I often find myself wishing I were back in the time of the early Church. Imminent martyrdom aside, how wonderful it would have been to live among such a fervent and orthodox community! [wink wink]
Truth is, the early Church was hardly a fervent community to live in and much less an orthodox one. Simply read St. Paul’s letters to get a glimpse into early Christian drama. Face it, parish life is nothing compared to what the Apostles dealt with. This is an important acknowledgement to make, for if we are constantly comparing the state of the Church today with some idealized notion of the Church of the past, disillusion and bitterness will quickly overtake us.
A robust knowledge of Church history inevitably leads to an awareness that the Church today is very much stable and holy. Case in point: we easily take for granted the personal piety that has marked the last century of Popes. Saintliness among the episcopate was not always the norm, unfortunately, and neither was orthodoxy. In fact, the early Church was riddled with heresies so great and numerous that some may have wondered at times if she’d be strong enough to stave them off.
Arianism (the heresy that Christ was not God at all but the highest spiritual creature), for example, led to an eruption of violence among Christians themselves. It is said that Saint Nicholas became so enraged with Arianism’s founder that during a session of the Council of Nicaea (called to investigate the heresy), the man known today as jolly Saint Nick slapped Arian across the face. Revealing even more poignantly the precarious state of Christianity at that time, St. Jerome made the sober declaration that one day, “the whole world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian.” There was even a period of nearly one hundred years when almost every single bishop in the east promulgated the Arian heresy from the pulpit. And yet, I have the gall to complain that such-and-such a bishop needs to get reign of his priests. Shame on me.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Church needs to be fought for valiantly and her goodness needs to be protected, even unto death. But I think that’s my point. Not only did the first few centuries of Catholicism produce some of the greatest heretics, they also produced some of the greatest martyrs, in fact, most of the greatest martyrs. Far from the early Christians becoming disillusioned by rogue bishops and heretical homilies, their hearts were set aflame with a love so great that they chose death over defection. May I have the courage to spiritually die to myself when the temptation to slander the Church through gossip arises, even when it is veiled under a so-called love for her goodness. May I die to myself just as the early martyrs so willingly did.