Tracing the history of the Catholic Church and its growth

Tracing the history of the Catholic Church and its growth

The Roman Catholicism is a worldwide religious tradition of over 1.2 billion members.

It traces its history to Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah and architect of the New Testament who lived around Jerusalem, Israel during the period of Roman occupation, in the early 30s of the Common Era.

Christians date the birth of the Church to Pentecost, the feast celebrated ten days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, fifty days after the resurrection. Since the first Christians believed Jesus’ second coming would occur any day, creating a structure was unnecessary.

As time passed and the first apostles were dying before Jesus’ return, they had to hand authority to successors (apostolic succession) by praying and imposing hands over a person that the apostle and/or community recognized as a natural leader, who was likely assisted by others.

It is easy to see here a borrowing from the Jewish system of elders, sometimes referred to by the Latin words Saniores (older or wiser persons), Presbyter, or Sacerdos.

In a sense, these are the founders of what became organized Roman Catholicism, but it is best to think of the first centuries of Christianity as a string of loosely-affiliated churches throughout the Roman Empire.

Each was headed by a local leader who came to be called a bishop (from the Greek Episkopos: supervisor, inspector, or overseer) instead of a priest or deacon, but this distinction of office took time.

All of these Greek and Latin words seemed to have been used interchangeably for at least a century.

The idea that each local church would have only one bishop made sense, since the communities were fairly small, and this idea is called Monepiscopacy. The bishop was many things at once: chief liturgist, preacher and teacher, administrator and judge, and symbol of the community.

The bishop and his church were considered inseparable. Ignatius of Antioch, one of these local leaders who was taken from his home in Antioch to Rome and martyred there about 110-117, wrote to the Christian community in Smyrna in Asia minor: “Apart from the bishop let no one do anything pertaining to the church.

Its members congregate in a communion of churches headed by bishops, whose role originated with the disciples of Jesus. Over a period of some decades after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the bishops spread out across the world to form a “universal” (Greek, Katholikos) church, with the bishop of Rome (traced to the apostle Peter) holding primacy.

Today, Vatican City — and specifically, Saint Peter’s Basilica — stands over the grave of St. Peter, and the Pope is considered Peter’s successor. Catholic Christianity began as a persecuted religious community, illegal in the Roman Empire in its earliest days, but within some three hundred years and with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, it became legal and eventually was recognized as the official religion of the Empire.

With the decline and fall of Rome in the 5th Century, the Roman Church assumed both temporal and spiritual authority in the West; it thus had enormous influence on the development of the art and culture of the western world through the Middle Ages.

Today, its growth is fastest in Africa, South America, and Asia.

Quick Fact Details:

  • Formed: 33 AD as St Peter took over the reins of leadership of the church after the crucifixion, death and rising of Christ Jesus. While the belief system recognized as Christianity is in place by the first century, institutional structures developed over time. Nor is it possible to distinguish Catholicism as a separate tradition until it can be differentiated from other Christian traditions (most notably, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism).  Scholars recognize a variety of significant institutional, theological, and cultural markers in this development:
    • 325 — Council of Nicea. The first post-apostolic ecumenical council of the Christian community at which Church leaders formed a creedal statement of belief recognized universally.
    • 381 — First Council of Constantinople. This council amended and ratified the Nicene Creed, resulting in the version used by Christian churches around the world. The Nicene Creed as used today in worldwide churches was formulated.
    • 440-461 — Pope Leo I. Jurisdiction over the worldwide Church is affirmed thus cementing the papacy, a uniquely Roman Catholic structure.
    • 1054 — The Big Schism. Although the Eastern and Western branches of the Church had long been divided over theological, cultural, linguistic, and ecclesiological disputes, the separation was formalized in 1054, thus creating the first large-scale division within Christendom.
    • 1600 century — The term “Roman Catholic” is not generally used until the Protestant Reformation, and some historians see the Council of Trent (1545-1563) as a centralizing movement within Catholicism that enhanced the authority of Rome.

Sacred Texts: The Roman Catholic Church includes in the Old Testament several deuteron-canoncial books that Protestants rejected. The New Testament is the same as that used by Christians everywhere.