Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 06 – Perpetuity of the Church

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsPerpetuity, or duration till the end of time, is one of the most striking marks of the Church. By perpetuity is not meant merely that Christianity in one form or another was always to exist, but that the Church was to remain forever in its integrity, clothed with all those attributes which God gave it in the beginning. For, if the Church lost any of her essential characteristics, such as her unity and sanctity, which our Lord imparted to her at the commencement of her existence, she could not be said to be perpetual because she would not be the same Institution.

The unceasing duration of the Church of Christ is frequently foretold in Sacred Scripture. The Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that Christ “shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Our Savior said to Peter: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Our blessed Lord clearly intimates here that the Church is destined to be assailed always, but to be overcome, never.

In the last words recorded of our Redeemer in the Gospel of Saint Matthew the same prediction is strongly repeated, and the reason of the Church’s indefectibility is fully expressed: “Go ye, teach all nations, … and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” This sentence contains three important declarations: First – The presence of Christ with His Church – “Behold, I am with you.” Second – His constant presence, without an interval of one day’s absence – “I am with you all days.” Third – His perpetual presence to the end of the world, and consequently the perpetual duration of the Church – “Even to the consummation of the world.”

Hence it follows that the true Church must have existed from the beginning; it must have had not one day’s interval of suspended animation, or separation from Christ, and must live to the end of time.

None of the Christian Communions outside the Catholic Church can have any reasonable claim to Perpetuity, since, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, they are all of recent origin.

The indestructibility of the Catholic Church is truly marvellous and well calculated to excite the admiration of every reflecting mind, when we consider the number and variety, and the formidable power of the enemies with whom she had to contend from her very birth to the present time; this fact alone stamps divinity on her brow.

The Church has been constantly engaged in a double warfare, one foreign, the other domestic – in foreign war against Paganism and infidelity; in civil strife against heresy and schism fomented by her own rebellious children.

From the day of Pentecost till the victory of Constantine the Great over Maxentius, embracing a period of about two hundred and eighty years, the Church underwent a series of ten persecutions unparalleled for atrocity in the annals of history. Every torture that malice could invent was resorted to, that every vestige of Christianity might be eradicated. “Christianos ad leones,” the Christians to the lions, was the popular war-cry.

They were clothed in the skins of wild beasts, and thus exposed to be devoured by dogs. They were covered with pitch and set on fire to serve as lamp-posts to the streets of Rome. To justify such atrocities, and to smother all sentiments of compassion, these persecutors accused their innocent victims of the most appalling crimes.

For three centuries the Christians were obliged to worship God in the secrecy of their chambers, or in the Roman catacombs, which are still preserved to attest the undying fortitude of the martyrs and the enormity of their sufferings.

And yet Pagan Rome, before whose standard the mightiest nations quailed, was unable to crush the infant Church or arrest her progress. In a short time we find this colossal Empire going to pieces, and the Head of the Catholic Church dispensing laws to Christendom in the very city from which the imperial Caesars had promulgated their edicts against Christianity!

During the fifth and sixth centuries the Goths and Vandals, the Huns, Visigoths, Lombards and other immense tribes of Barbarians came down like a torrent from the North, invading the fairest portions of Southern Europe. They dismembered the Roman Empire and swept away nearly every trace of the old Roman civilization. They plundered cities, leveled churches and left ruin and desolation after them. Yet, though conquering for awhile, they were conquered in turn by submitting to the sweet yoke of the Gospel. And thus, as even the infidel Gibbon observes, “The progress of Christianity has been marked by two glorious and decisive victories over the learned and luxurious citizens of the Roman Empire and over the warlike Barbarians of Scythia and Germany, who subverted the empire and embraced the religion of the Romans.”

Mohamedanism took its rise in the seventh century in Arabia, and made rapid conquests in Asia. In the fifteenth century Constantinople was captured by the followers of the false prophet, who even threatened to subject all Europe to their sway. For nine centuries Mohamedanism continued to be a standing menace to christendom, till the final issue came when it was to be decided once for all whether Christianity and civilization on the one hand, or Mohamedanism and infidelity on the other, should rule the destinies of Europe and the world.

At the earnest solicitation of the Pope, the kingdom of Spain and the republic of Venice formed an offensive league against the Turks, who were signally defeated in the battle of Lepanto, in 1571. And if the Cross, instead of the Crescent, surmounts the cities of Europe today, it is indebted for this priceless blessing to the vigilance of the Roman Pontiffs.

Another adversary more formidable and dangerous than those I have mentioned threatened the overthrow of the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries. I speak of the great heresy of Arius, which was followed by those of Nestorius and Eutyches.

The Arian schism, soon after its rise, spread rapidly through Europe, Northern Africa and portions of Asia. It received the support of immense multitudes, and flourished for awhile under the fostering care of several successive emperors. Catholic Bishops were banished from their sees, and their places were filled by Arian intruders. The Church which survived the sword of Paganism seemed for awhile to yield to the poison of Arianism. But after a short career of prosperity this gigantic sect became weakened by intestine divisions, and was finally swept away by other errors which came following in its footsteps.

You are already familiar with the great religious revolution of the sixteenth century, which spread like a tornado over Northern Europe and threatened, if that were possible, to engulf the bark of Peter. More than half of Germany followed the new Gospel of Martin Luther. Switzerland submitted to the doctrines of Zuinglius. The faith was lost in Sweden through the influence of its king, Gustavus Vasa. Denmark conformed to the new creed through the intrigues of King Christian II. Catholicity was also crushed out in Norway, England and Scotland. Calvinism in the sixteenth century and Voltaireism in the eighteenth had gained such a foothold in France that the faith of that glorious Catholic nation twice trembled in the balance. Ireland alone, of all the nations of Northern Europe, remained faithful to the ancient Church.

Let us now calmly survey the field after the din and smoke of battle have passed away. Let us examine the condition of the old Church after having passed through those deadly conflicts. We see her numerically stronger today than at any previous period of her history. The losses she sustained in the old world are more than compensated by her acquisitions in the new. She has already recovered a good portion of the ground wrested from her in the sixteenth century. She numbers now about three hundred million adherents. She exists today not an effete institution, but in all the integrity and fulness of life, with her organism unimpaired, more united, more compact and more vigorous than ever she was before.

The so-called Reformation of the sixteenth century bears many points of resemblance to the great Arian heresy. Both schisms originated with Priests impatient of the yoke of the Gospel, fond of novelty and ambitious for notoriety. Both were nursed and sustained by the reigning Powers, and were augmented by large accessions of proselytes. Both spread for awhile with the irresistible force of a violent hurricane, till its fury was spent. Both subsequently became subdivided into various bodies. The extinction of Protestantism would complete the parallel.

In this connection a remark of De Maistre is worth quoting: “If Protestantism bears always the same name, though its belief has been perpetually shifting, it is because its name is purely negative and means only the denial of Catholicity, so that the less it believes, and the more it protests, the more consistently Protestant it will be. Since, then, its name becomes continually truer, it must subsist until it perishes, just as an ulcer disappears with the last atom of the flesh which it has been eating away.”

But similar causes will produce similar results. As both revolutions were the offspring of rebellion; as both have been marked by the same vigorous youth, the same precocious manhood, the same premature decay and dismemberment of parts; so we are not rash in predicting that the dissolution which long since visited the former is destined, sooner or later, to overtake the latter. But the Catholic Church, because she is the work of God, is always “renewing her strength, like the eagle’s.” You ask for a miracle, as the Jews asked our Saviour for a sign. You ask the Church to prove her divine mission by a miraculous agency. Is not her very survival the greatest of prodigies? If you beheld some fair bride with all the weakness of humanity upon her, cast into a prison and starved and trampled upon, hacked and tortured, her blood sprinkled upon her dungeon walls, and if you saw her again emerging from her prison, in all the bloom and freshness of youth, and surviving for years and centuries beyond the span of human life, continuing to be the joyful mother of children, would you not call that scene a miracle?

And is not this a picture of our Mother, the Church? Has she not passed through all these vicissitudes? Has she not tasted the bitterness of prison in every age? Has not her blood been shed in every clime?

And yet in her latter days, she is as fair as ever, and the nursing mother of children. Are not civil governments and institutions mortal as well as men? Why should the Republic of the Church be an exception to the law of decay and death? If this is not a miracle, I know not what a miracle is.

If Augustin, that profound Christian philosopher, could employ this argument in the fifth century, with how much more force may it be used today, fifteen hundred years after his time!

But far be it from us to ascribe to any human cause this marvelous survival of the Church.

Her indestructibility is not due, as some suppose, to her wonderful organization, or to the far-reaching policy of her Pontiffs, or to the learning and wisdom of her teachers. If she has survived, it is not because of human wisdom, but often in spite of human folly. Her permanence is due not to the arm of the flesh, but to the finger of God. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory.”

I would now ask this question of all that are hostile to the Catholic Church and that are plotting her destruction: How can you hope to overturn an institution which for more than nineteen centuries has successfully resisted all the combined assaults of the world, of men, and of the powers of darkness? What means will you employ to encompass her ruin?

I. Is it the power of Kings, and Emperors, and Prime Ministers? They have tried in vain to crush her, from the days of the Roman Caesars to those of the former Chancellor of Germany.

Many persons labor under the erroneous impression that the crowned heads of Europe have been the unvarying supporters of the Church, and that if their protection were withdrawn she would soon collapse. So far from the Church being sheltered behind earthly thrones, her worst enemies have been, with some honorable exceptions, so-called Christian Princes who were nominal children of the Church. They chafed under her salutary discipline; they wished to be rid of her yoke, because she alone, in time of oppression, had the power and the courage to stand by the rights of the people, and place her breast as a wall of brass against the encroachments of their rulers. With calm confidence we can say with the Psalmist: “Why have the Gentiles raged, and the people devised vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ. Let us break their bonds asunder, and let us cast away their yoke from us. He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them and the Lord shall deride them.”

II. Can the immense resources and organized power of rival religious bodies succeed in absorbing her and in bringing her to naught? I am not disposed to undervalue this power. Against any human force it would be irresistible. But if the colossal strength, and incomparable machinery of the Roman Empire could not prevent the establishment of the Church; if Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism could not check her development, how can modern organizations stop her progress now, when in the fulness of her strength?

It is easier to preserve what is created, than to create anew.

III. But we have been told: “Take from the Pope his Temporal power and the Church is doomed to destruction. This is the secret of her strength; strip her of this, and, like Samson shorn of his hair, she will betray all the weakness of a poor mortal. Then this brilliant luminary will wax pale and she will sink below the horizon, never more to rise again.”

For more than seven centuries after the establishment of the Church the Popes had no sovereign territorial jurisdiction. How could she have outlived that period, if the temporal power were essential to her perpetuity? And even since 1870 the Pope has been deprived of his temporalities. This loss, however, does not bring a wrinkle on the fair brow of the Church, nor does it retard one inch her onward march.

IV. Is she unable to cope with modern inventions and the mechanical progress of the nineteenth century? We are often told so; but far from hiding our head, like the ostrich in the sand, at the approach of these inventions we hail them as messengers of God, and will use them as Providential instruments for the further propagation of the faith.

If we succeeded so well before, when we had no ships but frail canoes, no compass but our eyes; when we had no roads but eternal snows, virgin forests and trackless deserts; when we had no guide save faith, and hope, and God – if even then we succeeded so well in carrying the Gospel to the confines of the earth, how much more can we do now by the aid of telegraph, steamships and railroads?

Yes, O men of genius, we bless your inventions; we bless you, ye modern discoveries; and we will impress you into the service of the Church and say: “Fire and heat bless the Lord. Lightnings and clouds bless the Lord; all ye works of the Lord bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.”

The utility of modern inventions to the Church has lately been manifested in a conspicuous manner. The Pope called a council of all the Bishops of the world. Without the aid of steam it would have been almost impossible for them to assemble; by its aid they were able to meet from the uttermost bounds of the earth.

V. But may not the light of the Church grow pale and be extinguished before the intellectual blaze of the nineteenth century? Has she not much to fear from literature, the arts and sciences? She has always been the Patroness of literature, and the fostering Mother of the arts and sciences. She founded and endowed nearly all the great universities of Europe.

Not to mention those of the continent, a bare catalogue of which would cover a large space, I may allude to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the two most famous seats of learning in England, which were established under Catholic auspices centuries before the Reformation.

The Church also founded three of the four universities now existing in Scotland, viz: Saint Andrew’s in 1411, Glasgow in 1450 and Aberdeen in 1494.

Without her we should be deprived to-day of the priceless treasures of ancient literature; for, in preserving the languages of Greece and Rome from destruction, she rescued classical writers of those countries from oblivion. Hallam justly observes that, were it not for the diligent labors of the monks in the Middle Ages, our knowledge of the history of ancient Greece and Rome would be as vague today as our information regarding the Pyramids of Egypt.

And as for works of art, there are more valuable monuments of art contained in the single museum of the Vatican than are to be found in all our country. Artists are obliged to go to Rome to consult their best models. Our churches are not only temples of worship, but depositories of sacred art. For our intellectual progress we are in no small measure indebted to the much-abused Middle Ages. Tyndall has the candor to observe that “The nineteenth century strikes its roots into the centuries gone by and draws nutriment from them.”

VI. Is it liberty that will destroy the Church? The Church breathes freely and expands with giant growth, where true liberty is found. She is always cramped in her operations wherever despotism casts its dark shadow. Nowhere does she enjoy more independence than here; nowhere is she more vigorous and more prosperous.

Children of the Church, fear nothing, happen what will to her. Christ is with her and therefore she cannot sink. Caesar, in crossing the Adriatic, said to the troubled oarsman: “Quid times? Caesarem vehis.” What Caesar said in presumption Jesus says with truth: What fearest thou? Christ is in the ship. Are we not positive that the sun will rise tomorrow and next day, and so on to the end of the world? Why? Because God so ordained when He established it in the heavens; and because it has never failed to run its course from the beginning. Has not Christ promised that the Church should always enlighten the world? Has He not, so far, fulfilled His promise concerning His Church? Has she not gone steadily on her course amid storm and sunshine? The fulfilment of the past is the best security for the future.

Amid the continual changes in human institutions she is the one Institution that never changes. Amid the universal ruins of earthly monuments she is the one monument that stands proudly pre-eminent. Not a stone in this building falls to the ground. Amid the general destruction of kingdoms her kingdom is never destroyed. Ever ancient and ever new, time writes no wrinkles on her Divine brow.

The Church has seen the birth of every government of Europe, and it is not at all improbable that she shall also witness the death of them all and chant their requiem. She was more than fourteen hundred years old when Columbus discovered our continent, and the foundation of our Republic is but as yesterday to her.

She calmly looked on while the Goths and the Visigoths, the Huns and the Saxons swept like a torrent over Europe, subverting dynasties. She has seen monarchies changed into republics, and republics consolidated into empires – all this has she witnessed, while her own Divine Constitution has remained unaltered. Of Her we can truly say in the words of the Psalmist: “They shall perish, but thou remainest; and all of them shall grow old as a garment. And as a vesture Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed. But thou art always the self-same, and thy years shalt not fail. The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be directed forever.” God forbid that we should ascribe to any human cause this marvellous survival of the Church. Her indestructibility is not due, as some suppose, to her wonderful organization, or to the far-reaching policy of her Pontiffs, or to the learning and wisdom of her teachers. If she has survived, it is not because of human wisdom, but often in spite of human folly. Her permanence is due not to the arm of the flesh, but to the finger of God.

In the brightest days of the Republic of Pagan Rome the Roman said with pride: “I am a Roman citizen.” This was his noblest title. He was proud of the Republic, because it was venerable in years, powerful in the number of its citizens, and distinguished for the wisdom of its statesmen. What a subject of greater glory to be a citizen of the Republic of the Church which has lasted for nineteen centuries, and will continue till time shall be no more; which counts her millions of children in every clime; which numbers her heroes and her martyrs by the thousand; which associates you with the Apostles and Saints. “You are no more strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow-citizens with the Saints and the domestics of God, built upon the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” Though separated from earthly relatives and parents, you need never be separated from her. She is ever with us to comfort us. She says to us what her Divine Spouse said to His Apostles: “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.”

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917