Catholic Church History: A Summary of the Past 2,000 Years

Since my conversion I have always been interested in Church History, which led me to write a short thesis on the history of the Catholic Church before finishing graduate school. I recently reread the thesis and decided to post a brief introduction into the history of the Catholic Church. It will be divided into twenty sections; each section representing one century. Keep in mind that this introduction is not an indepth study but more or less a collage of highlights from each century. -Brian

1st Century: The Birth of the Church

Five historical points define this century.

1.    Pentecost

2.    St. Paul

3.    Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:11)

4.    Evangelization

–          they were shocked to discover that Christians were 1) Monotheistic – they believed in only one God, not many gods as they did. 2) Moral – they had a strange moral code that included, fidelity in marriage and the rejection of infanticide. 3) They were perceived as Cannibals – they claimed to eat the flesh of a man named Jesus of Nazareth.

5.    Persecutions (Nero, 64, Domitian,95)

2nd Century: Our Church Fathers

Persecutions: Emperors Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138) and Marcus Aurelius (168-180) picked up where Nero and Domition left off, persecuting Christians as far south as Vienne and as far east as Lyons, France. Whenever some sort of disaster, such as the plague, fell upon a city, the citizens of that city blamed the Christians, claiming that they were being punished because Christians refused to pay the gods homage.

St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who wrote seven letters encouraging Christian communities to practice their faith. Justin Martyr (100-165), who wrote about Christianity from a philosophical standpoint, is considered the first Christian philosopher. Tertullian (155-240) was a North African layman who wrote a number of treatises defending the faith. And lastly, there was St. Iranaeus, Bishop of Lyons (130-200), who wrote a very important work entitled Against the Heresies (189-190). In this work Iranaeus developed a creed, established a theology of apostolic succession and gave the Church of Rome preeminence over other Christian churches. His writing and theology contributed greatly to the doctrine of the early Church.

Against the Heresies did not only help with the development of Christian doctrine, but was used to help combat a growing heresy called “gnosticism”. The Gnostics, led by a man named Marcion, believed that the material world was completely opposed to the spiritual world and that two gods existed – the god of the Old Testament who was mean and vengeful and the god of the New Testament who was loving and merciful. Marcion’s theology eventually led him to develop his own version of the Bible.

3rd Century: Martyrs, Apostatized Catholics & Monasticism

In 250 AD the Emperor Decius (249-251) ordered that all citizens of the Empire make a public sacrifice to the gods. It was a perfect way to trap Christians whose faith called them to reject any form of idolatry. Those Christians who publicly refused to worship the false gods were either sent into exile, thrown into prison or, as in many cases, executed. Unfortunately, some of the faithful chose to apostatize – to abandon the faith – and offered a sacrifice to the gods rather than undergo imprisonment and exile.

When the persecutions came to an end, the Church was faced with a difficult matter. It had to decide how it was going to handle those Catholics who offered a sacrifice to the pagan gods, but now wanted to be readmitted into the Church. This led to a heresy, started by a priest in Rome named Novatian, who insisted that those who were guilty of serious sin, such as apostasy, should be excommunicated and never allowed back into communion with the Church. Pope Cornelius in 251 AD condemned Novatian’s theology insisting that even though one committed a serious sin they could still, through prayer and severe penance, be allowed back into the Church.

This century also witnessed the beginnings of monasticism in Egypt. A number of Christians through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, left the world and all its comforts to literally follow Christ into the desert and lead austere and holy lives. Two men who contributed greatly to this way of life were St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) and St. Pachomius (292-346).

St. Anthony, after hearing a passage from the Gospel where Jesus spoke about leaving everything behind to follow Him, abandoned his family farm and moved to the desert. While in the desert he lived as a hermit, embracing a life of severe penance, constant prayer and labor. His reputation as a holy man of God attracted others to follow his way of life and example. St. Pachomius on the other hand built and founded several monasteries in the Egyptian desert where men lived together in a communal environment.

4th Century: The Nicene Creed

I. When the Roman general Constantine became Emperor in 312 AD, the Church entered a new era. The following year the Edict of Milan was signed which officially ended the persecutions and the peoples of the Empire, especially Christians, were given the freedom to practice their religion. Constantine showed his support for Christianity by the following: building basilicas for worship, backing the production of Bibles, and restoring land that had been taken away from Christians during the persecutions. Constantine also gave the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, the Lateran Palace.

II. In 318 AD a priest named Arius taught and preached that Jesus, though the Son of God, was created – meaning He did not exist from the beginning. The Church on the other hand taught that Jesus was never created, but existed from the beginning of time. To defend the Church’s position and defeat this new heresy, named Arianism, the Church called for an ecumenical council.

III. To effectively deal with the Arian heresy, which many Bishops embraced, the Church in 325 AD called over two hundred Bishops together to open the Church’s first ecumenical council in Nicea. Although the vast majority of the Bishops were from the East, several attended from the West including papal legates who represented Pope Sylvester. The Council’s greatest achievement was the condemnation of Arianism and the development of the Nicene Creed, which we still recite today.

IV. One saint that stands out during this century is Athanasius (297-373). St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was the staunchest defender of the Nicene Council. His support for the teachings of the Council, especially in relation to Arianism, forced him into exile a total of five times by numerous Bishops who supported Arius and his teaching.

V. In the later part of the century, a tribe of barbarians called the Goths crossed the German Danube River and entered the Roman Empire. This would eventually lead to the Empire’s collapse.

5th Century: Theotokos – “Mother of God”

-Pelagius (412): taught and preached that grace was not entirely necessary for salvation.

– Orange: grace was necessary for man’s salvation.

– Nestorius (428): Christotokos,notTheotokos.

– Council of Ephesus in 431 AD officially defined Mary as the “Mother of God”.

– St. Leo “the Great”, ascended to the throne of Peter in 440 AD and used his full spiritual authority as Pope to govern, teach and lead the faithful. He also used his position as Pope to govern the city of Rome and in 452 AD saved it from being destroyed by barbarian invaders. St. Leo helped shape the papacy into a spiritual force for centuries to come.

– St. Augustine was born in 354 AD in North Africa.

– St. Patrick in Ireland.

6th Century: Monasticism & Evangelization Take Center Stage

Three historical high points define this century.

-Western Monasticism was born: St. Benedict (480-550 AD) as a young man left his comfortable surroundings in Rome in order to live in a cave and embrace the life of a hermit. St. Benedict’s life attracted others and in 529 he established a monastery at Monte Cassino. St. Benedict and his monks led a life of work and prayer. Eventually, their way of life led to the foundation of other monasteries.

-Missionary activity continues: In imitation of St. Patrick, St. Columban (521-597 AD) – an Irish monk – left Ireland for Scotland in 563 with twelve others to convert the Picks, a tribe of pagans. As he traveled through Scotland, St. Columban established both monasteries and hermitages, which sparked greater missionary activity in the region.

-Pagan practices increase: The barbarians who now occupied the Empire brought with them their pagan practices and superstitions. When the Church began to convert the barbarians, they noticed that many of them were Arian. Though the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople condemned Arianism, Arian priests went out and evangelized the barbarians, specifically the

7th Century: Rise of the Papacy and the Beginning of Islam

Three historical high points define this century.

-Monasticism Spreads: The monastic way of life, started by St. Benedict in the sixth century rapidly grew in the seventh. Monasteries started to pop up in Italy, France, Spain and Africa. The monks through their life of “work and prayer” were able to offer the known world the stability and safety it needed.

-Pope Gregory the Great: The pontificate of St. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604 AD), like that of Leo the Great, contributed greatly to the development and glory of the papacy. Gregory began a promising career in the Roman civil government, but left it all to embrace the monastic life. Because of his administrative experience Gregory became a “papal envoy” and in 590 was elected Pope. As Pope, Gregory rebuilt the city of Rome, called the Church to evangelize the barbarians, reformed the liturgy and wrote a number of theological works.

-The Beginning of Islam: The monotheistic religion “Islam” was started by a man named Mohammed who was born in Mecca (570’s to 611 AD). Mohammed claimed to be a prophet and put together a holy book called the Koran. Islam spread rapidly, taking over regions that once belonged to Jews and Christians. In 632 Jerusalem fell to the Muslims, as did Alexandria in 642, Carthage in 670 and Spain in 711. In one century Islam had taken over almost three-fourths of the known Christian world.

8th Century: Islam Is Stopped and Icons Saved

There are four historical high points that define this century.

-Islam Is Stopped: After conquering Spain, the Muslims set their sights on France. In 732 AD Muslim forces clashed with Charles Martel, King of the Franks, and his army at Poiters. Martel routed the Muslim invaders stopping them from moving any further into Europe.

-St. Boniface: Missionary work continued to flourish. One missionary in particular who specifically evangelized the barbarians, in what would be considered Germany today, was St. Boniface (680-754). In 718 this Benedictine priest left England and made his way to Rome where he received a papal blessing from Pope Gregory II. From Rome he went straight to Germany to begin missionary work among the barbarians. Because of his great success in converting the barbarians, Boniface was made a Bishop in 722. As Bishop he labored intensely for the salvation of souls which led to his martyrdom in 754.

-Patrician of Rome: When Charles Martel died in 751, his son “Pepin the Short” succeeded him as king of the Franks. While being invaded by a tribe of barbarians called the Lombards, Pope Stephen II called upon the Franks to help defend Central and Southern Italy. Pepin came to the rescue and defeated the Lombards in 754. In gratitude for helping the papacy, Pope Stephen gave Pepin the title “Patrician of Rome” and in return Pepin gave central Italy to the papacy.w

-Iconoclast Controversy: While the Western Church was continuing to evangelize and establish closer ties with the Franks, the Eastern Church was involved in a battle over sacred images. In 726 the Eastern Emperor Leo III prohibited the veneration of sacred images because he believed it contradicted the Bible. He demanded that all religious images be destroyed. Leo’s madness came to an end when the Empress Irene, following Leo’s reign, called for an ecumenical council. This council, the Second Council of Nicea, restored the ancient practice of the veneration of icons.

9th Century: Charlemagne Is Crowned Holy Roman Emperor

Two historical highpoints define this century.

-Charlemagne is Crowned Holy Roman Emperor: The alliance between the Franks and papacy continued to develop. It reached a climax in the year 800 AD when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor. The coronation ceremony was the beginning of an alliance that would exist between Church and State for centuries.

-Apostles to the Slavs: With the death of Charlemagne, the Empire experienced both political and social upheaval. This upheaval did not discourage Saints Cyril and Methodius from evangelizing the Slavic people. In 863 AD they started their mission and through their efforts many Slavs were converted. Their method for evangelizing was revolutionary. Instead of giving the people liturgical texts and holy books in Latin, which was the official language of the Church, they translated everything into the Slavonic language.

10th Century: Abuses Plague the Church

Three historical highpoints define this century.

-The Birth of Feudalism: This century witnessed the emergence of feudalism in which powerful kings and lords turned Europe into small states in order to better protect their land and property from one another, as well as from invading forces, such as the Vikings, Magyars and Muslims.

-Abuses Plague the Church: Because of weak and immoral Popes, three abuses crept into the Church.

  1. Nepotism – when a king or lord gave a vacant religious office to one of their relatives.
  2. Simony – the buying and selling of religious offices.
  3. Lay Investiture – when a king or lord would make someone Bishop without the approval of Rome. These three abuses occurred intermittently throughout the Middle Ages.

-The Monastery of Cluny: The Monastery of Cluny was founded in Burgandy, France and started a movement of reform within the Church. The deep spirituality and holiness of the monks of Cluny inspired others to follow their way of life and establish other monasteries and abbeys throughout Europe.

11th Century: The Great Schism

Three historical highpoints define this century.

-The Great Schism: The Eastern and Western Church officially split in 1054. Tensions between the two Churches started in the late 5th century and culminated with the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius and Pope Leo IX excommunicating one another.

By the time of the Schism four major differences existed between the Eastern and Western Church. These differences were the following:

  1. The Eastern Church used the Greek language while the Western used Latin.
  2. The Eastern Church used leavened bread for the Eucharist while the Western used unleavened bread.
  3. The Western Church enforced celibacy for its priests and religious while the Eastern Church allowed its priests to marry.
  4. The Western Church used the “filioque” while the Eastern Church did not. *

-Popes Deal with Abuses: Popes Leo IX (1049-1054) and Gregory VII (1073-1085) called numerous synods and gatherings to combat the abuses that had made their way into the Church. They also made progress in reducing the Emperor’s power over the papacy and put it back into the hands of the Cardinals and Popes. In 1075 Gregory wrote and published the “Dictates” which gave the Bishop of Rome supreme authority over the entire Church.

-The Beginnings of the Crusades: When Jerusalem fell to the Turks in 1071, the Eastern Emperor, out of fear, called upon the Pope for help. Pope Urban II (1088-1099) responded by calling the “knights of Christendom” to help defend the East against Muslim aggression. Many knights responded to the Pope’s call. In 1095 the Christian knights defeated the Muslim army at Jerusalem and recaptured the city. (*During the Council of Toledo in 589, the filioque was added to the Creed. It placed “and the Son” at the end of the phrase “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.”)

12th Century: The Lateran Councils

Four historical highpoints define this century.

-Saints Bernard and Hildegard: St. Bernard (1090-1153) joined the Cistercian Order in 1112. His life of prayer, penance and sacrifice not only attracted other young men to join the Order, but eventually led to his nomination as Abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux. Bernard was known for his dynamic preaching and his commitment to the spiritual renewal of the Church.

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine Abbess. She had the reputation of being a prophet and visionary as well as a gifted poet and song-writer. Many people, including Nobles, either went to her directly or corresponded with her, seeking spiritual advice or asking for prayers.

-Theology Changes: Theology was slowly becoming a science. This in large part was due to the efforts of two men – Peter Abelard who was a professor/theologian and Peter Lombard, the Bishop of Paris. Abelard wrote books on theology using “logic and dialectic” rather than spiritual reflections. Lombard on the other hand wrote a work entitled “Sentences” that organized texts from Scripture, the Church Fathers, and early theologians. Lombard’s work became the standard text for studying theology.

-The Lateran Councils: The Lateran Councils held in 1123, 1139 and 1179 contributed to the reform of the Church. These Councils were the first ecumenical councils to take place in the West. Lateran I specifically dealt with the abuses of lay investiture (when a king or lord would make someone a bishop without the approval of Rome) and simony (the buying and selling of religious offices) while Lateran II and III continued to push for greater reform throughout the Church. At Lateran III it was decided that a two-thirds majority vote by the College of Cardinals was needed to elect a Pope.

-The Birth of the Cathedral: As towns began to grow and populations increased, there was a growing desire among the people to build magnificent churches for God. Therefore, it was not uncommon to see Cathedrals being erected throughout Western Europe. The Cathedrals contained many religious sculptures and paintings that helped to catechize the people in their faith.

13th Century: The Rise of the Mendicants

Four historical points define this century

-The Mendicant Orders: The Mendicants were religious who renounced both possessions and property. Their vow of poverty and desire to take the Gospel into the heart of society was revolutionary. Through their missionary zeal they ignited the flames of evangelization within the Church and contributed to the renewal of society. Two saints were principally responsible for the growth of the mendicant orders: Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) who founded the Order of Friar Minors (Franciscans) and Dominic Guzman (1170-1221) who founded the Order of Preachers (Dominicans).

-Pope Innocent III: In 1198, Innocent III (1198-1216) was elected Pope. His pontificate focused on reforming the clergy, curia, re-shaping the administrative structures of the Church and evangelization. In 1215, Innocent opened the 4th Lateran Council. He brought together over 1,000 bishops and abbots to discuss matters pertaining to the faith. Some of the major canons produced by the Council dealt with the Eucharist, the Inquisition, the faithful and the education of priests.

-The University: As more and more people were seeking an education, small schools within the same locale would merge into one large school. This gave birth to the university. The three most prominent universities during this century were Bologna, Oxford and Paris. These universities offered four major areas of study: medicine, law, theology and the liberal arts.

-The Albigensians: The Albigensians were a heretical group that resided in southern France. They believed in two gods and viewed the “flesh” as evil and the “spirit” as good. What made this sect so dangerous was that it blended Christian beliefs and practices with pagan beliefs and practices. To combat this heresy God called upon St. Dominic and his followers. The Dominicans, through their preaching and life of poverty, led many Albigensians out of heresy and into the fullness of truth.

14th Century: The Papacy Moves to France

Four historical high points define this century.

-The Papacy Moves to France: The on-going fighting and violence between rival Italian families kept the papacy in a state of turmoil. In 1309 Pope Clement V left Rome for Avignon, France. The Popes remained in France until 1376 where they continued to guide and govern the Church. The papacy’s residency in Avignon is also known as the “Babylonian Captivity”.

-The Renaissance: As the papacy was settling in Avignon a cultural movement called the “Renaissance” was beginning to take shape in Italy. This movement recaptured the artistic style of the ancient Romans and Greeks. The literature, sculptures and paintings of the day bore witness to this. Out of the Renaissance came famous artists such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Both of them as well as many others helped the Renaissance flourish.

-The Plague: As the Renaissance was sweeping through Europe so was the plague otherwise known as the “Black Death”. In (1348) the Black Death swept through Europe causing a massive epidemic. The plague was so devastating and widespread, that one third of Europe’s population died. Many saw the plague as God’s justice upon a sinful world.

-St. Catherine of Siena: St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was one of the most influential personages in the fourteenth century. In 1365, Catherine became a third order Dominican. She performed heroic acts of charity, caring for the sick and unfortunate. Her prayers brought about many miracles. One of her greatest accomplishments was to help Pope Gregory IX bring the papacy back to Rome.

-The Western Schism: Pope Gregory IX who brought the papacy back to Rome died in 1378. Following his death the Archbishop of Bari was elected Pope and took the name Urban VI (1378-1389). The French Cardinals who attended the election questioned its “legality” and upon returning to France elected their own Pope, Clement VII (1378-1394) who took up his residency in Avignon. This began the great Western Schism (1378-1414). With two popes claiming to be the rightful successor of St. Peter loyalties within the Church and outside it were split.

15th Century: The Great Western Schism

Three historical high points define this century.

-The Western Schism: In 1409 the Council of Pisa attempted to end the Schism that occurred in the latter part of the 14th century. The two popes – Benedict XIII and Gregory XII – were asked to attend the Council but both refused. Therefore, the Council elected another pope, Alexander V. Christendom now had three popes. The Schism finally came to an end at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The Council requested the resignation of all three popes, and elected Pope Martin V (1417-1431) to be the rightful successor of St. Peter.

-St. Joan of Arc: As a young peasant girl, Joan of Arc (1412-1430) received messages from St. Michael the Archangel, St. Margaret and St. Catherine. The messages she received inspired her to lead a small French army against the English who occupied certain geographical locations within France. Joan successfully defeated the English at Orleans and obtained several other military victories. Eventually, Joan was captured by the English, no thanks to the French King Charles and his court who did nothing to save her, and was put on trial. She was found guilty of being a heretic and was later executed. In 1456 the Church declared her innocent of all charges.

-The Mendicant Orders: For centuries the monasteries were considered the spiritual backbone of the Church. Over time this slowly changed. By the fourteenth century the monastery was no longer the Church’s primary instrument of evangelization. Instead, the Church’s missionary outreach came through the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites. The mendicant orders embraced a life of “poverty, contemplation and evangelization” which bore great fruit for Christ and His Church.

16th Century: The Protestant Revolt

Four Historical Points define this century.

Martin Luther: In 1507 a young man named Martin Luther (1483-1546) was ordained an Augustinian priest. Sometime after his ordination, Luther began to experience severe doubts and inner turmoil over his salvation. These doubts and turmoil led him to develop two doctrines that were directly opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The first doctrine claimed that Scripture “alone” was the sole rule of faith while the second insisted that people were saved by “faith alone”. On November 1st 1517, Luther made public his “famous” ninety-five thesis that questioned and challenged numerous teachings of the Catholic Church. What followed was the Revolt. It divided Christianity into two main religious bodies – Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther. [The 5 Solas: sola gratia, solafide, solusChristus, solascriptura, and soli Deo Gloria (for God’sgloryalone)]

-St. Ignatius Loyola

-Council of Trent: Pope Pius IV successfully brought the Council to a close, St. Pius V used the documents and teachings of the Council to reform certain abuses within the Church. Two of the most important developments to come out of the Council was a Universal Catechism, which explained the Catholic faith, and the development of a seminary system to train future priests.

The Church of England: King Henry VIII of England in 1534, through the “Act of Supremacy”, made himself the head of the Church of England. What drove Henry to sever all ties with Rome was Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant him a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. Since the Pope had already given Henry a dispensation to marry Catherine he refused to give him another one. Even though the Pope said “no” to Henry’s request, Henry went ahead and married Anne Boleyn in 1533. Following his marriage to Anne Boleyn, Clement VII excommunicated Henry. Henry in turn responded by taking over the Catholic Church in England and becoming its head.

17th Century: The Thirty Year War and The Enlightenment

Three historical highpoints define this century.

-Missionary Activity: The Church’s missionary activity continued with great intensity and progress. The Jesuit, St. Peter Claver (1580-1654) evangelized Columbia, other Jesuits penetrated Canada and missionary groups made their way through Africa. The Gospel was being preached in Japan and in America, missions were being established in the southwest – Florida, Georgia and Texas.

-The Thirty Years War: Emperor Ferdinand of Austria in 1618 launched a war in Germany. His purpose for this war was to try and re-establish Catholic dominance in that country. After thirty years of fighting the war ended in a stalemate. Ferdinand’s plans for a Catholic Germany failed. In 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. This treaty gave Catholics and Protestants “equality before the laws in Germany”.

The Enlightenment: The Enlightenment was a movement founded on science and reason. This movement consisted of anti-religious elements and in many ways became a religion of its own. Two theological positions that emerged out of the Enlightenment which threatened the Church, especially in France, were: Jansenism and Gallicanism.

*Jansenism claimed that God gave grace only to those He “wished” to save. This theory was very much in line with the heresy of predestination taught by the Calvanists.

In practicing their faith, the Jansenists were greatly opposed to frequent communion, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and prayers to the saints and the Blessed Mother. By the end of the seventeenth century, papal condemnations and fierce opposition from the Jesuits helped bring an end to Jansenism.

*Gallicanism was a movement fueled by kings and monarchs, specifically Louis XIV of France, to limit the power of the papacy and put that power in the hands of government. King Louis XIV went so far as to demand that Gallican beliefs concerning papal authority be taught in the universities and seminaries.

18th Century: The French Revolution and Catholicism in America

Three Historical highpoints define this century –

-More Attacks upon the Church: The Church faced a number of challenges that threatened its stability. Three of most devastating attacks were: Febroniansim attempted to revive the heretical teaching that the Pope was subject to the authority of a Church council. Josephism, named after the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, did its best to transform the Austrian Church into an instrument of the state. Lastly, the Jesuits, who had amassed a great amount of power over the centuries were expelled from a number of countries and in 1773 were finally suppressed by Pope Clement XIV.

-The French Revolution: In 1789, French officials pushed for government reform which included taking power away from the reigning monarch, King Louis XVI. This reform led to the French Revolution (1789-1799), a bloody civil war. Because the revolution was influenced by the enlightenment, the state sought to control the affairs of the Church by electing priests and bishops. In 1790 the new French government implemented the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This document put the Church and clergy under the control of the state. Many bishops and clergy signed the document. Those who did not were executed.

-Catholicism in America: Catholics made up a very small percentage of the American population around the time of the American Revolution (1775-1781). Many were considered second class citizens and in some cases were persecuted. Since the number of priests and religious were small there were no parochial schools and very few parishes. Over time this changed. Two men who were instrumental in helping establish the Catholic religion in America was Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815) and Bl. Junipero Serra (1713-1784).

*John Carroll, a Jesuit priest serving in Maryland, was chosen to be the country’s first Bishop. His diocese was the diocese of Baltimore, established in 1789. Bishop Carroll, worked tirelessly promoting and spreading the Catholic faith. In the west Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary, founded nine missions along the coast of California converting many Native Americans to the Catholic faith.

19th Century: Vatican I and The Rise of the Church in America

-Pius IX, Vatican I and Leo XIII: During the reign of Pius IX (1846-1878) the Italian government along with anti-religious forces stripped the Pope and the Church of its property in an attempt to unify Italy. The papal states were reduced to what is known today as Vatican City. This prompted the Pope to declare himself the “prisoner of the Vatican”. Pope Pius IX is known for calling the first Vatican Council into session, defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and attacking liberalism with the document “The Syllabus of Errors”.

With over 700 bishops in attendance, Vatican Council I (1869-1870) ended abruptly when war broke out between Prussia and France. The Council was never re-convened. One of the few documents that came out of the Council dealt with “papal infallibility”. This document explained that in matters of faith and morals the Pope could not teach error due to a special grace given to him by the Holy Spirit.

Pius IX’s successor was Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). Pope Leo helped move the Church into the mainstream of modern society. His landmark encyclical “Rerum Novarum”, published in 1891, was written as a response to the industrial revolution. The encyclical led the Church into the sphere of contemporary social action and helped further the Church’s social teachings.

20th Century: Vatican II, Pope John Paul II and the New Evangelization

Four historical high points define this century.

Pope Pius X (1903 to 1914): Pope Pius X guided the Church into the 20th century. In 1906, he released a decree promoting and encouraging all Catholics to receive Holy Communion daily. Following the decree, he was given the title the “Eucharistic Pope.”

During his pontificate, Pius fought against two forces, modernism and the French Government, who were bent on trying to weaken the Church. Modernism attempted to alter certain doctrines of the Church in order to bring them into line with “contemporary men and women.” The French Government, on the other hand, passed certain laws that cut off revenue to the Catholic Church and made it difficult for priests to minister to the faithful.

-Pius XII (1939 to 1958): Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Cardinals of the Church elected Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli to the chair of St. Peter. Cardinal Pacelli took the name, Pope Pius XII. Pius used his diplomatic skills and position as Pope to guide the Church through World War II. He hid people and assisted those most in need, including Jews, from Nazi aggression. During the War, he released two encyclicals. In 1950 he declared the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary” to be a doctrine of the faith.

-Vatican II: In 1962, under the pontificate of John XXIII, the Church opened its twenty-first Ecumenical Council – Vatican II. For the next three years, Cardinals, Bishops and theologians from all over the globe met to discuss the Church’s role in the modern world. The Council produced sixteen documents to guide, unite, renew and modernize the Bride of Christ.

Shortly after the Council ended, the Church went through a period of uncertainty and turmoil. There were many defections from the priesthood and religious life as well as faulty interpretations of the Council documents. All of this cast a shadow of confusion over the laity.

-John Paul II (1978 to 2005): In 1978, the College of Cardinals broke with tradition and elected the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Cracow, Poland was elected Pope and took the name Pope John Paul II. He was a philosopher and theologian. He participated in Vatican II, contributing especially to the documents: The Declaration on Religious Freedom and The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. His pontificate was one of service and evangelization. He not only called the Church to a new evangelization, but also encouraged the laity to live holy lives. His witness and teachings helped many Catholics come out of the confusion that occurred after Vatican II.

John Paul II wrote numerous letters and encyclicals, published the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the new Code of Canon Law and traveled to over 100 countries preaching the Gospel.

-Pope Benedict XVI: In 2005, the College of Cardinals in conclave elected Card. Joseph Ratzinger to succeed John Paul II.[1]


[1] Personal note


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