How did the birth of Jesus lead to the founding of the Church? How has Catholicism developed over the centuries? This section outlines some of the most important events in the history of the Catholic Church.
Jesus of Nazareth
The spread of the Gospel and the Christian Church
Crises along the way
Division and reform
Voyages of discovery and the Enlightenment
The rise of modernity in Western society
The second Vatican Council 1962-65
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine, around 2000 years ago. His birth had been prophesied in the Jewish Bible (Old Testament). His mother was Mary of Nazareth and his foster-father was Joseph of the House of David, and they raised him in Nazareth.
Christians believe that Jesus is both God and man: a divine Person with two natures: one divine and one human. He was sent by God as “the light of the nations” to a world that, as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, was lost in the darkness of sin and death.
Jesus preached God’s mercy and saving power to the people of Palestine. He healed the sick, forgave sins and taught the truth.
While the crowds loved Jesus, the Temple authorities opposed him. They plotted against him, arrested him, tried him on false charges, and the Romans crucified him. He was buried in a tomb, and on the third day, he rose from the dead in bodily glory, an act that was witnessed by the apostles.
So that his work could continue, Jesus commissioned Peter and the apostles to spread the Word of God to all nations and to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost day, Jesus sealed God’s presence in the Church by sending the Holy Spirit as the soul and life of the Church for all time (Acts 2:1-13, 37-47; John 20:19-23).
“The happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to has a name and a face. It is Jesus of Nazareth.”
– Pope Benedict XVI.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit upon Mary, the apostles and disciples gathered together, and the Christian Church was born. Under the apostles’ leadership, the Church soon began to move beyond Jerusalem to the Roman Empire.
From its origin, the Christian Church believed that Jesus Christ is God visible among us.
The apostles and the first Christians lived and died in this faith. Between 50 and 100 AD the sacred authors wrote the books of the New Testament, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the authority of the apostles, to preserve the living faith of the Church.
While the first three hundred years of Christianity were years of persecution and martyrdom,
in 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire. With Roman citizens legally free to become Christians, the Church became more and more visible with its buildings, monasteries, schools and hospitals.
By the sixth century, the network of monasteries had become centres of prayer, learning and culture. During the years of invasion and terror, the monasteries were safe-havens for these treasures.
During the third and fourth centuries, the Roman Empire underwent huge change and turmoil. Rome’s influence declined, and in 325 AD, the city of Byzantium (Constantinople) became the new imperial capital.
As the Church in Constantinople grew in status, its bishops challenged the Bishop of Rome’s claim to St Peter’s authority as Head of the Church. In 1054, the split (schism) between the Bishop of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome was acknowledged publicly. Christians from both Churches are still working hard to heal the rift today.
Between the seventh and fourteenth centuries, most of Western Europe’s people were influenced by Christian ideas and practices. The monasteries and universities flourished as places of prayer, learning and scientific knowledge.
By the tenth century, however, Islam was spreading its influence. Islamic forces overran the Holy Land and threatened Christian Europe. Appeals were made to Christian princes and kings to return the Holy Land to Christian rule and oppose Islamic expansion. This led to the launch of the First Crusade in 1095. This was the first of nine crusades which took place over the next two hundred years.
Saints Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Spain, founders of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders, were born in the twelfth century. The Franciscan and Dominican friars and sisters challenged Church members to discard the pursuit of worldly wealth and embrace Jesus who is holy, poor, loving and faithful to God.
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a time of political and religious ferment. The courts dispensed criminal justice, and the Inquisitors investigated allegations of religious heresy. Both the kingdom-states and the Church used their own legal processes to address political and religious dissent. Sadly, there were cases when officers of the Inquisition acted unjustly against those accused of promoting heresy.
Division & Reform
The political, intellectual and religious upheaval in Europe continued into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At the same time, nationalistic aspirations among the kingdom-states were on the rise.
These cultural forces combined to trigger protest and criticism of the Church’s organisation, practices and beliefs. Martin Luther and John Calvin were key leaders among the many protestors who rejected the Church of Rome’s corrupt practices, her hierarchical authority, and many of her teachings. These leaders established new Christian communities based on the principles of the protestant reformation.
While the reformers were right to protest against the corrupt practices in the Church, their decisions to reject the Church’s Christ-given authority and teachings had tragic consequences.
In response to the protestant challenge, the Church called the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council addressed the issue of corruption, restated the tenets of Catholic Faith and introduced a programme of Church reform. This response is called the counter-reformation or Catholic Reformation.
Voyages & The Enlightenment
Between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, European explorers travelled by land and sea to the world beyond Europe. It was a time of both economic and scientific progress.
Catholic missionaries sometimes accompanied the expeditions, taking the opportunity to plant the seed of Christian faith in the hearts of indigenous peoples. This included Bishop Pompallier of France who, in 1838, sailed into Hokianga to establish his headquarters for the Catholic mission in New Zealand and Oceania.
The period between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe is referred to as the “Age of Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason”. Significant advances in science, engineering and technology are the positive fruits of this age.
However, this was also the time when science and modern philosophical enquiry began rejecting religious knowledge about God and Christianity. So, a negative fruit of the Enlightenment was the fracture between philosophy, science and Christian thought as complementary sources of true knowledge. This marked the end of a unity in scholarship that scientists, philosophers and theologians had enjoyed for over a thousand years.
Rise of Modernity
The era referred to as ‘modernity’ is thought to begin with the writings of the philosopher Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century. Modernity encouraged the growth of science, technology, engineering and research. It also supported the aspirations of nationhood and democracy. Its insistence on scientific knowledge as the way to know the truth, however, continued to marginalise the influence of Christian thought. This encouraged the rise of atheistic ideologies, leading to totalitarianism, world wars and genocide.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
– St Augustine.
2nd Vatican Council
In 1959, the newly-elected Pope John XXIII called for a second Vatican Council to reflect on the state of the Church and its place in the modern world. The ecumenical Council was composed of Catholic Bishops and theologians from around the world, while observers from the Orthodox and Protestant communions were invited to attend. The first session of the Council opened in 1963, and the fourth and final session concluded in 1965.
The Council’s four main goals were to:
- Reflect on and deepen its understanding of the mystery of the Church
- Strengthen and renew the Church spiritually, morally and theologically
- Open the way to reunion with separated Christians
- Engage with contemporary men and women about faith and the meaning of life
The Council Fathers responded with sixteen Council documents, including four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations.
To summarise the second Vatican Council’s call:
- Christians are called to be holy and live holy lives as members of God’s household
- Christians are called to share their faith in Jesus Christ with others by word and example
The teachings and reforms of the Second Vatican Council continue to resonate in the Church into the third millennium.