And if I have, either I don’t recall it or I was fooled. But as far as I can tell, every Protestant I’ve ever mingled with has truly believed with all sincerity that the Catholic Church is not the Church founded by Christ; not one has believed that the Catholic Church is indeed what she claims to be – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Christian Church.
I believe every Protestant has chosen to “protest” because he believes that his non-Catholic tradition is true, and that the Catholic tradition isn’t. Out of reverence for the truth (as he believes it to be) he cannot go where he does not believe true religion is being taught. If he does not believe that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, he’s not going to be Catholic; and that’s fair and commonsensical.
But what if we could show our Protestant brothers and sisters that there are good reasons to believe that Catholicism is true? What if we could demonstrate that Catholicism is the truest and most complete form of biblical Christianity? If we could do that, who knows what good would come of it. Then, perhaps, the world would be less scandalized by Christian disunity and bickering; perhaps Christians could be more united on the moral and ethical fronts of society; perhaps more lives and souls would be saved; perhaps God’s will would be done.
I am certain that if Protestants saw the Catholic Church as she really is, most would enter the Catholic Church at any cost; not as a “change of denomination” but as a perfection – a completion – of the faith they’ve held previously as a non-Catholic Christian.
If the Catholic Church really is “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” and the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” then what Christian would not want to be in it (see Eph 2:20; 1 Tim 3:15). Indeed, if Christ really did establish a Church on earth as the Scriptures clearly reveal – one that “the powers of death shall not prevail against” – then where is it? This is the question that every Christian must ask; and if he seriously desires to be in it, he must not stop asking “where is it?” until he is certain he has found it.
G.K. Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism, remarked that a convert’s first step towards conversion is when he decides to be fair to the Catholic Church. Once the convert-in-the-making (who often doesn’t know he’s going to be a convert) decides to be fair to the Church, he soon becomes fond of her:
“It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment a man ceases to pull against it he feels a tug towards it. The moment he ceases to shout it down he begins to listen to it with pleasure. The moment he tries to be fair to it he begins to be fond of it.” (from Catholic Church and Conversion)
Catholicism makes sense; she is beautiful and wise. And everybody loves beauty and wisdom. Thus everybody loves the Church once she is seen for what she truly is.
How, then, can we draw our dear Protestant friends into relationship with “the whole Christ” (see CCC 795)? How can we show them that Catholicism is true? There are many ways (some of which are not intellectual in nature). But here is a way that I believe has proven itself to have great power and potential for conviction:
What exactly is it that every Protestant can’t not know? That the earliest Christian Church was Catholic, through and through.
The fact of the matter is that most Protestants just don’t know these things. I dare assume most barely think about (if at all) the historical details of the 16th century Reformation, not to mention the historical details of the, say, second century Church. The early Church is off most Protestants’ radar. But it shouldn’t be.
Discovering the writings of the early Church Fathers has been, for many converts from Protestantism, the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. Adding fuel to the wavering Protestant’s fire – in addition to the discovery of those “elusive” biblical texts that support Catholic doctrine – are often the early Church writings as they emerge from obscurity. And there are a lot of them.
Marcus Grodi is a former Evangelical pastor, and now the founder and president of The Coming Home Network International, an organization that helps new converts make the transition (especially former non-Catholic clergy). He writes:
“Certainly an amazing majority of converts mention how reading the Early Church Fathers, either for the first time or for the first time with awareness, convinced them that the early Church was amazingly Catholic and certainly not Protestant!” (from “The Early Church Fathers I Never Saw”)
Now where’s the evidence? Are there really good sources that show the early Church was Catholic; and Catholic in the sense that we mean today? Let’s take a look.
‘Catholic’ can be said to mean “according to the whole” or “universal”. That’s what it has always meant in a Christian context. There is one Church founded by Christ, and everyone is invited to be part of it. It is the one, universal Church.
The earliest recorded use of this term is found the early second century from St. Ignatius of Antioch:
“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” [Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8]
St. Ignatius does not explain what “Catholic” means here. He just uses it without qualification, suggesting that it was already a familiar term in the wider Church community.
And what about the ranks in the Church conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders: bishop, priest and deacon. It’s clear that these designations existed from St. Paul’s epistles (see especially 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus and Acts). But what about the early Church writings?
Consider this passage from St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians in A.D. 110:
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters [priests] in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ…” [6.1]
There was a succession of the apostles; and this succession – called apostolic succession – has continued to present day. Every bishop in the Catholic Church today has been ordained in a direct line from the original twelve apostles of Christ (see Acts 1:20) .
St. Clement of Rome, one of the Church’s first popes and a disciple of Peter the apostle, writes around A.D. 80:
“Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).
An early record of the line of successive popes (and bishops of Rome), beginning with St. Peter, is provided by St. Irenaeus at the tail end of the second century (see Against Heresies 3.3.3). From the beginning, it was understood that the bishop of Rome was the “chief” bishop – the one who held “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (see Matt 16:18-20).
Here is a later excerpt from the early Church (there are earlier examples that confirm the bishop of Rome’s primacy within the college of bishops). St. Cyprian of Carthage writes in A.D. 251:
“Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair….If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4).
Now when you read the New Testament, here’s what you’ll find regarding St. Peter:
1. Every time the apostles are listed, Peter is the first to be mentioned (Matt 10:2; Luke Luke 6:13-16; Acts 1:3).
2. Peter is called the chief apostle (see Matt 10:2)
3. Peter is always listed before James and John, when Jesus’ inner three is listed (Mt 17:1; Mk 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Lk 8:51; 9:28).
4. On several occasions Peter is the only name mentioned when referring to the group of disciples. St. Paul does this (1 Cor 9:5; 1 Cor 15:5). St. Luke does this (Acts 2:37), as does St. Mark (Mk 16:7).
5. Peter’s name (in the forms of Peter, Kepha and Cephas) is mentioned in the New Testament more than all of the other apostles’ names put together.
This is why the Church has remained so rock-solid through the ages. That the people of God would heed His prayer that “they may be one”, Jesus, in His infinite wisdom, built His house upon the rock (see Matt 7:25; 16:18). Peter (from “Petros” meaning rock) was given the strength to uphold the integrity of the Church (see Luke 22:32). The apostles and their successors are established guardians of the deposit of faith – fallible men with a special gift from God to help them do the job (1 Tm 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) – lead by a chief guardian who represents God as His prime minister until He returns once and for all (see Isaiah 22).
God’s Word, which the bishops protect, has been handed down both in written and oral forms to the Church (see 1 Thess 2:15; 1 Pet 1:25). The Bible was never considered the sole authority in the early Church. The Bible (1 Tim 3:16), along with Tradition (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 11:2) and the teaching authority of the Church (Matt 16:18; 18:18) served as a tripod – as they do today – holding the Church steady in faith and morals.
Now what about the Mass, Sacraments, and in particular, the Eucharist? Can these key components of the Catholic faith also be found in the writings of the early Christians?
Catholics believe we are saved by grace (Eph 2:8) through faith (Rom 3:26) working in love (Gal 5:6; 1 Cor 13) and believe, along with the unanimous testimony of the early Church Fathers, that the Sacrament of Baptism is the way that initial regeneration by “saving grace” comes to the Christian. This is why babies aren’t excluded. Salvation is free; though bought at a price.
From baptism onwards, “salvation is worked out in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) and “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22).
Our first pope writes in 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism…now saves you.” This was the belief from the beginning: that baptism cleanses the baptized of all sin – a free gift of sanctifying grace by means of water – and as a result the baptized were born again into new life (see John 3:5).
“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . .” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203])
But Christians are likely to commit wrongdoings again due to the wounds of previous sin. Jesus said to the apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (John 20:21-23) so that we might experience forgiveness “in the presence of Christ” through the priests and bishops (2 Cor 2:10). This is why we have confession or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
St. Basil the Great writes:
“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles” (Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374])
The Eucharist – which comes to us in the Holy Mass when bread and wine is mysteriously changes in substance but not in physical appearance to Christ’s body and blood at the blessing of the priest – was at the center of Christian worship even in the earliest stages of Christianity.
Why? Because the Eucharist is Christ (see 1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:23–29; John 6:32–71 and all the Last Supper accounts).
St Ignatius of Antioch, who was a disciple of John the apostle, writes at the turn of the second century:
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ… They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
St. Justin Martyr wrote:
“We call this food Eucharist…..For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).
Finally, what about Mary and the saints in the early Church?
St. Ambrose, the mentor of St. Augustine, in the 4th century writes this regarding Mary who is “blessed among women”:
“The first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher. What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose?” (The Virgins 2:2 [A.D. 377]).
And Ephraim the Syrian writes in the fourth century:
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him” (Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
This post doesn’t even begin to touch all of the writings of the early Church available to us today. I’ve only provided a small sample of excerpts; but I recommend that you go and read the writings for yourself. Many of them aren’t long (although another many of them are!). If you and I hope to help our Protestant brothers and sisters see the Catholic Church as she really is, the testimony of the early Church will be indispensable in helping them arrive at that affirmation.
The goal is to lead our separated brethren to “the whole Christ”, which resides ultimately in the Eucharistic Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 795).
Indeed one of the greatest affirmations I’ve experienced personally in my decision to be Catholic (in addition to discovering the rich biblical basis for Catholic beliefs) has been my discovery of the writings of the early Church. “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, wrote the great convert from Anglicanism, Blessed John Henry Newman. Indeed.
I believe what the Catholic Church teaches because I have every reason to believe the Catholic Church of today is the same Church founded by Christ in the first century. Along with St. Augustine and the rest of the early church Fathers:
“We believe also in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church” (Faith and the Creed 10:21 [A.D. 393]).
***All the early church quotations in this article were obtained from Catholic.com
The Fathers Know Best by Jimmy Akin
The Mass Of The Early Christians by Mike Aquilina (anything by Dr. Aquilina, really)
The Apostasy That Wasn’t by Rod Bennett