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October 13, 2000 Issue
Summoned to Serve

Trends, people outshine dates

Men and women, not dates, brought us to where we are today


By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Summoned to Serve

As historians assess Christianity's first two millennia they look to trends and daring individuals who shaped today's society.

The modern scholars cite the usual saints, popes and emperors such as the evangelist Paul; Constantine, who replaced official Roman persecution of Christianity with imperial approval; and Charlemagne, whose reign around 800 AD promoted renewed learning; or Pope Leo XIII with his 1891 encyclical on labor rights, Rerum Novarum.

They also give credit to long-obscure women, such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. Even anonymous masses get their due.

Asked to enumerate Christianity's 10 most crucial events, Christopher Kauffman, professor of church history at The Catholic University of America, Washington, stressed those moments that are counter-cultural, if you will, the reformers who were coming from below and had an impact.

Kauffman mentioned St. Francis of Assisi and his ally, St. Clare. Other notables, he said, include the 11th century abbess, scholar and composer, St. Hildegard of Bingen; the Desert Mothers and followers rather than the Desert Fathers themselves; and the Beguines and Beghards medieval laywomen and laymen living as religious communities and serving others without formal vows.

Similarly he cited the 16th-century Catholic humanist Erasmus and his friend St. Thomas More; St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, 17th century founders of the Visitation Sisters; Bps. John Carroll and John England, with a new Catholic apologetic for the new United States of America; and the African-American innovator Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who established the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829.

These are historical models for 'in- spiriting' the culture, and inspirations in our quest for religious meaning, he said.

Another Washington-based historian, Mercy Sr. Dolores Liptak, noted the contributions of 16th century St. Teresa of Avila. Teresa's role as an eminent spiritual teacher and reformer of the Carmelites begins another trend. It's the makings of the real fabric of the Catholic Church, the idea that it's not just the structure of the institutional church but the whole spiritual life of the church that matters, she said.

Unforgettable Americans include St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the early 19th century and Dorothy Day in the 20th, Sr. Liptak said.

Like Kauffman, she also highlights Pope John Paul, who, she said, has been outstanding when it comes to social justice, and Pope Pius XI, who called for lay involvement and authored the 1931 social justice encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno.

Sr. Liptak stressed the need to get the spirituality angle into the historical appreciation.

Where would we be if it weren't for those people who articulated the spirituality, and not just the structures, of the church? she asked.

David O'Brien, professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass., referred to the dichotomies of movements such as the Crusades, with their overtones of Christian triumphalism, on one hand, and concepts about proper use of military force, on the other; and the pluses and minuses in colonization and missionary efforts in the New World.

His choices of key events also include the Second Vatican Council, medieval squabbles over appointment of bishops, and the French Revolution in 1789, which, he said, set the church on a very non-revolutionary, conservative course leading up to the First Vatican Council in 1869-70, with its arguments over papal infallibility.

Sr. Liptak too was intrigued by the French Revolution, given its religious repression and the ironic result.

Because of persecution, the faith was able to be spread as priests and others went into exile, she said. That's a phenomenon that was of great benefit to the American church.

A blend of institutional church developments and popular religiosity dominates the selections of Richard Gyug, professor of medieval and religious history at Fordham University in New York.

His choices feature epochs rather than dates and encompass such issues as the controversy over icons in the Eastern church in the 8th century; the church's 11th century feuding that later culminated in East-West schism; enthusiasm for Corpus Christi devotions and similar expressions of piety in the 13th through 15th centuries; and increasing papal centralization of authority in the 14th century.

With O'Brien, he also emphasized the outreach of Christianity into the Far East, including the martyrdom of Japanese Christians in the early 17th century and intra-church clashes over adapting church practices to Chinese culture.

Historians today tend to emphasize trends, the long movements, the broad-based periods rather than specific dates, Gyug explained. You can't really pick a date as the definitive thing anymore.

-- Next: Imaging Christ



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