Image: Michael Pacher, Altarpiece of the Church Fathers, c. 1483
(Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose) [Public Domain]
You may have heard St. Jerome’s famous line, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I would say the same thing about history and the Church: Ignorance of history is ignorance of the Church. It is only in history that we see how God has been working out salvation for his people through all of the ups and downs, raising up great saints, and overcoming many crises. God teaches us about how to be holy in the world by looking back at the witness of the Church.
The story continues
The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the establishment of the Church and its initial growth in the Acts of the Apostles. We catch a glimpse into the end of the story in Revelation, where Jesus’ warnings to the churches gives us some sense of the drama of sin and renewal that will continue to play out through time. Like the Israelites, Christians continue to journey through the wilderness, strangers and sojourners who look to the heaven and yet still seek to transform life on earth in conformity with the Gospel.
We are part of the story of the Church. Learning about our past helps us to understand our identity. Having received such a rich legacy from the Church—her saints, art, and learning—we are privileged to enter into this tradition, to appropriate it in our lives, and share it with others. We are links in a great chain that stretches back to Christ, who stands at the center of history, and continues on until the end of time. When we study Church history, we get perspective on where we are now and how we serve as a link to the future. It grounds our identity and purpose within this larger story, giving us a firm anchor in God’s plan of salvation.
Hope for today
By studying Church history, we also gain perspective on the many trials Christians must face before Christ fully inaugurates His Kingdom. The Church continues the Incarnation in time, as Jesus continues to take flesh in the Eucharist and the life of the Christian community. This includes continuing the suffering of the Church, as her members continue to sin and cause scandal. In history, we see how the Church faced extreme trials, even to the point of near extinction, and how God raised saints to help her overcome these challenges. We grow in hope as we see how God guides His Church even through the darkest trials and never abandons her.
Despite moments of darkness, we also find great light in the Christian story. First of all, we encounter the great witness of the holiness of the saints, who show us how God can alter the course of history through the faithfulness of those who give their lives to Him. From the illiterate St. Anthony of the desert, to St. Catherine of Siena admonishing popes, reaching down to St. John Paul II’s role in helping to bring down Soviet Communism, God has not stopped raising up saints who change the world. We also find inspiration in the sublimity of the Church’s unparalleled tradition of art. Christianity is a sacramental religion that uses the beauty of architecture, music, paint, sculpture, and words to express her transcendent faith in ways that appeal to the senses and soul.
Please join me in a pilgrimage through this great story throughout this coming year in my class, Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History. We will explore primary sources from the saints along with great art as we trace the narrative of the Church throughout history in order to enrich our own lives and mission to serve. The class meets Monday mornings at 9am at the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, 1300 S Steele St., Denver, CO 80210.