In the hours between the Last Supper and his arrest by Roman soldiers, Jesus told his apostles, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33). He was soon crucified but rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.
Over the past 2,000 years, the risen Lord’s followers have experienced trouble and thus shared, in some small way, in his passion. These struggles continue today. Looking back through history can help renew our courage as we see how God, time and again, has led the ark of the Church through powerful storms from without and betrayals from within.
1941: World War II
Seventy-five years ago, the world was engulfed in the bloodiest war in history, one that would claim the lives of well over 20 million soldiers and 50 million civilians. The Axis powers — Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Japan — ruled most of Europe, one-third of Africa and much of China and Southeast Asia. The genocide of Jews in Europe continued to intensify. The United States entered the war after Japanese forces attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
In Soviet Russia, which by year’s end was fighting against Germany for its survival, Christians had experienced one of history’s most horrific persecutions. In 1937 and 1938 alone, more than 25,000 churches had been closed and more than 100,000 clergy had been executed. The Soviet-induced famine that had killed millions of Ukrainians was not a distant memory, nor was the savage persecution of the Church in Spain and Mexico.
“The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas,” The New York Times editorialized as 1941 drew to a close. “We realize that he is about the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.”
In 1941, who could have foreseen the defeat of the Axis in 1945, the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, and the construction of thousands of churches in Russia in the ensuing 25 years? Who could have foreseen that in 2016, as Syrian and Iraqi Christians suffer a persecution of genocidal proportions, some prelates would be praising Russia as a protector of the region’s Christians?
1378-1417: Western Schism
In the decades that spanned the 14th and 15th centuries, the Church faced one of the worst crises in its history. There was intense disagreement about who was pope. Bishops, influenced by secular powers, attempted to radically weaken papal authority. The ideas of two influential priests undermined Catholic belief and piety, and one of these clerics was burned at the stake (see sidebar), creating deep wounds in central Europe.
Since 1378, Catholics had been divided over which man was the true pope. For the previous seven decades, the popes had resided in Avignon, France, but in 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome. When he died the following year, the cardinals elected Pope Urban VI as his successor.
Within months, many cardinals became dissatisfied with the new pope, and claiming they been coerced by a crowd months earlier, they elected a new “pope,” Clement VII. The Western Schism was born.
Urban and his successors reigned from Rome, while Clement and his successors reigned from Avignon. Monarchs and saints alike were divided over who was the real pope.
Decades passed. In 1409, over 100 bishops gathered in Pisa, Italy, to end the schism. Although their intention was laudable, they elected another “pope,” and there were now three claimants to the papacy.
In 1414, an even greater number of bishops met in Constance, Germany. Adhering to the theory of conciliarism, they decreed that bishops at ecumenical councils are superior to the pope and have the authority to punish any Christian, including a pope.
At Constance, the bishops were able to end the Western Schism. The legitimate pope resigned for the sake of the peace of the Church, while the second and third “popes” were removed. A new pope, Martin V, was elected in 1417.
The bishops also condemned a number of theological errors associated with the English priest John Wycliffe and Czech priest Jan Hus. Wycliffe denied Catholic teaching on the Blessed Sacrament, while Hus believed that only holy persons predestined to salvation were truly members of the Church. A sinful pope thus could not lead the Church, but instead was the “vicar of antichrist.”
In 1415, the bishops at Constance solemnly condemned Hus and handed him over to civil authorities to be burned at the stake. The following year, they did the same to Jerome of Prague, one of Hus’ followers.
The Church passed through this crisis, but not without deep wounds. Catholics would never experience a repetition of the Western Schism, and subsequent popes and councils would disavow Constance’s decrees on conciliarism, even as they recognized its other decrees as those of a legitimate ecumenical council.
Some of the teachings of Wycliffe and Hus would spread far and wide over a century later after Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Protestant leaders adopted them. The Hussite Wars (1419-34), in which Hus’s followers battled the papal states and the Holy Roman Empire, laid waste to portions of central Europe. Bohemian Catholics who were grieved by the burning of Hus probably could not have imagined the words of Pope St. John Paul II in 1999: “I feel the need to express deep regret for the cruel death inflicted on Jan Hus, and for the consequent wound of conflict and division.”
410: Sack of Rome, heretics
Sixteen centuries ago, Christians faced the collapse of Roman civilization while grappling with important theological questions.
In 410, the unthinkable had happened: the Visigoths, a German tribe, had sacked Rome. “The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire,” St. Jerome wrote in a letter. “Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes.”
In the years that followed, the Visigoths seized important cities in modern-day France and Spain, as did the Vandals, many of whom were Arians who denied the divinity of Christ.
As Roman civilization collapsed, the Church was still facing the consequences of apostasy during the savage persecution of Diocletian, the Roman emperor from 284 to 305. Faced with the prospect of torture and death, some Catholics — even priests and bishops — had publicly renounced their faith but repented when the persecution ended.
Donatus, a leading African bishop, insisted that these Christians needed to be rebaptized and that these clergy could not celebrate the sacraments validly without rebaptism. Although Pope St. Miltiades condemned Donatus’ teaching in 313, Donatus would spend the next four decades of his life leading a schism. North Africa became a place with rival Catholic and Donatist clergy and parishes.
In the meantime, Pelagius, a British monk who lived for a time in Rome, fled the Visigoths for North Africa. Pelagius taught that human beings do not need the assistance of God’s grace to lead holy lives; instead, he believed that holiness is attained through one’s unaided free will.
According to Pelagius, Christ came merely to teach and to offer a good example, and Adam, too, merely offered a bad example rather than leaving his descendants in a state of original sin. Pelagius also believed that baptism is not necessary for salvation.
Pelagius arrived near Hippo, a city in modern-day Algeria, whose bishop, St. Augustine, knew his need for grace and God’s mercy. St. Augustine wrote eloquently against Donatism and Pelagianism, and the area’s bishops, supported by Pope St. Innocent I, taught against the errors. In time, the Donatist schism, which loomed so large over the region, disappeared, and the Pelagian storm subsided.
No matter how fierce the persecutions or deep the betrayals and divisions, the risen Lord has never abandoned his Church. As St. Augustine once wrote, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory … through our Lord Jesus Christ, through him who had said to his own, ‘Take courage, I have conquered the world.’”
J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.