Dan Brown and Catholic History

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King. Dan 7:13-14; Ps 92; Rev 1:5-8; Jn 18:33-37

Insofar as the media takes any view of the history of Christianity, there has been a surprising prevalence, especially in some recent television programmes, of what one might call the 'Dan Brown' view of history, as popularised in a bestselling work of fiction called The Da Vinci Code. So what, then, is the 'Dan Brown' view of history? Well, there are two central elements as far as the Church is concerned. First, that Catholic Christianity is a late invention - and by 'late' I mean something that appeared in world history roughly three hundred years after Christ. Second, that Catholic Christianity was invented to serve the needs of the 'rich and powerful', especially the political ambitions of the Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to become a Christian. On this Feast of Christ the King, who is, of course, a crucified king, I thought that it would be good to respond to this popular but misleading narrative.

First, with regard to origins, the Catholic Church did not suddenly appear from nowhere in the fourth century. The first time in history that the phrase 'Catholic Church' appears is in a letter written in about 107 AD, a few years after the probable completion of the books of the New Testament. This phrase 'Catholic Church' was written by an episkopos, an early Christian bishop from the city of Antioch. Antioch was the city where Ss. Peter and Paul had preached and where the disciples of Jesus had first been called 'Christians', and it is probable that this bishop had known some of the apostles; he might even have been ordained by St Peter. This bishop, Ignatius, was not, however, a rich and powerful man; on the contrary, he was a prisoner on what would today be called 'death row'. Ignatius, later canonised as St Ignatius, wrote this letter as he was being taken by ship under guard to the city of Rome. There he was to due to die, probably in the Collisseum, torn to pieces by wild animals in front of cheering crowds. So what does St Ignatius, in his imprisonment, tell us about the Catholic Church? Here are his words, "Wherever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, VIII). With these words, St Ignatius tells us that the Church is 'Catholic' and that Christ and his Catholic Church are intimately linked. This claim is very much in the spirit of the New Testament, which describes the Church is the 'Body of Christ' or the 'Bride of Christ'. Furthermore, the 'Catholic Church' that St Ignatius describes has a recognisable structure: he urges his readers to be loyal to the bishop of their city, who is assisted in his ministry by priests and deacons, the same threefold ministry of orders that we have in the Church today. St Ignatius also affirms that the early Christians regarded the Eucharist as the "flesh of our saviour Jesus Christ", and he implies that the Church of Rome has a special role, "presiding over love" (Epistle to the Romans, Introduction). Later on in the same century, another early Church writer, St Irenaeus fills in some more details for us. He records that the Church in Rome was founded by Ss. Peter and Paul, and that, "It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority" (Against the Heresies, III.3). Furthermore, St Irenaeus even gives us a list of the first Bishops of Rome after St Peter. This list begins "Linus, Anacletus, Clement," the same names mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. Like so many other early Christians, these bishops were not rich and powerful by any worldly measure. Indeed, it is believed that St Clement, like St Ignatius and St Peter himself, was executed, being thrown into the sea tied to an anchor. But these early Christians, often writing in the midst of terrible persecution, affirm the existence of the Catholic Church, of her ministerial structure, of her doctrines - including those of the Eucharist - and of her organic continuity with the apostles. And we today are part of that same community, born at Pentecost and from the side of Christ on the cross.

So is there any truth in the other thesis of the 'Dan Brown' view of history? Has the Catholic Church usually been the church of the rich and powerful? Well, as the saying goes, a stopped clock is right twice a day, and there have, indeed, been times when the rich and powerful have helped the Catholic Church. To give a few examples, the Church in fourth century was grateful that the Emperor Constantine provided a venue and ships for the First Council of Nicaea. Pope Stephen III in the eighth century was grateful for the protection of Pepin, King of the Franks, for saving Rome from invasion by the Lombards. The Church in the twelfth century was grateful for the political support of St Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor. In the sixteenth century, Pope Pius V was grateful to the Venetian and Spanish navies for helping to saving Italy from Ottoman invasion at the Battle of Lepanto. In more recent centuries, Catholics in England have been grateful for the support of the certain nobility such as the Duke of Norfolk, a friend in high places who mitigated some of the persecution of Catholics by the English state. Yet, taking the broad view, one would have to conclude that the Church has been in conflict with the rich and powerful far more often than not, as the tragic stories of many saints, or the history of the Irish people, or the Armenians, the Vietnamese and many millions of Catholics suffering in the Far East, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America can testify.

As that early Christian martyr Ignatius tells us, "Wherever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church," and there are, indeed, a few occasions in history when the Church appears triumphant, like Christ being cheered and waved through the gates of Jerusalem. But more often, my friends, we accompany Christ to Calvary, to the Cross. It is there on Calvary that Christ reigns in triumph, and it is there, also, that the true glory of the Church is revealed.

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