History of the Catholic Church: How and When Did Catholicism Begin?
With a history that dates to almost 2,000 years ago, the Catholic Church is undoubtedly one of the oldest institutions in existence. The Church today boasts of more than 1.3 billion members worldwide. To put into perspective, that number is roughly 16% of the population of the world.
But when and how exactly did Catholicism begin? Did the institution evolve from early Christian communities in the Roman Empire, or did it begin in the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity and began uniting the state with the Church?
In the article below, World History Edu explores the history and origin story of the Catholic Church.
Origin of the word “Catholic”
It is said that Saint Ignatius (35-107), the Bishop of Antioch and student of the Apostle John, was the first-known person to use the word ‘Catholic’. For his works, many consider him one of the Apostolic Fathers. He was killed in the arena during the reign of Emperor Trajan.
Roman leaders and the broader Roman society, which at the time was largely pagan, were bent on clamping down on the spread of Christianity; hence many early Church Fathers suffered a similar fate as that of Ignatius.
Jesus Christ and the Early Christian Church
Christianity is often described as a religion that emerged from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (also known as Jesus Christ), a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. A Galilean Jew, Jesus is credited as the founder of the early Christian Church. And to his followers, he is seen as the incarnation of God the Son and the awaited Messiah (the Christ) prophesied in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Old Testament).
According to the teachings of Saint John, Jesus Christ is the eternal son of the Father due to his divine nature. Early Christian scholars believed that Jesus Christ’s purpose was to preserve the world. The Jewish preacher also had a human side that in a way symbolized the religious growth of humanity. His dual nature – i.e. a divine one and human one – meant that he was believed to be the epitome of piety and virtue.
Jesus is said to have begun his public mission around the age of 30. What this means is that his mission lasted for only about three years as he was crucified around the age of 33. Prior to the start of his mission, the Jewish rabbi was in a way inaugurated by his cousin and Judean preacher John the Baptist.
His works and teachings, which were basically an expansion of the Jewish teachings, served as the basis of the early Christians and later Catholicism.
Early Christianity was as a branch of Judaism
Unlike the Jewish faith at the time which had in some way neglected people of low-borns, sinners, prostitutes, thieves, and other social misfits, the teaching of Jesus were aimed at the ordinary people, preaching love and obedience to God. With no previous training, he was still able to amass a number of followers, transforming the minds of his disciples, who were also Jews.
The teachings of Jesus Christ were orally passed on to leaders of the early Christian community. The authors (i.e. Mark, Mathew, Luke and John) of the life and gospel of Christ never claimed to have met the Jewish preacher. Their source came from the collective memory of the Christian community at the time. What this means is that those writings cannot entirely be considered historical account of Jesus Christ. The authors meant for their works to convince readers of Jesus’ divine nature and his resurrection.
It is important to note that early Christians were not considered members of a separate religion. Instead, they were seen as members of a somewhat radical Jewish sect. This would explain why both the traditional Jewish community and the pagan Romans considered early Christians as troublesome political and religious agitators. For example, a significant portion of the Jewish population did not accept the claim that Jesus was the promised messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Old Testament).
Early Christian Leaders and the Great Commission
As they were met by some stern opposition from the Jewish community in Judea, many of the leaders of the early Church were forced to spread the gospel to other places, mostly around the Mediterranean. Contrary to popularly held belief, the religion spread gradually throughout the Roman Empire. In some way, the persecution of the leaders by pagan Roman leaders attracted some bit of followers to the religion.
Some of the first leaders took refuge in Antioch, an ancient Greek city in modern day Turkey. In fact, Antioch was one of the first places were the gentiles were baptized. By removing some Jewish characteristics from the religion, the early Jewish Christians were able to gather more followers. The Jewish religion were seen by first followers of Christianity as having strict laws.
Early Christian leaders also drew followers due to the simplicity of their message: All one had to do earn salvation was to have enough faith in Jesus Christ.
It was also believed that following the resurrection of Jesus, his followers had been instructed to spread the gospel to every nook and cranny of the world. Known as the Great Commission, the instruction is contained in Matthew 28: 16-20, which narrates of the story of a resurrected Jesus entreating his disciples (i.e. 11 of them as Judas had committed suicide following his betrayal of Jesus) in Galilee to go into all the nations of the world and make the people disciples of the new religion.
Because many of the Early Church Fathers were merchants it was relatively easier for them to journey to places along the Mediterranean to preach the gospel and baptize people in the name of Jesus Christ. They travelled to Asia Minor, Arabia, the Balkans and North Africa.
Notable leaders of the early Christian community in Jerusalem included James the Just, Peter, James the Greater, John, Barnabas, and Paul the Apostle. The latter two carried out many missionary works and came to the aid of the Gentile (non-Jews) converts [to early Christianity] who were constantly persecuted by the Judaizers.
Paul and his follower argued that the much of the doctrines of the Old Covenant (i.e. the Law of Moses) have been superseded by the laws (i.e. the Law of Christ) Jesus Christ taught. Paul the Apostle even challenged fellow Christian leader Peter the Apostle regarding the imposition of circumcision on the Gentiles. The two men are considered major saints in Catholicism as well as the founders of the Church in Rome.
The reason why some Gentiles opposed circumcision was because for centuries the foreskin was considered a sign of civility and masculinity, especially throughout Greco-Roman world.
Pentecost is a Christian holiday that celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles of Jesus Christ, as described in the New Testament of the Bible. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “pentēkostē,” which means “fiftieth.” It is observed on the seventh Sunday after Easter, which is 50 days after Easter Sunday.
According to the Bible, on the day of Pentecost, the apostles and other followers of Jesus were gathered together in Jerusalem when they were suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. This event is sometimes referred to as the “birthday” of the Christian Church, as it marked the beginning of the apostles’ mission to spread the teachings of Jesus to the world.
In some Christian traditions, Pentecost is also known as Whit Sunday or Whitsunday, referring to the white garments worn by those who were baptized on this day. Pentecost is considered one of the most important celebrations in the Christian calendar, along with Easter and Christmas.
The Council of Jerusalem
According to tradition, leaders of the early Christian community (i.e. the Pillars of the Church) met in Jerusalem around 50 AD. The meeting, which came to be called the Council of Jerusalem, included James the Just, Peter, Barnabas, John, and Paul the Apostle.
In addition to deciding on concrete actions on how the Evangelizing mission would go, members of the council hoped to resolve the issue of the Gentiles once and for all. Two factions emerged – one led by James the Just (brother of Jesus Christ), and the other by Paul the Apostle. The latter, who is sometimes described as “Apostle to the Gentiles”, argued that the Gentile converts were not bound to the Mosaic Law (i.e. the Torah).
It later confirmed that both Jews and non-Jews were granted salvation, and that the Gentiles be included into God’s New Covenant, a term that describes how the blood of Christ solidifies the ongoing relationship between Christians and God.
Basically, the Council of Jerusalem agreed that the Gentiles be exempted from some Jewish laws, and that faith in Christ was all that one needed to secure salvation.
Followers of Jesus Christ were encouraged to follow certain basic rules, such as abstaining from meat that had been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality.
This decision is recorded in the New Testament in the book of Acts, chapter 15. The Council of Jerusalem is considered an important event in the history of Christianity, as it helped establish the early Church’s identity and paved the way for the spread of Christianity beyond the Jewish community.
Notable leaders of the Early Church
Based on the teachings of a Jewish preacher called Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian Church has its origins in Judea, a Roman province, in the first century AD. The first leaders of the Church were the Apostles of Jesus. They had been commanded to spread Jesus’s teachings to all parts of the world.
The leaders of the Early Church played important roles in shaping the beliefs and practices of Christianity as it developed in the first few centuries after the death of Jesus. Below are some of the most notable leaders of the Early Church:
Peter, who had fled Jerusalem after Herod Agrippa I tried to kill him, emerged as a very important figure in the Christianity community. According to tradition, he was granted preeminence in the faith by Jesus; thus, he became the bedrock of the early Christian church.
One of the first disciples called by Jesus, Peter is credited as the founder of the Church of Antioch and the Church of Rome. It is for this reason, the apostle is seen as the first Bishop of Rome, i.e. the apostolic successor, and the first Bishop of Antioch. Catholic teachings state that Peter was promised a special position in the Church by Jesus. Peter’s papacy thus lasted until his death, which was between 64-68 AD. This makes him the longest-reigning pope in history.
After Peter fled to Antioch, James became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Paul was a very important figure in the Apostolic Age. According to tradition, he committed himself to the spread of the teachings of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean. Initially Pharisee, Paul, then-Saul, was engaged in the persecution of leaders of the early Christian Church. His conversion came after he saw a vision of the ascended Jesus on his way to Damascus. The incident made Saul temporary blind.
Saul’s eyesight was later restored by Ananias of Damascus, one of Jesus’s disciples. After being baptized by Ananias, Saul, now called Paul, set out for Arabia, preaching the teachings of Jesus Christ. Three years later, he went to Jerusalem, where he met Simon Peter and James. A few years later, he also met Barnabas, a Cypriot Jew.
Along with Barnabas, Paul transformed the Gentile community, making them huge advocates of the teachings of Jesus. The two men embarked on many missionaries and came to the support of the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas headed to Antioch where they intensified their missionary works. They also travelled to Cyprus, Pisidia and Lycaonia.
During his missionary work in Philippi, a major Greek city, Paul and his companion Silas were arrested for casting a bad spirit out of girl. Paul and his companions also visited other cities in the region, including Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Phrygia, Rhodes, Tyre, Troas, and Miletus. According to tradition, he performed many miracles and cast out demons.
In 57 AD, after his third missionary journey, he went back to Jerusalem. A few years later, he was arrested and sent to Rome. Towards the later years of Emperor Nero’s reign, Paul was arrested by the Roman tribune, tried and sentenced to death. He was beheaded almost in similar fashion as John the Baptist. His death occurred after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.
Other notable leaders of the Early Church include:
- James: Also known as James the Just, he was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and is believed to have been a relative of Jesus.
- Ignatius of Antioch: A bishop of Antioch, he is known for his letters to various Christian communities, which provide important insight into the early Church.
- John: Sometimes known as the Beloved Disciple, Saint John was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. He is generally listed as the youngest apostle. He was the son of Zebedee and Salome. His brother James was another of the Twelve Apostles. John is believed to have written several books of the New Testament, including the Gospel of John, and was the last surviving apostle.
- Polycarp: A bishop of Smyrna, he was a disciple of John and is considered one of the earliest Christian martyrs. Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.
- Clement of Rome: A bishop of Rome, he is believed to have been the third Pope and is known for his letter to the Corinthians, which is one of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament.
Why were early Christian leaders persecuted?
Pagan Rome saw the spread of Christianity as a threat to their traditional religious values. They viewed early Christian leaders as causing an upset to the status quo; hence many of those leaders were sentenced to death, becoming martyrs of the early Church.
When was the Catholic faith established?
According to Catholic scholars, Christianity had become a well-established faith by the end of the first century AD. However, the exact date of the birth of the Catholic faith remains a matter of some disputes.
Catholic scholars maintain that the Catholic Church was established exactly 50 days after the Crucifixion. And in the first 50 or so years, it was called The Way. By the beginning of the 2nd century, the word catholic started gaining prominence, with the earliest known usage of the word coming from Saint Ignatius in 108. Proponents of this see the Apostolic Age as a purview of the Catholic Church.
On the contrary, non-Catholic scholars state that the Emperor Constantine founded the Catholic Church, and that there is no clear lineage from the apostles to the pope. Thus, the first official Catholic Church was founded in the 4th century, a time when the spread of Christianity among pagans became the norm.
A religion of very high morals
As the decades turned into centuries, Christianity began to spread across the Roman Empire because missionaries and leaders of the early Church was bent on disregarding the status quo. They did not discriminate against any segment of the society, preaching to anyone they encountered, including the rich, workers, slaves, sinners, prisoners, soldiers, travelers, widows, orphans, and anyone in peril or need.
Early Christians gradually became known for their high morals. The religion was portrayed as one of peace and love. And by the second century, a clear hierarchy of the missionaries had started to form, with the bishops seen as the successors of the Apostles. Beneath the bishops were the priests and deacons.
Ultimately, the Church of Rome would rise above the other churches and come to be seen as the cornerstone of the institution.
The Edict of Milan
The Edict of Milan was a proclamation issued by Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius in February 313 AD. The two Roman leaders met in Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) and issued a proclamation that granted religious toleration to all religions, including Christianity, throughout the Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan effectively ended the persecution of Christians, which had been taking place sporadically since the reign of Emperor Nero in the first century AD.
The proclamation was significant because it recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion and allowed Christians to openly worship and practice their faith without fear of persecution. It also allowed Christians to reclaim their property and granted them the right to hold public office, which had previously been denied to them.
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The Edict of Milan had far-reaching effects on the development of Christianity and the history of Western civilization. It paved the way for the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and helped to unify the empire under a single religion. It also laid the foundation for the separation of church and state, as it granted religious freedom to all, regardless of their beliefs.
Note: Although the Edict of Milan granted official toleration to Christians in the Roman Empire, it did not make Christianity the state church of the empire. That proclamation came about six decades later with the Edict of Thessalonica.
How Christianity became a state-sponsored religion
Having converted to Christianity in 312, Emperor Constantine started suppressing paganism. And even though he still acted as the supreme pontiff of the pagan religion, he started publicly displaying Christian symbols. He also began imposing some form of restrictions on pagan ceremonies and rituals.
Upon becoming the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, Constantine made sure to align the interest of the Church and state together. His reign kick started the tradition of Roman emperors meddling in the Church’s affairs.
First Council of Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea was a meeting of Christian bishops held in Nicaea (now known as Iznik, Turkey) in 325 AD, under the rule of Emperor Constantine I. The council was convened to address several theological issues, the most important of which was the Arian controversy.
The Arian controversy centered around the teachings of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, who taught that Jesus was not fully divine but rather a created being, subordinate to God the Father. This view was opposed by many bishops, including Athanasius of Alexandria, who argued that Jesus was fully divine and of the same substance as God the Father.
At the Council of Nicaea, the bishops debated these and other theological issues and ultimately produced the Nicene Creed, a statement of faith that affirmed the divinity of Jesus and defined the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The council also established the date of Easter and issued several other decrees related to the governance of the Church.
Theodosius I adopts the Trinitarian doctrine
The Nicene Creed issued in 325 begins with the words “I believe in one God,” and goes on to affirm the key beliefs of Christianity, including the belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the dead. The creed emphasizes the unity of God and the Trinity, the belief that God exists as three distinct persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who are equal in power and glory.
In 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius (379-395) issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which basically supported the Trinitarian doctrine – a doctrine based on the Nicene Creed from the First Council of Nicaea (325). The edict stated that only followers of the Trinitarian doctrine were to be seen as Catholic Christians, while non-followers were tagged as heretics.
Impact of the Edict of Thessalonica on Christianity and the Roman Empire
The Edict of Thessalonica had a significant impact on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. It marked the first time that Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the empire, and it solidified the power of the Church in the state. The edict also paved the way for the establishment of the Byzantine Empire, which would be ruled by Christian emperors for over a thousand years.
Many scholars today consider the Edict of Thessalonica as a turning point in the history of Christianity, as it helped to establish the Church as a major political and social force in the Western world.
The First Council of Constantinople (in 381) makes Trinitarian a fundamental belief of Christianity
The First Council of Constantinople was a gathering of Christian bishops in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 381 AD, called by Emperor Theodosius I to address several theological issues that had arisen since the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The council was attended by around 150 bishops and is considered one of the most important events in the history of Christianity.
The main purpose of the council was to reaffirm and clarify the Nicene Creed, which had been adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The council affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity and clarified the role of the Holy Spirit in the Godhead. It also declared the divinity of the Holy Spirit and rejected the teaching of the Macedonian heresy, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
In addition to its theological pronouncements, the council also issued several canons (church laws) that dealt with issues such as the ordination of bishops, the jurisdiction of bishops over specific regions, and the conduct of clergy.
The First Council of Constantinople is considered an important milestone in the development of Christian theology and church governance. Its decisions helped to establish the doctrine of the Trinity as a fundamental belief of Christianity, and its canons helped to standardize church practices and procedures. The council also helped to solidify the power of the bishop of Rome, who was recognized as the leader of the Western Church and later became the Pope.
In the decades that followed, the Roman Empire clamped down on non-Trinitarians and pagans, with so-called heretics given the death penalty.
Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church
Catholics believe in having a life of love, hope and faith in order to gain salvation. Those things in turn come from grace. Grace refers to a supernatural gift of God that someone did nothing to deserve. The Catholic Church celebrates seven sacraments. A sacrament refer to “an outward sign instituted (started) by Christ to give grace”.
The seven sacraments of the Catholic Church are:
- Baptism: This is the first sacrament of initiation into the Catholic Church. It involves the pouring of water over the head of the person being baptized and the pronouncement of the Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism cleanses a person of original sin and marks them as a member of the Church.
- Confirmation: This is the second sacrament of initiation and is usually received in adolescence. It involves the anointing of the forehead with chrism oil by a bishop or priest, and the laying on of hands, which confers the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
- Eucharist: This is the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe that during the Eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, although they retain the outward appearance of bread and wine.
- Reconciliation: This is the sacrament of penance and forgiveness. It involves confessing one’s sins to a priest, who then absolves the person of their sins and gives them a penance to perform.
- Anointing of the Sick: This is the sacrament of healing and is administered to those who are seriously ill or near death. It involves the anointing of the forehead and hands with oil by a priest, and the offering of prayers for healing and forgiveness.
- Holy Orders: This is the sacrament by which men are ordained as bishops, priests, or deacons in the Catholic Church. It involves the laying on of hands by a bishop, and the offering of prayers for the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen the person being ordained.
- Marriage: This is the sacrament of the union between a man and a woman in a lifelong commitment of love and fidelity. It involves the exchange of vows and rings in the presence of a priest or deacon, and the offering of prayers for God’s blessing on the couple’s union.
Major facts about Catholicism and the Catholic Church
With over 1.3 billion members, the Catholic Church is the largest Christian church in the world. The Church is headquartered in the Vatican City, a small country inside the city of Rome, Italy.
Below are some major facts about the Catholic Church:
- According to tradition, Jesus Christ started the Catholic Church about 2,000 years ago. Before his death, he appointed his disciple Saint Peter to lead the Church. Peter thus became the first Pope. As a matter of fact, the word ‘pope’ means “father”
- Elected by a papal conclave on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis became the 266th pope. Francis, who was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected to the position after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (papacy: 2005-2013).
- Catholic popes began using regnal name in the sixth century. This tradition began when Pope John II, who was born Mercury, was elected. The Pope decided to take a regnal name because having a pope bearing the same name as a pagan god seemed very inappropriate. Mercury (known as Hermes in Greek mythology) is the Roman god of travelers, luck, commerce, and among other things.
- The word “catholic” means “universal” or “all-encompassing”. In this sense, the Catholic Church is seen as a universal church that is open to people of all races, cultures, and nationalities. The word comes from the Greek word καθολικός (katholikós), which means “universal.”
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The Catholic Church played a central role in European history during the Middle Ages, and it spread throughout the world as European nations established colonies and missionaries carried the faith to other parts of the world.
Today, Catholicism is one of the largest religions in the world, with over one billion followers worldwide. The Catholic Church continues to be a powerful force in global affairs, and it remains an influential institution in the lives of many people around the world.
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