A Survey of Christianity by Fr. Timothy Naples
New Link: Fr. Naples’ Blog. Clicking here will bring you to the July 2015 post of Scriptural Reflections titled You Are That Man: Reflections on Living as a Devout Catholic Man. See the other blog posts as well.
[This piece was written several years ago thinking of someone who might have no historical knowledge of the Church. Let me know what you think. Fr. Tim Naples]
Christianity started with Jesus. We believe that he is God’s Son and we believe that he was eternally God-himself in heaven. We call him God, although he is always “with” the Father and the Holy Spirit (This is the Trinity if you have never heard of it before: Three Persons in one God, Father Son and Holy Spirit). God is utterly mysterious and too great for us to understand. But we can relate to him personally because the Son became a human being. This is Jesus, and he shows us, in himself, the God who made everything and who made us. This is why we love Jesus, why we follow him, and why we obey him. We find God himself in him.
Jesus was Jewish, and this is the reason that the Bible contains a whole bunch of Jewish history before it ever gets to the life of Jesus. We call this part of the Bible “the Old Testament.” When Jesus comes into the Bible, it is sometimes hard to understand, because so much of what he says and what he does contains references to the Old Testament. Jesus was very familiar with the many centuries of Jewish history, and one reason it takes time to get to know Jesus, and live like him, is because we need to understand the history of his people. The part of the Bible that was written after Jesus came into the world is called “the New Testament.” The New Testament has several descriptions of the life of Jesus. It also has parts of the lives of all those who knew Jesus.
Jesus is called “the Christ” because this was a Jewish title, meaning “the Anointed one.” The original word was “Messiah,” which means the same thing as “Christ,” but it is from a different language. “The Anointed one,” Jesus, came into the world so that he could take away our sins. One thing we learned from the Old Testament was that all people are sinners. We have done things that offended God, that disrespected God, and that told him we wanted nothing to do with him. This was the greatest tragedy in human history, and you might hear it referred to as “Original Sin.” Original Sin is a tragedy because we need God in order to be happy and to reach heaven. We need God to have eternal life. Jesus came to give us back eternal life because we had all lost it. We had all been affected by sin. Jesus came to forgive sins.
Jesus Christ forgave our sins by making a “covenant.” Does this sound like a strange way to forgive sins? Well, you need to understand what a covenant is. A covenant is a commitment with someone else which creates a sacred relationship. It is pact or an agreement which is so special it will never be destroyed. Simply put, Jesus Christ made a covenant between God and all people who live by faith. Those who are part of this covenant have a relationship with God because of Jesus, and this is how their sins are forgiven. God forgives them because they have entered this covenant with Jesus Christ. If you ask how you become part of this covenant, I will tell you very simply by summarizing what the New Testament tells us to do.
Believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, receive baptism in his name, and dedicate the rest of your life to him. You can believe in Jesus Christ by learning from those people who are already part of this covenant (like you are doing right now). To dedicate your life to Jesus you should receive confirmation so that your hope in Jesus will be strong enough that you will never turn your back on him. Then you make your dedication to him perfect by receiving communion at church throughout your life. The meaning of communion is the love of Christ. In communion Jesus Christ loves us so much that he enters into our life in the most profound way, which you will learn about by reading certain parts of the New Testament. The more you invite Jesus into your life through faith, hope and communion (the more you learn about him by participating in this covenant relationship with him) the more perfect you will be able to love other people.
These three things are what people of faith have always done to have eternal life with God: baptism, confirmation, and communion. These began to be called “sacraments,” although sometimes they are called “mysteries,” because they were started by Jesus himself and there is much more to the sacraments than we could ever understand. We will never understand them completely, but we can receive them because we have faith. These sacraments are what allow us to be called Christians, because they establish our permanent relationship with Christ himself. Jesus is no longer visibly on earth. He has chosen to live inside those who are part of his covenant, those who receive the sacraments with faith. This is another “mystery,” that Jesus is in heaven, but really present in us and in our lives at the same time. He has “appeared” to certain people at times, but these times were only for his own special reasons. He is always with those who live in his covenant. He is present on earth in a most special way in communion, but, again, you will have to learn about this a little later.
Jesus chose certain men, called Apostles, to make sure that all people could enter into this covenant through faith+baptism, could strengthen their relationship with God through hope+confirmation, and perfect their love through love+communion. Jesus gave the Apostles power to give these three sacraments to anyone who has faith. There is another sacrament which keeps these three sacraments available to all those who have faith, and it is called Holy Orders. The Apostles of Jesus chose other men to help them, and these men became either bishops or priests. Every bishop or priest received the sacrament of Holy Orders from the Apostles, who had received it from Jesus. Bishops continue to give the sacrament of Holy Orders to new bishops and priests today, so that these bishops and priests can continue to teach other people about Jesus and bring them to the covenant of eternal life with the sacraments. (They do not do this alone, however. There are many, many Christians who help bishops and priests do this every day.)
“The Church” is all the people who have entered into this covenant with Jesus and the bishops and priests. The word “church” used to mean a “gathering” of people. The church is all the people who have been gathered into this covenant with Jesus Christ. You can even read about the first 60 years of the church in the New Testament. We call the New and the Old Testament (together) our Sacred Scriptures (also nicknamed the Bible) because we believe that God inspired these writings to tell us everything we need to know about Jesus and the covenant of the Church. Jesus and the Apostles all taught that the Old Testament was inspired by God, and the bishops who received Holy Orders from the Apostles all taught that the New Testament was inspired by God. Thus you can always read the Old and New Testament to help strengthen your faith in Christ. But it takes a good knowledge of the history of the church’s covenant with Christ in order to really understand it well. We believe that the bishops of the Church have the authority to teach the Bible before all others, because they are primarily responsible for the church. Above all the bishops, the pope has the most authority and the most responsibility. The pope receives this position because he is the successor of Saint Peter. St. Peter was the one Apostle who had greater authority and responsibility than the others. Peter received these from Jesus himself, as is described in several places of the New Testament.
I have tried to summarize quickly for you some of the essential aspects of the Catholic faith, by focusing on the history of how Jesus started the Church. I will try to summarize some of things that have happened in the past 2000 years since the time of the New Testament. I will briefly describe three epochs in history, and the good that Christians did. I hope these show you something of what it means to be a Christian, and how everything that Jesus did has had an effect in the world (even if there are many people who prefer their sins to Jesus).
I – the Roman Persecutions, 60AD to 300AD– the Church shows that the eternal life of Christ cannot be destroyed.
Bishops and priests traveled as far as they could to tell people about Jesus Christ and to give them the sacraments so that many Christian churches could be established for prayer and communion. Christians prayed every day, and they often gathered together. On Sundays they would have services to learn from the Bible and celebrate communion. We now call this service “the Mass” and we keep the practice of some of the first Christians by calling communion “Eucharist,” a word which means “thanksgiving.” It only took Christianity about 30 years before it was immersed into parts of world history that will never be forgotten. Rome Italy was the most powerful city in the world at the time of Jesus. Rome is famous (or infamous) because it tried to kill Christianity within the lifetime of the Apostles of Jesus. Do you think the most powerful city in the world was able to destroy the faith of the people who had entered this covenant with Christ? It was not. These persecutions, known as the Roman persecutions, only made the church grow more. Within about 250 years Christians were leaders within Rome. This was only a sign of the eternal life that Christ gave us.
II – the age of monasteries, 300 AD to 1000 AD – the Church shows that Christ teaches us the truth.
After the Roman Persecutions ended one of the greatest contributions of the church to the world was the formation of monasteries in addition to the many churches. People have always gathered at churches, but when many people started living together in monasteries, so that they could dedicate their whole life to Christ, they were able to do wonderful things for society. People today do not realize that monasteries formed some of the first schools. Because monks were so dedicated to the Scriptures – they copied many, many Bibles by hand – many more people learned to read and write in those days than if there were never any Christians. Because of the church’s covenant with Jesus, many deeds of charity were also done through monasteries, especially in the times known as the “dark ages” when there was great political turmoil and economic instability. It is said that the monasteries were “a light in the darkness.” Some of the darkness was caused by the sins even of those people in the church. But despite this, things were much better because of the church. Honest historians who do not have any grudges against Christians will admit this. The church has served many people in its history.
III- the age of religious orders, 1000 AD to 1500 AD – we see that Christ serves others in the church
Groups that we call Religious Orders sent many priests and nuns into society to show the love of Christ. The church started hospitals in these, the “Middle Ages.” The church continued to staff many schools in the Middle Ages. There are several examples of countries who stood out because their king or queen was such a dedicated Christian, that they governed their people like Christ himself. A living saint always seeks the good of those that they serve. Like Jesus, many people in the church used their power and authority to serve others. On the one hand, there have always been many people who sought after power in the church for selfish reasons. On the other hand, the people we call saints were people who didn’t care about money or power or prestige. They cared about serving others because they knew the love of Christ.
Before I conclude, I must outline how it is that not everything in the church today looks like my description about the covenant of Jesus Christ. There have been many disagreements in the church, because not all the Christian members really lived the covenant of Christ perfectly. There are still sinners in the Church, even though Jesus has done so much good through his covenant. One of the most devastating disagreements happened in the 1500s, almost 500 years ago. I will have to simplify it a great deal, but a major problem happened when some people started to twist particular beliefs of the church in order to get money. This has always happened here and there, but it was happening more and more. Some people reacted to this by saying that the church (and the pope, bishops and priests) had really been teaching the wrong beliefs for the past couple of centuries. The dispute was enormous, and before it was all over there were several groups that claimed that they themselves were the real Christians, and that those who stayed with the pope and bishops and priests were following a false religion. One of the arguments was about how to determine exactly what belonged in the Bible. The Pope and bishops claimed that certain parts of the Old Testament were inspired Scriptures. Others claimed that the Apostles of Jesus did not teach these books as Scripture.
Since then Christians have mainly been divided into Protestants and Catholics. Catholics live the covenant with Jesus Christ in the way that I have described above. We have sacraments, bishops, and many other essential things. Protestants say that Jesus did not want these “sacraments” or bishops or popes or the Mass or monasteries or priests or nuns. They say that these things might have been helpful to some people, but that they can get in the way of being a Christian, so they are not necessary. Protestants might say something like this: the essential things for being a Christian are only to read the Bible, to have faith in Jesus, to pray to him, to ask him to forgive your sins, and commit your life to him. Many Protestants will still practice baptism and communion, but they do not call these things sacraments. They say that baptism and communion can help our faith in Jesus if they are understood the proper way. The Protestant version of the Bible and prayer to Jesus are the two things that are emphasized more than baptism or communion.
Protestants and Catholics both preform many charitable deeds for others. Protestants sometimes know much more about the Bible than Catholics because they have cleared away all of the other things I have described in order to focus only on the Bible. So there are things that Catholics should learn from Protestants, but there are things that Protestants should accept again from Catholics. The Catholic church, which covers all the many individual Catholic churches in the world, is very large and complex, and it is full of more history than you could ever hope to learn. In comparison a Protestant church might seem very simple, because it is less connected with the long history of Christianity. Some Protestant churches are very very similar to the Catholic church, but I have no more room to try to further explain how this complex situation came about. I can only pray the reader come to know Christ like I have come to know him in the Catholic church. If a person decides to be Catholic and to believe in Jesus the way that Catholics have done, they should learn some of the things that the bishops and popes teach about the Bible. They should learn more about the sacraments, and they should learn how and why Catholics celebrate communion every Sunday. These things that I have described here are most essential, and a person will enjoy learning many other things as they continue to live as a Christian.