I have heard people claim that the Catholic Church is a dead church or a dying church. Low mass attendance, poor catechesis, collections “drying up,” scandals, and the like. But, is it true?
There is a true story about a priest in Florida who got tired of people repeating that the church was dead. So, he decided to hold a funeral for the church. He announced it from the pulpit after all the Masses, advertised it on TV, radio, and in the papers. He informed everyone that there would be a funeral for the church because the church was dead. It was the talk of the town. All the parishioners came out of curiosity, as did many others who hadn’t been to church in a while.
When the people arrived, they saw a casket nicely placed at the front of the church. The cover was closed. Everyone took their seats in anticipation. The priest addressed the people telling them to pay their last respects to the dead church. He then came down from the altar and opened the coffin, allowing people to come up to see the dead church. Everyone went forward. One at a time, they looked in the casket, and what they saw was a full length mirror.
After everyone finished, the priest gave a sermon about how WE are the church, and if the church is dead, it’s because we are dead. WE need to take our faith more seriously and get involved! WE need to participate and make our parishes exciting, lively, and active.
This priest now has one of the most active parishes in the state.
The Church, though going through hard times, is not dead. In fact, Jesus said it would never die (Mt. 16:18-19). Jesus Christ started the Catholic Church over 2000 years ago. Even with the scandal and corruption today, this is not the first crisis the Church has ever faced. In fact, she has survived far worse by the help and grace of Almighty God. The following story will illustrate the glory of the Catholic Church, and the fact that the Church will never die!
Persecution and Death!
Shortly after Jesus died, the Jewish leaders attacked against anyone who followed Jesus or spoke His name. Shorty after that, the Roman Emperor launched a fierce persecution against the Catholic Christian Church. Considered criminals because they did not bow down to the Roman gods, they were killed.
The Emperor Trajan held 123 straight days of gladiator games where countless Christians were killed. Many Catholics were burned at the stake, fed to wild animals in the Coliseum, or roasted alive in iron chairs, etc. It was a very tough time, and yet, Christians remained strong in their faith.
In the years following, it became illegal in the Roman Empire to even become a Christian. Thus, the persecutions grew. The Emperors continued to torture and kill Christians by starving them, stoning them, whipping them, burning them, and beheading them, etc. This continued on and off until the 200’s.
Astoundingly, Catholics would not give up their faith or their God, and they remained strong! These Christians stood heroically in the face of death unafraid of the mighty emperor and his threats. In the earliest written histories, it is recounted how even many teenagers bravely stood tall in the middle of the coliseums. They stood tall in the shape of a cross knowing that they would be put to death. They stood up for their faith in Jesus bravely with thousands of people watching in amazement.
Satan, the devil, is forever the enemy of Christ and His Church. The Devil is not a little red guy with a pitchfork, but a fallen angel, enormously powerful, who seeks to destroy God’s people. His plans were foiled when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and thus far, he had not been able to wipe out Christianity. Not only was it still around, but somehow it was growing, despite all the torture and death. Countless people throughout the empire were becoming Christians daily. They were converted without violence, weapons, or harsh words.
The earliest Christians continued to fight a battle of non-violence, a battle of prayer and love, and they refused to worship false gods. They would not turn their backs on their God, the only true God of the Universe who loved them. They would rather die, and the new Emperor Decius took that challenge.
Emperor Decius was determined to force the Christians to sacrifice to the pagan deities, to bow to him, or to die a painful death. To show just how serious he was, Decius took the holy pope Fabian and killed him on the spot. Next, the emperor took a well-known Christian man, named Polonius, nailed him to a stake and burned him alive, just to make a point. As the persecutions grew in intensity, Emperor Diocletian entered onto the scene.
At the time of Diocletian, it was still illegal to be Christian, and now it was illegal even to attend Mass! This was enforced by a penalty of death. We take it for granted being able to go to Mass today, and many people think it’s a waste of time, but the earliest Christians died for this belief and stood up for the faith handed onto them.
Emperor Diocletian had churches burned to the ground, along with Bibles and other Christian books. This persecution was so bad, it forced many of the earliest Catholics to worship in underground cemeteries, known as the Catacombs. (One can travel to Italy and other countries today to see these sites, or look it up on the Internet. In the Catacombs, one will find Catholic pictures and prayers painted all over the walls, along with the tombs of many popes and bishops who were buried there. These verify the existence of the Church back to the earliest centuries).
If a Catholic person was caught worshipping outside the Catacombs, they would almost certainly die a gruesome death for not obeying the emperor. Catholic Christians were beaten and whipped in attempts to make them recant their belief in Jesus. Often, they were tied to horses and dragged (sometimes to death); they were burned or cut with glass until their whole bodies were bleeding. Many were tied to machines and had their limbs torn off. Some were tied to trees and burned alive one limb at a time, and there were many other tortures that don’t need to be expounded upon due of their graphic details.
By the grace of God, Christians stood strong in their faith! Except for some the rich and those who desired power, the Christians did not break. They came unafraid before the mighty Emperor to bear witness to Jesus and their Catholic faith. They told the empire about the greatness of their God who was about to step in and help them!
Constantine and God’s Help!
God had been present all along. In fact, many miracles had been witnessed by those in the coliseums. Sometimes, Catholics didn’t burn when they were set on fire. At other times, they were not burned when put in scalding lava. Others had hungry and ferocious animals sit before them and just lick their wounds. Seeing the power of the Christian God, many pagan Romans converted to Christianity, even up to the emperor’s number three man! Roman soldiers, governors, and many other people all turned their backs on the mighty emperor to become followers of Jesus!
Just as Satan inspired emperors and others to carry out his evil designs of destroying God’s people, so ironically, God inspired and used a pagan emperor to carry out His holy plans, His plans to save His Church.
The year was 312 A.D. Maxentius, a persecutor of the Christians was conquering the empire through war and was now marching toward Constantine who held the weakest part of the empire. After consulting his forthsoothsayers, he was told not to fight because he would surely lose. It was in this same year that the pagan emperor Constantine was given a vision from Jesus Christ, the God of the Christians. In the sky, there was an enormous cross and the words, “In this sign, you shall conquer.” The experience was so powerful, that against all odds, Constantine abandoned his pagan religion and trusted in the sign. Turning his gaze toward the real God of the universe, Constantine led his army into battle with the cross held high. He marched bravely against Maxentius’ enormous and prestigious army. To make a long miracle short, Constantine, by the power of God, crushed Maxentius and sent his army fleeing. With the cross of Jesus raised high, he chased Maxentius to his death.
Constantine emerged victorious as emperor. He rode home triumphantly praising the power of the Christian God. Though he would not be baptized until the end of his life, Constantine immediately legalized the Catholic faith and restored it to an even greater glory than it had before. He returned the Church’s land and money that had been confiscated and erected huge cathedrals in honor of God. Christians from everywhere emerged from underground, from slavery mines, and the like. They filled churches to over capacity singing to Jesus, the Lord of all. The torture, the slavery, the suffering and death had ended.
Against all hatred and violence, Christianity endured and triumphed. Most of the Roman Empire would become Catholic because of the great love of the earliest Christians – transforming the Roman Empire into the Roman Catholic Church – because God is always victorious. The Catholic Church is around today because of the unshakable faith of our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers who held fast to that faith and who loved God more than anything in the world. Let us follow their example, standing strong against all storms and powers, learning, loving, and living out our Catholic faith daily!