Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Early Church I-4: The origins of the Pope in Rome

 Wait! Have you read sections 1 - 3? If not you may read them here! Please feel free to comment.

Section 1: Prologue and History
Section 2: Organization of the Early Church 
Section 3: Why are we called "Catholic"?

(Part II is now out! Since this is part I, I'll just link to II-1. If you're interested and enjoy this series, please see the next parts.)

I-4: The rise of Rome

If Peter, the Apostles, and Paul met in Jerusalem when and why did Rome come into the picture? As is the case with the Apostles in general, they went out and preached to a number of towns and cities. Just as Christ gathered a community around him—the Apostles and disciples—the Apostles likewise gathered many to themselves. Communities were founded where the Apostles labored. When the Apostles felt that it was time to move on and that the situation in this or that place was stable they appointed a man to take charge of the community there.

While their labors were important there was something that further solidified their authority in the minds of people. This was martyrdom. The word “martyr” literally means witness, that is a “witness to the faith.” Tradition holds that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. We have already seen the influence Peter and Paul had while they lived. We have numerous written accounts of authors in the early Church who attest to Peter and Paul's labors in Rome and that they ultimately gave their lives.
The throne of the Cross, placed in Rome where Peter sits on His right, Paul His left.

Why should their death in Rome, however, be any source or reason for authority to be placed there? We have seen, first of all, that the Apostles appointed men to be their successors and co-workers within their specific ministry. While the Apostles had a specific mission to all the faithful, the Apostles among themselves also had specific missions. Peter was given the keys, called to strengthen his brothers, and commanded to feed Christ's sheep (Jn 21:15-17). Paul, likewise, was the apostle to the Gentiles (Rm 11:13). This charge was not given to the other Apostles. The early Church believed that God's providence was not coincidental, but very intentional. Christ died in Jerusalem because it was necessary that the perfect sacrifice would be made in the only place sacrifices could be made. Where the Apostles died, for them at least, was not coincidence but deigned by His will.

Secondly, we find in Scripture that the blood of the just and holy turn the Lord's ear most of all. From the very beginning the blood of Abel cried to God from the soil (Gen 4:10). Indeed, all sacrifices made by the Jews were meant to be clean and without blemish. Their blood was spilled on the altar to be symbolic, among many things, of the contrition of a people. Eventually this this blood offering was modified. Psalm 51 states “My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart … [and] then you will be pleased with proper sacrifice” (51:19, 20). Christ's blood was offered as sacrifice, first at the holy Eucharist he gave us and then on the Cross. Finally in heaven, those who stand before God's throne are the ones who “have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).

The blood of the martyrs became holy ground. Their intercession was sought and miracles were worked in Christ name through devotion to them.
(Perpetua and Felicity)

All this being said, the place where someone was martyred was considered holy ground. The place of Christ's crucifixion was a source of veneration and prayer. The same became true of the saints and martyrs. To this very day the places of their death have churches erected in their place. This practice is an ancient one, originating with the Apostles and early Christians who venerated the death of holy men and women who gave their lives for the faith. The blood that was shed because of Christ became holy ground. The bishops who were killed because they were leaders and followers of Christ became especially important. The blood of Peter and Paul carried great weight as a result.

But even if some aren't convinced of this argument, it only stands to look at how the early Church regarded the ministry of Peter and Paul, those Peter chose as his successor in Rome, and how Rome was regarded.

Tertullian, writing in Carthage at about 200 AD, said, “Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the Apostles are still preeminent in their places … since you [in Carthage] are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority of apostles themselves. How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood … against such a discipline thus maintained admits no gainsayer” (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, quoted from Sommer (We Look for a Kingdom) 186. Gainsayer means “one who opposes or contradicts.”)

Irenaeus of Lyons (in France), writing in the late 2nd century (about 175-180 AD), claims that one can dispel rumor and error “by indicating that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; … It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority" (Against Heresies, III.iii.2).

Irenaeus is also a great help to our understanding of those who succeeded Peter as successor in Rome. His influential work is one I will return to when I discuss Apostolic succession and his work stands as one of the most significant works in our entire history.

The bishops from among the churches across the Empire often sought each others advice. We saw already that Paul sought out Peter in Jerusalem (cf. Gal 1:18) and he again went to Jerusalem with others to decide on matters pertaining to the whole Church (cf. Acts 15). We have numerous letters of bishops consulting one another. Often times new communities and newly elected bishops would seek the advice of older bishops and older communities.

The most powerful example of this, and the only one I'll focus on (out of concern for length) is Clement's letter to the church in Corinth. This a benchmark letter, written around 96 AD, and one that was so revered by early Christians that many saints considered it to be Scripture. So powerful was its message that numerous churches throughout the Empire sought to make a copy for themselves.

A brief background to the situation in Corinth. There had been a sort of uprising in the church at Corinth where younger men from the presbytery and community deposed and turned against the bishop, older presbyterate, and the elders of Corinth. Those in Corinth could not resolve the issue internally and the scandal caused by the whole ordeal became a large concern to the surrounding communities. Many, including those in Corinth, contacted Rome to interfere and Clement and those on Rome did. This letter stands as proof of other Churches going to Rome, even after the death of the Apostles, to seek counsel and authoritative speech. Not much is known about this uprising, perhaps because of the successful resolution that Clement's letter had among them.

The letter opens up in a telling way. It is not a letter from one man to another, but rather from one Church to another. It says “The Church of God which resides as a stranger in Rome to the Church of God which is a stranger at Corinth.” This is important because it is not at the bequest of a man, but a letter that demands a response. He says “You, therefore, prime movers of the schism, submit to the presbyters, and bending the knees of your hearts, accept correction and change your minds" (1 Cor sec. 57). These words echo Peter who said “Likewise you younger members, be subject to the presbyters … the chosen one at Babylon [i.e., the Church in Rome] sends you greeting” (1 Pet 5:5, 13).

Clement further cements the sternness of his letter as well as his expectations for a speedy resolution. He writes, “But should any disobey what has been said by Him through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in transgression and no small danger" (1 Cor sec. 59).

Clement wrote this letter in order to reestablish peace among the Corinthians and secure order for all the faithful there. He sent an entourage of prominent men from (most likely) his presbyterate to them, men who were “worthy and prudent men, who have led blameless lives among us from youth to old age” and this was done “to make you feel that our whole care has been, and is, directed toward establishing speedy peace in your midst" (1 Cor sec. 63).

The letter produced its effect. The power of its reasoning, the influence of Rome, and the mixture of charity and discipline in its writing established in Rome what was expected of it—an authoritative voice, founded on the unique ministry of Peter, that helped to direct the many communities of Christianity when disagreement, error, or dissent arose.

As such, the notions put forth by some that the papacy was a medieval invention, the scheming of those who desired power, or that it is worthless was not the opinion of the early Church, nor should it be ours.

Epilogue: Lessons

What are some of the lessons we can learn from all of this? The early Church concerned itself with electing good and holy men to the presbyterate and the office of bishop. The bishops exemplified, more so than the presbyters, the succession of the Apostles and the highest authority on faith and morals in that local area. St. Ignatius of Antioch was going to his death and still he preached constantly of obedience to the bishop and harmony of life together.

The early Church understood, perhaps more than us, that disunity is one of the greatest evils for the faithful. Ignatius of Antioch says that one must “shun division as the beginning of evil" (Letter to the Smyrnians, sec. 7).

When a presbyter, Valens, caused some scandal involving money (little more is known), St. Polycarp (bishop and martyr, d. 155 AD) wrote that those from that community should “be considerate in this matter: do not treat such persons as enemies, but reclaim them as diseased and straying members, so that you may preserve the whole your community intact. In fact, by acting thus, you promote your personal spiritual growth" (Letter to the Phillipians, sec. 11).

Clement of Rome further states that “Love unites us with God; love covers a multitude of sins (cf. Prv 10:12, 1 Pet 4:8, James 5:20); … love creates no schism, love does not quarrel; love preserves perfect harmony" (1 Cor, sec. 49).

The Didache, written as early as 75 AD (in parts), states that “Day and night remember him who preaches God's word to you (cf. Heb 13:7) and honor him as the Lord, for where His lordship is spoken of, there is the Lord. … Do not start a schism, but pacify contending parties" (Didache, sec. 4:1, 3).

Finally, Ignatius writes to Polycarp as a fellow bishop and says “Do justice to your office with the utmost solicitude, both physical and spiritual. Be concerned about unity, the greatest blessing" (Letter to Polycarp, sec. 1:2).
Christ the King, who reigns forever and ever. Around him the holy Apostles who built His Church.

As such, unity was indeed a primary concern of the Church. If we, the Body of Christ were not united in thought, heart, and action we would be a Body that spoke with two or many voices. Music was a favorite example among many authors in the early Church and for good reason. We notice rather quickly when someone is off key—the voices of many are heard as contrasting and conflicting with one another. When many voices join together in harmony the one sound they produce is indistinguishable from the many. The harmony of the Church is her doctrine, her disciplines, her leaders, her members, and their concord with one another and with the blessed Trinity.

The music that the early Church sung was still a work in progress. The Church is human and divine, so while it has the benefit of divinity it also has the difficulties of being human. The Church is divine insofar as “Christ is ultimately always the one who calls people forth to ministry; [it is] human in that it is always human persons who are called, and human offices to which they are called" (Sommer, We Look for a Kingdom, 159). We should not fear this human aspect of our Church however, not should we be too strict with those who falter in morals or faith. It is that faltering humanity that Christ came to redeem. Likewise, it is that limited humanity that Christ assumed in the flesh. Finally, it is that humanity to whom He entrusted His mission, namely the salvation of all in His name. I hope that this simple look at the faith of our ancestors inspires you to see how we and they are one in Christ and that we should strive see their urgings as applicable today as well. May we pray for unity and that each one submit him and herself to correction from each other and, as Paul says, from those “over us in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thes 5:12). May we all endure in our labors and rejoice in the harvest promised to us.


Next time, we will look at Apostolic succession and how the early saints and martyrs affected the structure and look of the Church. Where the martyrs were powerful witnesses to the faith they also posed problems for bishops at times. I will endeavor to explore the facets, how both bishop and witness shaped the Church for the better but how challenges arose as a result.