and deacons and the laity who formed the majority, as would be obvious, of the faithful. Among the laity we further distinguish, I will first give you the structure and then talk about each classification with emphasis, of course, on what we’re most interested in – the beginnings of religious life as we now know it.

First of all among the laity, the vast majority had no special vocation of which there is record. They were simply called, the faithful, in Latin fideles. The faithful, that is the majority, could be either fully incorporated into the Church once they had been baptized and normally they would be confirmed also at the time of baptism; that was the custom, pretty much, in the early Church and as we also know many adults were baptized especially in the earlier years. Those who were faithful indeed but were said to be to use our language only partially or not completely the faithful were the catechumens preparing for baptism and the so-called penitents, penitentes, they were the sinners who were labeled and identified as sinners, a classification that, happily, we don’t have now.

Now those with special vocations; notice what we’re saying though. We are saying that already before the end of the first century there was already this stratification. We can distinguish two classes of those with special vocation and the special names they are

found in the literature of those early years. The two virtues that distinguished those with special vocations were chastity and faith. With those, distinguished on the basis of chastity we have further classes of people. There were virgins, widows, ascetics but also the married and the married were expected to practice not indeed because were they called to virginal chastity but chastity was strongly stressed in the early Church for everyone for the Church had stressed now too, but I wanted to point out that chastity was the first distinguishing feature while having a special vocation; marriage was a special vocation. In any case, the first distinguishing virtue was chastity. The second was faith and here there were three types of persons whose names occurred in the literature of the first three hundred years. There were the faithful in general who professed the faith, who lived it but who had not been tried for their faith. There were, secondly, the confessors who had been tried for their faith by paying fine but especially by imprisonment but were often alive and that were still on earth and third, the martyrs. The Church, then, distinguished three types of people in terms of their generosity in practicing the faith: the faithful in general, the confessors who had somehow suffered for the Faith known by the scars, the marks for example of scourging, or the loss of a limb, or the gouging out of their eyes; all kinds of torments to which they may have been subject but somehow survived. And then of course the martyrs who paid the highest price and then died.

Consequently as we look at the early Church the first thing to be noticed is that in Apostolic times and through the third century, the Christian community was both original; very different from those who lived around them, their contemporaries. They lived different lives; they were distinguished. And that life was many sided according to grade, the highest being the bishops, deacons and the laity; and among the laity were classifications. There is one book that I thought I would ask you to read a book It’s a little, it’s about the same size as the life of St. Antony. It’s called The Shepherd. The author is Hermas, H e r m a s; date is about 150A.D. It’s good to know we’ve got a writing from the second century which is very detailed about the life of the Church in those days which is what I’m drawing on.

Let me read just a few lines from this rather poetic kind of work to see how the author expressed himself. There is a so-called vision of the tower Hermas, that is the person who wrote this goes to a field where where an elderly woman, who represents the Church, has told him to come at the fifth hour. He sees an ivory bench on which the woman is seated with six young men. She sends them away and makes Hermas sit on her left. Then she says to him, “you see something great?” “ Lady,” Hermas replies, “I see nothing.” “Come now, look carefully. Don’t you see in front of you a great tower being built in the water with splendid huge stones?” And went on to explain the vision: “the tower is the Church, the water is Baptism and the six young people who built the tower are the angels and the stones of different shapes correspond to the different categories in the Church.” See what we’re saying? Then by the year 150, the Church understood Herself as having different categories. We need to hear this in our preoccupation with democratic egalitarianism. The first stones - I won’t read all of it, just to give you a taste of the literature- “the first stones squared in white are the apostles, bishops, doctors and deacons. The stones drawn from the bottom of the water to become part of the building are those whom have suffered for the Name of the Lord-they are the martyrs. Then come the men who God has tested for their faithfulness in walking on a straight path, the faithful Christians. The new stones that are brought represent those new in the Faith-the Neophytes. The stones thrown aside are those who have sinned. If they repent, they can

be used for the building- these are the penitents. Besides these stones, which serve for the building, there are the rejected stones, some which are broken. They are the hypocrites who under the appearance of Faith have not given up their evil ways. Other stones crumble; they are those who have not persevered. The cracked stones are those who cling to malice in the bottom of their hearts. The white, round stones, which cannot be used for building, are those that have not renounced their will. The stones thrown around about in unaccessible places are those who have given up the way of truth. Stones found in the fire are those who have totally abandoned the living God. Only those who approach the water without reaching it are the souls who do not have the courage to become Christians.” Goes on and on and on, all with similitude. In any case, with that as something of a background, let’s go on.

Ubi Episcopus ibi Ecclesia

The one class of persons in the early Church which the earliest writing is beginning with St. Ignatius of Antioch. Oh you read? Correct. Isn’t he great? He’s the first one who makes it very clear ubi episcopus ibi ecclesia which being translated means, “where there is the bishop, there is the Church.” In other words, the first category, without which you don’t have the Church, is the Bishops beginning of course with the Bishop of Rome. If anyone nowadays is uncomfortable with structure in religious life, that person is-the kindest statement I can make is- is ignorant of the Church from Her first beginnings. All right? For example, St, Ignatius says that without the Bishop you cannot have the Eucharist, remember? Even marriage - it is fitting, says Ignatius, for men and women who wed to contract their marriage before the Bishop. On the bishop’s side, he must show charity toward the people. Ignatius, remember, writing to Polycarp said, Justify your Episcopal dignity by complete solicitude for the body and soul of your flock. Bear patiently with all the brethren as Christ bears with you. So much for the Bishops.

Sister, question? Are the bishops the same as presbyters or priests?

In Ignatius it covers both; it covers both. There are passages in Ignatius where it’s clear- it’s just the Bishop proper. I would say, however, the passages that I’ve quoted refer to the Bishop, as such, not just the priests. And because Ignatius distinguishes between the Episcopas and the Presbyteras, I would say as a general statement Ignatius wherever he speaks of this being necessary, he’s referring to the episcopas not merely the presbyteras

Widows a separate, celibate group

Now on the level of chastity: This will not follow any special logic except the chronologic of time. The widows in the early Church very early formed a separate order, thus already St. Paul in his letter to Timothy mentions their existence: “Give widows their due,” then he adds,” if that name really belongs to them. The woman who is, indeed, a widow bereft of all help to put her trust in God and spend her time night and day upon the prayers and petitions that belong to her state. If a woman is to be put on the list of widows, this is already St. Paul; they organized widows into a separate, celibate group. She must have reached at least the age of sixty, have been faithful to one husband, have been hospitable, washed the feet of the saints and attached herself to every charitable cause. You’ll notice with the widows the stress is more on the practice of prayer and asceticism and, of course, charity rather than living in a community. And no doubt they might have had responsibilities for own families, which would have made community life, if not impossible at least, not very practical. The interesting point is that they are listed in a register with the conditions that this implies. In other words, they were not just widowed in general that Paul was talking about; already in the first century the Church had formed groups of widows. The existence of this order of widows is further confirmed by other ecclesiastical literature. St. Ignatius who you read has a strange expression the virgins called widows is not sure what he meant by that but, most likely, it was widows who then practiced the life of celibacy and therefore practiced consecrated chastity after having been married. So much for the group of women, which goes into the early Church beginning already in Apostolic times.

Charismata possessed by the early Christians

Second, and this will be a large classification of people in the early Church that gives us the first beginnings of organized religious life; the so-called charismatics. They were those who had genuine charisma, that’s the singular-the plural is charismata. Now charisma in the language the scriptures is not an ordinary grace. An ordinary grace is charis. Notice the difference- that’s an ordinary grace or grace in general in St. Paul. But charisma, they are special gifts that are somehow intended not just for the individual but for others. People who are specially gifted which one might call apostolic graces. Before I leave this I have some material in front of me that I refresh my memory while I’m lecturing. I forgot to mention that among the functions, charitable functions of the widows already in the first century belonging to the order or community of widows was to teach other women. We know, from first century letters of St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, that the charismata were possessed by the early Christians. Clearly, those who received charismata, well you might say received vocation that everybody could recognize because they got those special gifts so that those in the early Church that had a vocation, to use our language and transpose it back to the first century, would often receive special graces that others could recognize called charismata. These were received by men but also by women.

Two elements to these Charismata

They were gifts, for example, of healing, the gift of teaching, the gift of prophesying, special gifts of prayer; you would call them mystical graces. But notice always there are two elements to these charismata: first is their supernatural character- no one ever can educate themselves or be trained in the charismata; you either get them or don’t have them. And secondly, their purpose is not just for the person, him or herself but for the benefit of others. You notice what we’re driving at- that the Holy Spirit no less than Christ was selective. Some people received the gifts, some didn’t. And those who didn’t couldn’t complain or if they got one kind of gift, why didn’t I get the other which has a lot to do with the concept of vocation. Among these charismata the most important both because of its service to the Church and the most spoken about is the gift of prophecy.

Here is a description of a prophet. Notice we’re using prophet in a very restricted sense: prophets in the sense which the Church understood prophets in the early Church, not in the sense of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah. Hurmas, as we quoted earlier, gives the following description of a prophet: “When the man who has in him the Spirit of God entered an assembly of just people inspired by faith by the divine Spirit and this assembly begins to pray to God, then the angel of the prophetic spirit who helps this man, takes possession of him and the man, thus filled with the Holy Spirit speaks to the people the words that God wishes,” unquote. Are we clear? It corresponds - but we don’t use the expression now- to being possessed by the good Spirit. And therefore being, you might say, being a supernatural leader of the people. Clearly an extraordinary gift but for that reason there arose with the true prophets whom God had actually thus inspired to lead the faithful especially in the liturgy, there were false prophets.

The true prophet distinguished only by his behavior

Already in the first century in the Didache, another document that I thought of giving you to read; you’ve got quite a few documents from the early Church that are not the Scriptures. There is this statement; “Every man who speaks possessed by a spirit is not necessarily a prophet but only if he sees things in the Lord’s way. So the true prophet can be distinguished from the false only by his behavior,” unquote. By the way, memorize that: the true prophet can be distinguished from the false one only by his behavior. Because both can be extraordinarly gifted people. Both may be talking about things spiritual or religious. The question is- what kind of spirit possesses each? Hermas again lays down the same rules though he says more. “Lord, I asked”- this is Hermas describing his own petition- “how can I tell the difference between the true prophet and the false one?” Then the Lord answers, “Listen to the rule that I’m going to give you for distinguishing the true from the false prophet. It is by his life that you will recognize the man who possesses the spirit of God. The false prophet, now listen, first, raises himself up. He wants to have the first place. He takes payment for his prophecies; without wages he does not prophesy. Can a spirit coming from God take payment for prophesying? If he enters an assembly of just men filled with the spirit of God, as soon as they begin to pray, he finds himself empty. The earthly spirit, overcome with terror flees far away and our man remain silent incapable of uttering a word,” unquote. Pretty good.

Hans Kung, I understand, will not speak for less than a thousand dollars per lecture.

Hans Kung, ever hear the name? Oh, Oh, how lucky you are! You have been untouched by the errors of this age. He is a German priest who has been teaching all kinds of heresy and is now in the United States to speak, by the way also, as I understand in Chicago. So much for the class of people called the charismatics.

Now the class of people called the virgins. As we know from Christ’s own life and preaching; chastity indeed virginity were held in high honor by the early Church. At the same time marriage, as we also know from the teachings of Christ, was not easy for Christ’s followers. They were forbidden relationship with anybody else except their own spouse, until death. Both were vocations. One result was that problems arose as to the relationship between virginity and marriage. Already in the time of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, he stated and since he taught this no one doubted that virginity is superior to marriage, that’s what Paul said remember? And he gave the reason mainly because the virgin, as he said, can more totally give him or herself to Christ. But in the later generations after Paul, certain people arose who went further. They began to teach that being a Christian seemed almost to imply virginity. Married person, so some of these as they became heretics, taught: Unless married people separated from their spouses, they were considered only imperfect members of the Church. It is well to know this because today’s feast is the perfect symbol of what this is all about because behind this idea of marriage being displeasing to God and that Christians were those only capable of living without sexual intercourse whether they had never married; or if they had married, by sacrificing marital intercourse that Christianity among these heretics was conceived as an relatively small coterie of persons, well, who were capable of living up to these high demands and no one else then could really qualify as a Christian.

It would seem strange to us, remember though, we’re talking about the early generations in the Church where because of the high demands that Christ made on his followers. There were some who taught because they thought that the followers of Christ are only those who were capable of these high demands.

The first heresies, and I’ll give you the names as we go along because they’re part of the history of virginity in the Church. The inquitists, the enquitists- this movement was especially evident among the converts from Judaism. They wrote several apocryphal gospels in which this one is both taught and propagated: the gospel of the Hebrews, the gospel of the Egyptians, the gospel of James, the gospel of Thomas. So these four gospels which taught this doctrine which, by the way, brings out the importance of the Church’s authority from the very beginning to distinguish the spurious from the true Gospels. In other words, according to the enquitists, married people who did not separate from their spouses could only be imperfect members of the Church.

The perfect members of the Church were those either who never married or if they did abstained from sexual intercourse. In time other groups joined, the Montanists. One of their greatest leaders was Tertullian. The Martianites-in time not a few groups of virgins or ascetics were already formed communities in the Church were infected with this heresy. Am I Clear? Now this is one error that we who are vowed to celibacy have got to be constantly careful about. All right? That without going as far as some of these heretics went that we don’t, at least, employ if we don’t actually say that somehow those who are married are only imperfect members of the Church. Right? In other words, this subject of consecrated chastity is far more subtle. The married can be holy. And to say the least, can be good Catholics.

What it means, however and now we go beyond the heretics- what it means is that from the earliest times of the Church, virginity was hailed in highest respect. Thus, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul while, of course that, not saying that virginity is obligatory, remember his language? Yet he says for those who have the grace- it is the way he’d like to have everybody, but he didn’t say you must be, although speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the Act of the Apostles, we read of the four daughters of the deacon Philip who remained virgins. From the very beginning, therefore, the choice of virginity as a state of life was recognized as a revealed option even going to the extent of some saying that’s not only was an option but an obligation. But that’s the error. St. Ignatius of Antioch who, by the way, is going to be referred to many times- keep those pages, by the way, because the doctrine there is very precious for the Church’s

Tradition. He speaks of virgins called widows indicating, so it seems that by the end of the first century they had canonical status. They were not just people who happened to be virgins but had a special status in the Church because they were virgins.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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