The Church and Her History, by Father Richard Brennan, LL.D.

Article

What is Church History?

“In the world you shall have distress but have confidence, I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

As the holy Evangelists relate the life and actions of Jesus Christ, so does Church history describe the life and works of his spouse, who is the Catholic Church. Now as Jesus Christ continues to live in his Church, it follows that the history or description of that Church is certainly the mirrored reflection of the holy Evangelists. The history of our divine Redeemer’s life is one of continued struggle and suffering. The same is true of the history of his Church, and herein lies a powerful and undeniable evidence of the truth of our beloved Church.

But as Christ, in the midst of this opposition, suffering, and contest, constantly manifested his glorious divinity, completed his work, and triumphed over death and hell, so does Church history exhibit to us, in the midst of persecution, conflict, and martyrdom, the triumph of truth and grace over the dark powers of this world.

1. It shows us how Christ manifested himself to all nations by the preaching of his representatives and messengers, and how his Church spread throughout all nations. This forms the history of the Christian missions, or the growth of the Church.

2. It shows how Christ continues to live in his Church as the Redeemer and High-priest in the holy sacrifice of the mass, in the sacraments and other means of grace, which by a believing people are surrounded with ever-increasing solemnity, heightened beauty, and significant ceremonies. This forms the history of divine worship in the broad sense of the word.

3. It shows how Christ has ever lived in his Church as Teacher of truth and heavenly wisdom, by leading the fathers and teachers of that Church into a miraculous knowledge of the mysteries of his kingdom, by guiding the Councils through the Holy Ghost, and by saving the Popes from error in their definitions of faith. This forms the history of the Fathers of the Church, or of the Councils.

4. It shows how Christ has ever reigned in his Church as King, by clothing his representatives, the priests, according to their various ranks with divine authority, and by maintaining through their instrumentality God’s kingdom on earth in discipline, peace, and tranquility. This forms the history of the Hierarchy, of Church rights and of Church penalties.

5. It shows how Christ has always dwelt in his Church as the Holy One, by leading individuals to extraordinary holiness, and creating, especially in the monastic life and other religious associations, schools of the highest virtue and evangelical perfection for those whom he calls to holiness of life. This forms the history of the saints, and of religious life.

6. It shows how Christ has lived in his Church as the Despised One, inasmuch as his doctrines have been misrepresented, denied, and rejected by misguided and wicked men in all ages as in his own lifetime. This forms the history of heresy.

7. It shows how Christ has suffered in his Church as the Crucified, inasmuch as his faithful followers individually, and his holy Church in general,, have been, in private and in public, violently attacked and persecuted, wronged and misrepresented by declared enemies and treacherous friends. This forms the history of the persecutions.

8. It shows how, finally, Christ has triumphed in his Church as the glorious Conqueror. For the Church, even in the midst of her greatest trials and under severest oppression, has won victory after victory, triumph after triumph; and the miraculous promise of heaven shall be fulfilled for all time as it has been in the past: “In this sign of the cross thou shalt conquer.” This constitutes the history of the triumph and glory of the Church.

Such are the contents of Church history.

As the Bible history of the Old Testament describes to us how the human race was prepared for the Redemption, and as the Bible history of the New Testament shows us how the work of that Redemption was actually accomplished, so does Church history describe that Redemption still going forward and being accomplished in the Church. It shows how Christ, even after the lapse of centuries of time, is still mysteriously going about among men, as their invisible King and Saviour, and, in spite of the efforts of the powers of hell and of wicked men, is drawing the elect to himself, and sanctifying and saving them by the interposition of the Holy Ghost.

Whence are derived the Truthful and Genuine Recitals of Church History?

“Many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us: according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word.” – Luke 1:1,2

The most ancient of Church historians is Saint Luke. In the Acts of the Apostles he describes, though briefly, the lives of the first Christians, the most important events in the primitive Church, as well as the doings of some of the Apostles and of their disciples. But the real father of Church history is Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who died about the year 340. His “Ten Books of Church History” are of most incalculable value; for in them he gives us a quantity of ancient decrees, of lengthy narrations, and of decisions of Councils from the first three centuries of the Church; all of which but for his care and industry would have been irretrievably lost.

The works of the great Church fathers, who for the most part have put into writing the oral traditions coming down from the first ages of the Church, contain numerous well-attested narrations of Church history.

Next to these come the chronicles of pious and learned bishops and priests who, at the time of the great invasion of the northern tribes, from the year 350 to 500, and also in the middle ages, from the time of Charlemagne, about the year 800, to the sham reformation in 1518, have set forth the ecclesiastical events of their respective ages in a creditable and credible manner.

Besides these we must count the well-preserved decisions of the ancient Councils of the Church, the Briefs of Popes, and the antique inscriptions which have been discovered and deciphered on ecclesiastical and architectural monuments, especially those discovered in the Roman catacombs. From all these one may understand how, even at this late day, we possess positive knowledge of the early condition of the Church and of events occur ring in the earliest ages.

In modern times many able and learned Catholic writers, from Baronius down to Stolberg, Mohler, Hefele, Alzog, Rohrbacher, and others, have undertaken, for the most part in very comprehensive works, to compile Church histories chiefly based on and drawn from these ancient decrees. They have thereby merited the gratitude of the Catholic world. For by their researches they have proved that many things written, by enemies, against the Popes and other prominent persons in the Church were misrepresentations and calumnies.

They have thus successfully vindicated the honor and good name of the Church against these malicious falsifiers.

False Church History

There shall be a time when they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears. These will turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned to fables. But avoid foolish and old wives fables. – 1 and 2 Timothy 4

In the ninth book of his Church history, Eusebius relates: “Under Maximinus the fury of the persecution against us” – that is to say, the Christians – “was renewed. And although he had full power to do as he pleased, having lately assumed the dignity and authority of emperor, yet he wished to keep up an appearance of acting upon just grounds. For this purpose he caused to be prepared certain Acts such as might have been used by Pilate in his treatment of the Saviour. Into these Acts were em bodied all that could be conceived blasphemous against Christ. Into all the provinces of his kingdom he sent these ‘Acts’ with the command that they should be distributed through all the cities, villages, and hamlets. The school-teachers were ordered to dictate them to the children in school, who had to learn them by heart as exercises for the memory.”

What was here done by Maximinus, the persecutor of the Christians, has been practised against the Church in all ages by his imitators. Even in very early times here tics have endeavored, with cunning and insolence, to falsify not only the teachings but also the history of the Church. They have fabricated false “Acts,” and attributed to the authorities of the Church follies and crimes well calculated, if true, to render the clergy both ridiculous and hateful in the eyes of the world.

This contemptible mode of acting was practised to a great extent, more especially in the latter part of the middle ages, by certain chroniclers in the pay of governments or kings who were at variance with the Popes. In this manner there accumulated in course of time an immense amount of spurious, unreliable, and disgraceful chronicles which, then and during the so-called reformation, and in the wars which followed, were still further increased and more widely diffused.

Superficial or evil-minded writers seized upon these fables and, without questioning their historical value, reproduced them in their books. Although in our day these falsifiers of Church history have been unmasked by learned Catholics and by honorable and truth-loving Protestant writers, yet thousands of unscrupulous novelists continue to reproduce these fabulous stories about the Church, merely changing the mode of expression, and serving up the same unwholesome diet in a later style of preparation. But the same treatment must be bestowed by the enemy on the Church as was bestowed of old on her divine Founder: “For many bore false witness against him, and their evidence were not agreeing.” (Mark 14:56)

MLA Citation

  • Father Richard Brennan, LL.D. “The Church and Her History”. Christ in His Church: A Catholic Church History, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 31 May 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>