Page images
PDF
EPUB

an Ovid had celebrated in immortal verse; nor could they brook that despised foreigners from Judea should presume to teach them, polished Greeks and Romans; they forgot what modern writers sometimes forget, that truth though spoken by alien lips, is never an alien, but should find a warm welcome in every heart.

[ocr errors]

1

Grave historians even, like Tacitus and Suetonius, condemned the new religion in unmeasured terms. Tacitus calls it "a detestable superstition provoking the just hatred of humanity because of its crimes." And Suetonius speaks of the Christians as "a race of men given up to a new and pernicious superstition." These writers did not think it worth while to inquire into the charges which prejudice and hate had invented against an inoffensive people. They accepted all they had heard against them as true, and thought they could in no better way contribute to the security of the State than by reprehending a religion which aimed at the destruction of its gods.

The conservative element in society opposed the religion of Christ because it was new, and because the worship of the gods had the authority of a venerable antiquity. This was the religion which they and their fathers had followed for generations, and they could not calmly suffer this new sect to disturb the old order of things.

Again, the worship of the gods appealed to the passions of men and pandered to their sensuality.

'Annal. XV., 44.

'Vita Neronis, Ch. 6.

They were consequently devout followers of Jupiter, Venus, Bacchus and the rest, in whose example they found the justification of their worst excesses. Christianity, on the other hand, insisted on the subjugation of the passions, and bade its followers "crucify their flesh with its vices and concupiscences."

Lastly, the old religion was upheld by the civil rulers, because it was the religion of the State, and was part of the machinery of government. Its festivals and ceremonies were officially sanctioned by the authorities; its temples were built, and its priests maintained at the public expense; while Christianity was proscribed by the civil law as a dangerous innovation, and an impiety towards the established worship of the State. The Christian religion was denounced as a standing menace to the empire, corrupting the loyalty of the people and provoking by its crimes the vengeance of heaven. The most monstrous misrepresentations were invented with the view of bringing odium on the Christian name. If the Christians assembled for prayer at night, as they were obliged to do in order to elude the vigilance of their persecutors, they were charged with meeting for the basest purposes. If they celebrated the Sacred Mysteries, they were accused of killing an infant at their secret reunions, and of drinking its blood. Such was the way in which Pagans misrepresented the Holy Communion.

If the Christians greeted one another by the endearing title of brother and sister, they were sus

pected of incest. If they refused to take an oath conflicting with their conscience, they were held up as disloyal to the government. If they refused to offer incense to idols, they were accused of atheism and impiety to the gods.

By a natural consequence the Christians were held responsible for every public calamity that happened to the State. If the Tiber overleaped its banks, or if the Nile did not enrich the land by the annual overflow; if the country was visited by famine or pestilence, or earthquakes, or by war or conflagration, all these visitations were ascribed to the anger of the gods towards the Christians.

All the mighty forces of a great empire were exerted to destroy them. Edicts against them were issued by the emperors and the provincial governors. Everything that official zeal, thirst for blood or gold, or the hope of preferment, could do, was brought to bear against them. A continuous net-work was spread over the land to catch them in its toils. From Nero's time in the middle of the first century, the massacre of Christians was continued with only an occasional lull in the storm till Diocletian's reign at the opening of the fourth century. The storm reached its height under that emperor's rule. So unrelenting was the persecution, so general was the slaughter throughout the empire, so frightful and varied were the tortures inflicted, and so crushing and complete, apparently, was the overthrow of the new religion, that medals were struck and a monument erected in honor of Diocletian, commemorating

the utter annihilation of the Christian name.

Yet

this darkest period of the Church's history, like the hour before dawn was speedily followed by the bright day of freedom, when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was called to the throne, and proclaimed liberty of worship throughout the land.

Let us now inquire into the cause of the wonderful growth and durability of the Church amid the vicissitudes through which it has passed. This subject is one of profound interest to the friends and foes of Christianity alike, and has engaged the attention of philosophers and statesmen in every age. Can the development and stability of the Church be explained by natural causes, or must it be accounted for upon supernatural grounds?

All human institutions are subject, like man himself, to the law of death. States, Empires and Republics, have their birth, and their periods of growth and development, of decay and dissolution. The Roman Empire of all the states of antiquity was the most conspicuous for strength and duration. It lasted seven hundred and fifty years from its foundation under Romulus, until the zenith of its glory under Augustus. Four hundred years later it was dismembered, so that it lasted altogether eleven hundred and fifty years, after having passed successively through the phases of a Monarchy, a Republic and an Empire.

The Catholic Church has already existed close upon two thousand years, or nearly twice as long as one of the most venerable commonwealths in history.

1

She appears before the world to-day in unimpaired vigor, with her constitution, laws and government unchanged. So far from betraying any signs of decrepitude and decay, she is instinct with life and displays the missionary spirit and the apostolic zeal which characterized her when she carried the Gospel into France in the fifth century, and to England in the sixth.

Now this grave question confronts us: Why should the Catholic Church, of all institutions, be the sole exception to the law of change and death? The historian Gibbon, unwilling to concede to the Church a divine origin and supernatural protection, endeavors to account for her astonishing growth and perpetuity upon purely natural grounds, and he alleges five causes which, he maintains, are sufficient to explain them. These are, the zeal of the first Christians; the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; the miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church; the sublime virtues of the early Christians; and the admirable organization of the Church herself.1

The influence of these causes cannot, indeed, be easily overestimated. They were powerful factors in the propagation of the faith. But they were all secondary causes, subordinated to one great controlling Cause. If we come suddenly upon a fair expanse of water, curiosity may impel us to search for the hidden springs that feed it. Our toil may be rewarded by the discovery of several noble streams;

1 Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. II., Chap. 15.

« EelmineJätka »