Summoned to Serve|
Trends, people outshine dates
Men and women, not dates, brought us to where we are today
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
As historians assess Christianity's first two millennia they
look to trends and daring individuals who shaped today's
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,
Unforgettable Americans include St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in
the early 19th century and Dorothy Day in the 20th, Sr.
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,
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
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