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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 Christ’s 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 Christ’s 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 Christ’s 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.

America 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 as evangelization.

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:


    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.


    • 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:

      • Selfishness

      • And lust?

    • 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.


    • 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:

      1. Praying for the re-conversion of a particular person

      2. Praying for the re-conversion of our country

      3. 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, we pray!


    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.

Closing Prayer

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

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