Rod Bennett, author of some great books on the early Church, was interviewed about today’s feast of St. Athanasius over on the Catholic Answers blog:
The theory goes like this: just a few centuries after Christ’s death, around the time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the true Faith suffered a catastrophic falling-away. The simple truths of the gospel became so obscured by worldliness and pagan idolatry, kicking off the Dark Ages of Catholicism, that Christianity required a complete reboot.
This idea of a “Great Apostasy” is one of the cornerstones of American Protestantism, along with Mormonism, the Jehovah s Witnesses, and even Islam. Countless millions today profess a faith built on the assumption that the early Church quickly became broken beyond repair, requiring some new prophet or reformer to restore the pure teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
This theory is popular—but it’s also fiction. In his book The Apostasy that Wasn’t, Rod Bennett narrates the drama of the early Church’s fight to preserve Christian orthodoxy, even as powerful forces try to destroy it. Amid imperial intrigue and bitter theological debate, a hero arose: the homely little monk Athanasius, a Father of the Church, whose feast we celebrate on May 2. Athanasius stood against the world to prove that there could never be a Great Apostasy, because Jesus promised his Church would never be broken.
We asked Bennett to elaborate on this influential myth and why, logically, it couldn’t have occurred.
Q. What is the Great Apostasy?
Bennett: It’s one of the cornerstones of American religion, actually—the notion that the original Church founded by Jesus and his apostles went bust somewhere along the line and had to be restored by some latter-day prophet or reformer. Most of our Christian denominations here in the Unites States teach the idea in one form or another, though, significantly, they usually disagree completely on which “Second Founder” ought to be followed.
Usually, they date the collapse to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 and his subsequent adoption of Christianity for the whole Roman Empire. In doing this, he transformed the Christian Church (or so the story goes) from a simple body of pure, New Testament believers into the state religion of the Roman Empire.
This made Church membership socially advantageous for the first time, which brought in a vast flood of half-converted pagans who were admitted with minimal fuss by a mere external act of baptism. And this, in turn, subverted the original Faith so seriously that a Dark Age of idolatry and superstition was the result, a “great falling away” so serious that it required, in the end, a complete “reboot” from heaven.
Q. Where did the notion of the Great Apostasy find its beginnings?
Well, if you think about it, any group that has a short historical pedigree—founded, as most of our denominations have been, within the last few centuries of Christianity’s very long timeline—will be driven to the idea eventually. If you find that your church was founded in the twentieth century (or the nineteenth or the sixteenth) and teaches things no one was teaching in the fourteenth, the tenth, or the fifth century, then you’re going to have to account for that fact somehow.
The most common solution has been to offer a “conspiracy theory” of some kind: this idea that the early Church actually did teach Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventism or Unitarianism or what have you, but the “powers that be” hushed the original version up—burned their books, forced them underground, and so forth. The whole “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon from a few years back was based on the same idea.
For the whole interview, including an Bennett’s interesting comparison of Constantine to a guy who marries a rich woman, click here.
Today’s Second Reading from the Mass for the Sixth Sunday of Easter comes to us from the book of Revelation. In chapters 21-22, the last two chapters of the book, we see “New Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2) being established. Here in the “new world”, we have cities like New York, which corresponds to the old city of York in the British Empire. Likewise, there is need of a New Jerusalem for another “new world”. This new world is the new creation God will establish at the eschaton, at the end of time. Heaven will unite with earth. As we read today, the New Jerusalem comes “down out of heaven from God” to earth:
The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem
coming down out of heaven from God.
It gleamed with the splendor of God.
Its radiance was like that of a precious stone,
like jasper, clear as crystal.
It had a massive, high wall,
with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed
and on which names were inscribed,
the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites.
There were three gates facing east,
three north, three south, and three west.
The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation,
on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve apostles of the Lamb
– Revelation 21:10-14
As Revelation scholar Wilfrid J. Harrington noted: “God did not say, ‘I will make new things’; rather, he is making all things new”. Like the Property Brothers, God is in the business of renovation, not demolition. God will not destroy the good creation he has made; he will transform it.
We see an element of this in the second reading, where both the twelve tribes of Israel are mentioned, along with the twelve apostles of the Lamb. There is continuity in the people of God; the Church does not reject true Israel, but is Israel in all its fullness, with the Messiah having come. Membership in God’s family is no longer restricted to one ethnic group, but now encompasses people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. This fulfills God’s original promise to Abraham: all the nations would be blessed through Abraham, in and through the nation of Israel.
We also see this in God’s plan for creation, and even for ourselves. In this Eastertide, when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, we understand that he is the “firstfruits” of the New World. We too await “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed) in a world that will be transformed, not thrown away. This creation made by God is “very good” and God will redeem it, including our very bodies. Saint Paul writes that the entire creation itself “groans” as it awaits renewal (Rom 8:19).
As we wait for this, what should we do? How should we live? As Saint Peter writes elsewhere, we should live as good citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem even now, as we live in the earthly city:
(W)hat kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
– 2 Peter 3:11-14
Q. During Holy Week, Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story called “Did Jesus Really Exist?” Many of my friends are reading this and actually believing this stuff – it is providing them with the “excuse” they need not to practice the faith.
A. Very often, around Christmas and Easter, secular media outlets will often publish materials that call into question the reality of Christianity. Their motive is clear: to sell more papers and magazines; to attract more viewers with something “controversial”. Thankfully for us, there is ample historical evidence for the historical truth of the faith.
However, this article in Maclean’s is especially questionable. As Andy Steiger writes, the article is “outright dishonest and manipulative. It preys on ignorance and reeks of a hidden agenda.”
Q. How so?
A. The article claims that research into memory has cast doubt on much that we know about Jesus, even whether or not he existed. What can be said in response to this? First of all, there is plenty of phenomenal scholarship that has been produced in recent years that has shown beyond a reasonable doubt the validity of memory and eyewitness testimony in the Gospels. One of the greatest works of this sort is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a monumental study by the famed New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham.
As to the question of Jesus existence, the Maclean’s article is especially disingenuous. The author, Brian Bethune, attempts to make use of the work of skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to “prove” Jesus never existed. Bethune does this by subtly implying that Ehrman endorses the views of Richard Carrier (the leading “mythicist” writing today, who claims Jesus was not a historical figure). Now, it’s certainly true that Ehrman doubts the reliability of the New Testament documents (I don’t think his arguments on that front are persuasive, but that’s another article for another day). But this is a totally separate topic from the question of the existence of Jesus.
What Bethune either willfully chose to ignore, or does not know, is this: Bart Ehrman himself wrote a book in 2012 called Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he skewers the view of the “mythicists” who say that Jesus did not exist. The reality that Jesus exists, Ehrman says, “is the view of every trained scholar on the planet” (p. 12).
Either way, this is shoddy journalism, and even worse editing by Maclean’s. This once-proud Canadian institution ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing such utter nonsense.
Q. I am very confused about the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) issued by Pope Francis. I’ve been reading a lot of articles online that say that the Pope is changing Church teaching on marriage. Is this true?
A. In a word, no. The Pope did not (and cannot) change Church teaching on faith (what we believe) and morals (how we live). In fact, Pope Francis makes it very clear in Amoris Laetitia (hereafter abbreviated as AL) that he is not speaking infallibly. Nor is the exhortation even to be regarded as an official document of the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church). He is merely offering his own personal opinion and reflection on the work of the recent Synods of bishops on the family (AL 3).
In fact, AL upholds Church teaching on marriage, and condemns many societal evils, such as abortion, euthanasia, and “gender ideologies” that are cancers in the culture.
Q. Fair enough. But there are some who believe that the document calls for a change – not in the Church’s teaching, but in “pastoral practice” – specifically, that civilly divorced and remarried Catholics ought to be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was a participant in the Synods on the family, has written an article in response to this idea. What did he say?
A. The article, which is well worth reading, can be found on the website of the National Catholic Register. Cardinal Burke notes that one can never validly “divorce” Catholic teaching from its application in pastoral practice.
He writes, “I remember the discussion which surrounded the publication of the conversations between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1967. The concern was the danger that the faithful would confuse the Pope’s personal reflections with official Church teaching. While the Roman Pontiff has personal reflections which are interesting and can be inspiring, the Church must be ever attentive to point out that their publication is a personal act and not an exercise of the Papal Magisterium. Otherwise, those who do not understand the distinction, or do not want to understand it, will present such reflections and even anecdotal remarks of the Pope as declarations of a change in the Church’s teaching, to the great confusion of the faithful. Such confusion is harmful to the faithful and weakens the witness of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world.”
Cardinal Burke goes on to say:
“Over more than 40 years of priestly life and ministry, during 21 of which I have served as a bishop, I have known numerous other couples in an irregular union for whom I or my brother priests have had pastoral care. Even though their suffering would be clear to any compassionate soul, I have seen ever more clearly over the years that the first sign of respect and love for them is to speak the truth to them with love. In that way, the Church’s teaching is not something which further wounds them but, in truth, frees them for the love of God and their neighbor.
“It may be helpful to illustrate one example of the need to interpret the text of Amoris Laetitia with the key of the magisterium. There is frequent reference in the document to the ‘ideal’ of marriage. Such a description of marriage can be misleading. It could lead the reader to think of marriage as an eternal idea to which, in the changing historical circumstances, man and woman more or less conform. But Christian marriage is not an idea; it is a sacrament which confers the grace upon a man and woman to live in faithful, permanent and procreative love of each other. Every Christian couple who validly marry receive, from the moment of their consent, the grace to live the love which they pledge to each other.
“Because we all suffer the effects of original sin and because the world in which we live advocates a completely different understanding of marriage, the married suffer temptations to betray the objective reality of their love. But Christ always gives the grace for them to remain faithful to that love until death. The only thing that can limit them in their faithful response is their failure to respond to the grace given them in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In other words, their struggle is not with some idea imposed upon them by the Church. Their struggle is with the forces which would lead them to betray the reality of Christ’s life within them.”
Q. This Sunday’s Gospel is taken from John 21. Does this chapter have any implications for the papacy?
A. Other texts, like Matthew 16, are often cited in this regard, but John 21 has one of the strongest proofs for the ongoing role of the office of Peter in the universal Church. Even non-Catholic scholars recognize this.
Q. Does the miraculous catch of fish in this chapter have anything to do with the Petrine office?
A. Fishing, of course, wasn’t just the former trade of the apostles; it represents their evangelistic mission of being “fishers of men”. The unbroken net conveys the unity of the one Catholic (universal) Church. Elsewhere, when Jesus provides a miraculous draught of fish, the nets begin to break from the strain; here, the nets are intact. Peter, dragging the net ashore, evokes his leadership in bringing the Church safely home to Christ, even to the shores of Heaven itself.
Interestingly, although the catch was so big that the disciples struggled to bring the nets aboard, almost sinking their boat, Peter now easily drags the net ashore all by himself. The Greek verb in the original text that is used to describe Peter’s dragging of the net is the same one used by Jesus in John 12:32. This is where Jesus says that, as he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself.
Q. Why does the text mention specifically that 153 fish were caught?
A. By far, the most puzzling aspect of the passage is the reference to the 153 fish. First of all, this is an authentic eyewitness detail. On a secondary level, many commentators have proffered various theories to explain what this number might symbolize (John’s Gospel functions on “two levels” – there is often a secondary, “heavenly” meaning to earthly events). Most of these interpretations suggest the idea of the universality or completeness of the catch.
So, to sum up: we have Peter, alone, dragging the unbroken net of a universal catch to the shores of heaven. This is clearly a reference to his position as leader of the Church on earth.
When you add to all of this the threefold charge of Jesus to Peter (“Feed my Sheep”) that immediately follows, the picture is complete. Peter is singularly (in the original Greek text) given this responsibility to shepherd the universal Church. Keep in mind also that this event is recounted in the same Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10). Before his Ascension, Jesus here reaffirms Peter’s unique leadership position, passing the earthly reins of the Church to him.
I thought I’d help you celebrate the day when everybody seems to be Irish with a little post about St. Patrick. So, after you’ve enjoyed your green beer, or whatever beverage you may raise in celebration (For me, as a kid, it was always McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes), why not make this prayer of St. Patrick your own?
It’s called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, because of the many times it calls for God’s protection. It’s a classic…enjoy.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,I
n preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.
Q. Today’s readings have a common theme: the absolute need to repent of sin, but also God’s abundant mercy for those who do. Would you agree?
A. That’s true. Psalm 103, the Responsorial Psalm from today’s readings, reminds us that “The Lord is kind and merciful”. One of the greatest mercies God provides for us is to “tell it like it is” – to explain reality to us, and warn us of the consequences of not repenting.
This is why St. Paul, in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 10, speaks about members of the Old Testament people of God who did not make it from Egypt to the promised land of Israel. Tragically, these people were “struck down” in the desert because they were not pleasing to the Lord. This was despite the fact that “all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.”
Q. How does this apply to Catholics today?
A. The same dangers and consequences of unrepentance face the modern-day people of God. Like the Israelites of the Exodus generation, Catholics can sometimes view their baptism as a sort of “lifetime membership card” for Heaven. They frequent the communion lines, but not the queue for the confessional. They “all eat the same spiritual food, and all drink the same spiritual drink – the Christ” in the Eucharist. But they run the same risk that the Israelites did – of being “struck down” in the journey through the wilderness of this life, and not making it to the true promised land of Heaven. The reason is that they feel no need to repent of their sin. Just being “Catholic in name only”, they feel, will be enough to get them “in”. But God is not mocked.
Q. How can we avoid this trap?
A. By sincere repentance, and producing the fruit of the Kingdom in their lives. God will always forgive the one who truly is sorry for their sin, and who desires to change. This is why Jesus reminds us that “God is no respecter of persons”. This means that he judges everyone by the same, objective standard. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, speaking of people who had died tragically in his time, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”.
Jesus then tells a parable about a fruitless fig tree. The owner wants to cut it down, but the “gardener”, who represents Christ, pleads with him to give him more time to “fertilize” it. After one more year, if the tree is still fruitless, the owner can cut it down.
We are like those trees. Christ has given us all the “fertilizer” we need to grow and bear fruit that will last. The scriptures, the sacraments, the teaching of the Church, the community of faith – all the conditions necessary for growth. We never know how much time we have left before we face eternity. Let us not waste this Lent. Who knows? It may be the last one we ever have. Let us truly repent and produce the fruit of the Kingdom in our lives, that we may share in the joy of the resurrection harvest.
Today’s readings feature God’s admonition to the “reluctant prophet”, Jeremiah:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
But do you gird your loins;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.
Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
– Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19 (NAB)
The New American Bible translates this passage somewhat differently than many other versions. Most have God saying something like this to Jeremiah: “Don’t break down before them, or I will break you down before them “. The NAB rendering comes out much more reassuringly: “Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them” (Jer 1:17).
Jeremiah is not on his own. It is God himself who will “fortify” him as “a pillar of iron, a wall of brass”, in order to speak God’s truth to whoever Jeremiah is sent to, without “human respect” – the fear of “what they will say, what they will do”.
We need this courage from God too, in order to boldly hold and profess our Catholic faith in the midst of an often Godless world. But we must live and proclaim it, as Paul admonished Timothy, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), when people want to hear the message, and when they don’t.
Today’s Gospel gives us our ultimate example of fortitude in Jesus himself, who didn’t shrink from telling God’s truth to his own townspeople in Nazareth, even though he knew he would alienate many old friends, who were now “filled with fury” (Lk 4:28), attempting to destroy him.
May we, too, never be ashamed of the words of the Son of Man.
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