The Church's past confronted me in a very real way the first time I went into a medieval cathedral. Just out of high school, I travelled to Europe and can still vividly recall my first Mass in the gothic cathedral in the town of Freiburg-im-Breisgau on the edge of the Black Forest.
It was both familiar and strange. On the one hand, I was acutely aware that I was in the cathedral doing the same thing that people had done there for almost 800 years; I was participating in the Eucharist.
On the other hand, the cathedral was cluttered with statues of monks teaching wolves, princes being eaten by worms and gargoyles urinating; these spoke a language of faith I did not fully understand.
This was a seminal moment in a journey that I could not foresee at the time. It set me on the road to becoming a historian of Christianity and has shaped the way I understand the Christian faith.
History is not peripheral to Christianity, rather it is part of its core. Christianity is not simply a set of ideas or doctrines that are immutably passed down from generation to generation, rather it is a way of life, a relationship between God and human beings lived out in time and space.
Christian Scripture is, in large part, a history of this relationship – the story of God and the Israelites, four accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth – God incarnate. For this reason, Christianity can only be truly understood through the study of this ongoing story.
By delving into the Church's past, we learn that believers have struggled to remain true to the Gospel as they developed their beliefs, practices and institutions. I think the most exciting aspect of Church history is the encounter with past people who wrestled with questions about how to be Christians in their time.
At the turn of the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo, besides defining many beliefs concerning sin, salvation and sexuality that Christians take for granted today, also tried to make theological sense of the collapse of his Roman civilization.
St. Francis Xavier was one of the first of the great missionaries to translate Catholicism from Europe to India and Japan in the sixteenth century. At the same time Mary Ward, tried to convince religious authorities that nuns could serve the Church beyond the cloister, especially as teachers.
More recently Dorothy Day experimented with novel lay communities that have been striving to live out the social teaching of the Church in the slums of New York.
A study of the history of Christianity, however, does not simply give us a better sense of how the Church has developed. It also helps us to avoid the danger of being paralyzed in the present.
In general, I think most human beings have a tendency to regard the present age as either the best of times or the worst of times.
If we consider the present as the worst of times, then we are likely to romanticize the past and pine for a golden age long gone. Some popular "golden ages" for Catholics are the early Church or the Middle Ages. Some view the 1950s, just before Vatican II, as "the good old days" of the Catholic Church; for others the council and the heady days that followed it were a golden moment that has now been lost.
A critical and realistic study of Christian history reveals to us that there has been no "golden age" without problems, doubts or dissension. It is the task of historians to analyze evidence from the past and question our present assumptions to better understand how Christianity was actually lived.
The Church has both flourished and failed in every era, a fact that should give us hope for our own times and for the future. We do not carry the burden of reconstructing a Church from the past. Instead, creatively inspired by Christians who have gone before us, we have to live out our Christian faith in our very particular present.
For those who want to embark on a journey into the Church's past, a short and highly readable introduction to the history of the Catholic Church is Kevin L. Hughes. Church History: Faith Handed On. Chicago: LoyolaPress, 2002.
(Indre Cuplinskas teaches courses in the history of Christianity and Catholic Studies at St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta. She has written on the history of the WCR.)