The Age of PersecutionFATHER JOHN A. HARDON, S.J.
The Catholic Church has been persecuted in every period of her history. However, the first three centuries of the Christian era are commonly known as the Age of Persecution because they show how promptly and aggressively the Church's enemies came to fulfill Christ's prediction to His followers, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you."
The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul provide the revealed foundation for living out the Eighth Beatitude. But the writings of Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Lactantius show us how the early Christians lived up to – and died for – the great truths that the Savior bequeathed to His faithful. Even a man like Tertullian, though he died estranged from the true faith, highlights the inner conflict that everyone must expect who wants to remain loyal to the Divine Master.
There are many reasons for beginning The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan with St. Ignatius of Antioch. He suffered martyrdom at Rome (most probably in the Colosseum), the death he had so ardently desired, to become "the wheat of Christ . . .ground by the teeth of beasts." The accepted date (107) for his death makes him a contemporary of St. John the Apostle.
The seven letters Ignatius wrote on his way to martyrdom are the earliest second-century witness to the faith and practice of the early Church. They reveal many things:
There is a remarkable similarity of style in the seven letters of St. Ignatius. The first three, to the faithful at Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, center on two main themes: loyalty to the bishops and avoidance of heretics and their agents. In the next letter the Philadelphians are urged to resist the dissidents and to preserve peace and unity in the Church. The faithful at Smyrna are especially warned against the errors of those who would reduce Christ's humanity to an illusion and the Real Presence to mere symbolism. In his letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Ignatius told the young prelate to be a true shepherd to his flock. In a class by itself is the letter to the Romans. It breathes the spirit of the first Christians, whose deep love of Christ made them eager to proclaim the Master to their pagan contemporaries and positively hungry for the crown of martyrdom.
The letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch are the brightest jewels of primitive Christian literature. Ordained by the Apostles, and successor of St. Peter in the See of Antioch, Ignatius is one of our earliest links with the inspired authors of the New Testament.
The most important Greek defender of the faith in the second century, St. Justin (l00-65), was born in Palestine and died in Italy. Converted from paganism as a young man, he immediately opened a school of philosophy in Rome. There he began to debate with the learned Roman philosophers of his day. His zeal for the person and teaching of Christ was such that he would travel from place to place, proclaiming not only that Christianity is the true religion but that no other religion is truly rational.
His logic in presenting the faith was unimpeachable. The foundation of Christianity, he argued, is the fact that God made us out of nothing but has destined us for heaven. We shall reach our destiny only if we use our free will, based on reason, enlightened by faith, according to the will of God. In his First Apology, Justin wrote:
Although Justin was a prolific writer, of his many works known to Eusebius, only three have come down to us. They are his two Apologies against the pagans and his Dialogue with Trypho. What especially stands out in these works is the open and honest character he reveals in dealing with persons who were openly attacking the Christian faith. Justin was convinced that "everyone who can speak the truth and does not speak it shall be judged by God." Since, by God's grace, he possessed the truth, he felt bound in conscience to proclaim what he knew was the truth.
Justin did not hesitate to address himself openly to the highest pagans of his day. Thus, his first Apology was written to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his second to the Roman Senate. Written in Rome, the Apologies are the first in-depth defense of the Christian faith and of the Catholic Church based on history, reason, and provable facts. So truly is Justin the first apologist of Christianity that the very science of apologetics may be traced to the principles and method he set down in the first century of the Christian era.
Justin also pioneered in defending the faith against the learned Jewish critics of Christianity. The Dialogue with Trypho builds on a different foundation than the Apologies. While still appealing to reason, Justin assumed that Trypho, a Jew, believed in the Old Testament and accepted the Mosaic law.
Consequently, Justin explained to Trypho why Christians consider the law of Moses to have been only temporary and that Christianity is the new and eternal Covenant for all mankind. Justin went on to justify the belief of Christians in Christ's divinity, and the conviction, born of experience, that those who follow the teachings of the Savior are the true Israel foretold by the prophets.
St. Justin's spirited defense of Christianity finally brought about his end. When he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, he was put to death with many other martyrs, notably Sts. Charita, Chariton, and Liberianus.
No one has improved on St. Justin's explanation of free will, immortality, and the need for the sacraments. He is one of our earliest witnesses to the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Real Presence.
During the second century, there were many outstanding writers on the Catholic faith. But none has been more influential than St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, who died a martyr in 202-3. He founded Christian theology.
Two of his writings, The Presentation of the Apostolic Preaching and Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), are complete books. Other writings are available only in part. His main claim to fame is his reasoned defense of the Roman Catholic Church as the Kingdom of God that Christ established during His visible stay on earth.
Irenaeus' logic in defending the Church may be expressed as follows: Christ's teaching can be summarized in a series of declarative statements called the Creed. The divinely conferred right to fix the exact wording of the Creed and explain its true meaning belongs only to the Church. Within the Church, only the bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, can determine the words of the Creed and its correct meaning. The reason that only the bishops are able to do this is because they have inherited from the Apostles, through episcopal ordination, the supernatural light that this requires. It would be difficult to inquire into the teaching of all the bishops throughout the world. Moreover, this is not necessary. No less than Peter was prince of the Apostles in his day, so the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, is normative for the successors of the Apostles in their day.
Irenaeus placed Christ at the center of theology. He coined the term "recapitulation", which has helped to shape Christian thinking ever since. Jesus Christ is the God who became man to redeem us from sin. He became true man, like us in all things but sin. He experiences all the stages of our human life. In spite of His virgin conception and birth, Christ grew in age as we do; He suffered trials and sorrows; and He died and was buried. He rose from the grave, even as we are destined to rise from the dead.
The Blessed Virgin plays a prominent role in the writings of St. Irenaeus. Mary's obedience erases the harm caused by the disobedience of Eve. Mary was a virgin before and after she gave birth to Christ. Although Irenaeus did not use the words "Mother of God," he affirmed Mary's divine maternity. As a result, he had a clear understanding of the harmony that exists between this privilege of Christ's Mother and the mission of her Son. She was His companion in the Redemption, and she is now the world's most powerful intercessor in heaven.
St. Irenaeus laid the foundations for the theology of holiness on which the masters of spirituality have since built. He clearly distinguished between the indwelling, uncreated Holy Spirit and the consequences of this indwelling, which we now call sanctifying grace. Irenaeus constantly stressed the importance of our free will in cooperating with the grace of God. Like Adam, we can resist the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. But we can also respond to these graces and merit further graces on earth and eternal glory in the life to come.
For Irenaeus, the believing Christian has access to knowledge that pagans and heretics simply do not enjoy. Faith gives light to the mind; it confers the power to see and understand that nothing else on earth can provide.
The link between St. Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus is St. Polycarp. Even as Ignatius had counseled Polycarp to "beg for an increase in understanding", so Irenaeus admitted how much he had learned from listening to the sermons of Polycarp.
One of the great literary geniuses of all times, Tertullian was also a mysterious personality. He is the only author in the Reading Plan whose works we must immediately classify according to the three stages of his career: as a strong Catholic, as a wavering Catholic, and as the leading anti-Catholic of his day.
Born of pagan parents in Carthage about 150, he was converted to Christianity about 195, and almost immediately wrote his first book, To the Martyrs. After becoming a firm Catholic, he averaged more than one volume a year, including such a classic as Apologeticus, perhaps the outstanding piece of controversial writing in the Church's history. In his early writings, Tertullian takes up St. Irenaeus' argument that only the Catholic Church's hierarchy has the right to interpret the meaning of Sacred Scripture.
The turning point in his life was his attraction to Montanism. This was a sect, founded by Montanus, famous for its moral rigorism, claims to mysticism, and appeal to special lights from the Holy Spirit. Montanists considered themselves prophets of Christ's second coming. The substance of their doctrine was that the Holy Spirit was now replacing the revelation of Christ. Those who received the "new outpouring of the Spirit" would displace the hierarchy of bishops and the Pope as teachers and guides of the faithful.
For ten years, Tertullian's writings were orthodox beyond reproach. For the next seven years, his publications leaned heavily on the side of Montanism. And in the last years of his life, he was openly heterodox.
The Church has carefully distinguished these stages. She regards Tertullian as the first Christian theologian to write in Latin. She quotes him in her documents, including the Second Vatican Council. And she places him beside St. Augustine in
most of his dogmatic teaching, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the sacraments of baptism and penance.
In spite of his rugged style, which was the expression of a passionate nature, he may be credited with having created the language of Western theology. Some of his statements have become part of the Church's literary history. Addressing the pagan persecutors, he told them, "The more you put us to death, the more we increase; blood is the seed of Christians."
St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and martyr, was an extraordinary person. Baptized at thirty-five, he was decapitated in 258 in the presence of all his people, after less than ten years in the episcopate.
Best known for On the Unity of the Church, Cyprian symbolizes the human side of Catholic belief in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. The specific issues dealt with therein are whether Christians who deny their faith under persecution must be rebaptized and whether baptism conferred by heretics is valid.
The Popes held that neither repentant apostates nor converts from heresy had to be rebaptized, but Cyprian, as leader of the North African bishops, argued to the contrary. His correspondence with two Popes, Sts. Cornelius and Stephen I, was outspoken. Pope Stephen even threatened Cyprian with excommunication. But Cyprian not only never questioned the Pope's supreme authority but wrote the most explicit defense of papal primacy in patristic literature.
St. Cyprian's teaching on the sacrament of penance is a historical milestone. Three elements are necessary for this sacrament: the penitent must make a confession to a priest, the confession must include interior and secret sins, and the penitent must perform adequate satisfaction to expiate for the sins committed. Only then does the priest give absolution, which Cyprian variously called "peace", "remission", and "communication", and which the priest imparts by the laying of hands on the repentant sinner.
Above all, Cyprian was a moralist and pastor of souls. A fine synthesis of his spirituality is found in his short explanation of the Our Father. Running as a theme through this classic work is the stress on the necessity of prayer to obtain the graces we need to live up to the hard demands of the Gospel. Our aim should be, he said, to become more and more like Christ, for whom the will of God was the very food of His Life and the main object of His teaching.
Cyprian wrote during the peak of the Church's persecution. To be a Christian then meant to be ready for martyrdom. He did not have to cope with such heresies as Pelagianism, which denied the need of grace for salvation. But he laid the groundwork for St. Augustine and others to show how literally Christ meant His words to be taken when He said, "Without me, you can do nothing" on the way to heaven. When we pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven", said Cyprian, we are not asking God to do what He will, but that we might be able to will what God wants.
St. Cyprian is being used to defend an independence of bishops from the Pope that has reached a critical stage in some countries in our day, but without justification. No doubt his baptismal controversy with two Popes while appealing to the body of bishops in North Africa lends plausibility to the charge of episcopalianism. No doubt, too, Cyprian's late conversion and rapid Christian formation made him less aware than he might have been of the latest heresy of bishops claiming superiority over the Bishop of Rome. But Cyprian's faith in the authority of the Pope over bishops was never in question. He spoke of the Bishop of Rome having primacy (Primatus), and by this he meant not only a primacy of honor but of active jurisdiction as the chief source for the preservation of Catholic unity. If Cyprian erred, it was an error of inconsistency between practice and what he strongly held in principle – namely, that "the primacy was given to Peter". Consequently, "if a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of St. Peter, upon whom the Church is built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church?"
Among the early Christian writers, some are scarcely known, except by scholars. Yet, their contribution to an understanding of the true faith has been immense. Lactantius (c. 240-c. 320) is a classic example from the fourth century.
His full name was Lucius Caecilius Firminianus Lactantius. A pagan of North Africa, he taught rhetoric in Nicomedia, at the request of Emperor Diocletian. He became a Christian in about 303, lost his teaching position, and was reduced to destitution. He began to write to make a living, and providentially became a tutor to Emperor Constantine's son, Crispus.
Among his known writings were The Workmanship of God, a long poem; TheWrath of God, against the Stoics and Epicureans; The Deaths of Persecutors, in defense of the martyrs; and an explanation of the Phoenix legend and the Christian belief in the resurrection.
His most famous writing is on The Divine Institutes, a cryptic title for an elaborate comparison between Christian and pagan beliefs. It is instructive to read here how Lactantius defends the Providence of God in permitting the followers of Christ to be persecuted. He begins by setting down a general principle: God "allows persecutions to be carried on against us" so that "the people of God might be increased." This happens in four ways:
First, very many people are put to flight from the cults of the false gods by a hatred of cruelty. Who would not shrink from such sacrifices? Then, virtue and the faith itself are attractive to certain ones. Some suspect that not without cause is the worship of the gods thought to be evil by so many that they would prefer to die rather than do that which others do that they may live. Someone wishes to know what that good is which is defended even to death, which is preferred to all things that are pleasing or dear in this life, and from which neither loss of possessions, nor of light, nor pain of body, nor torture of its members deter. These are very strong, but those causes have always increased our number. The people standing around hear them saying in the very midst of torments that they do not sacrifice to stone statues made by human hands, but to the living God who is in heaven. Many know that this is true and admit it in their hearts. Then, as is accustomed to happen in uncertain matters, while they question each other as to the cause of this perseverance, many things which pertain to religion, being noised abroad and caught in turn, are learned. Since these things are good, they must please them. Besides, vengeance gained, as it always happens, strongly impels to belief. This is not a slight cause, either, the fact that unclean spirits of demons inhabit the bodies of many people, permission having been granted. When these have been ejected afterwards, all who have been cleansed adhere to the religion whose power they have felt. These many reasons, gathered together, marvelously gain a great multitude for God.
Lactantius has been criticized for being too close to the paganism from which he was converted to be an adequate exponent of Christianity. This is true only in the sense that the newfound faith had not been able to mature sufficiently to give a comprehensive account of his own religious convictions.
But he was an invaluable witness to the power of divine grace to change a successful rhetorician into a zealous Christian. He was also a witness to the power of revealed truth to change a whole empire (a process that began with Constantine) from the adoration of lifeless idols to the worship of the one living God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
see also, The Patristic Age
Father John A. Hardon. "The Age of Persecution." from The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan (Pontiac: MI Grotto Press, 1998).
Reprinted with permission from Inter Mirifica and Grotto Press.
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000) was a tireless apostle of the Catholic faith. The author of over twenty-five books including Spiritual Life in the Modern World, Catholic Prayer Book, The Catholic Catechism, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Catechism, Q & A Catholic Catechism, Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and many other Catholic books and hundreds of articles, Father Hardon was a close associate and advisor of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Order Father Hardon's home study courses here.
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