Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Early Church

The Acts of the Apostles, which we read at Mass throughout the Easter season, presents us with a somewhat utopian picture of the early Church:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (2:44–47)

The Church grows almost effortlessly, and everyone seems to have had no problems getting along with each other. In the following chapters we are reminded again and again that no one was ever in need because the members of the Church looked after each other. We are told that the Gospel was preached unceasingly by the apostles, who accompanied their preaching with great miracles and signs worked by the Holy Spirit.

From a practical point of view, a lot of this will have been much easier when the Church consisted of a small group of believers living in the same city. Fairly quickly, it will have become impossible for all Christians to gather together in the same place: 3000 were baptised on the day of Pentecost alone (Acts 2:41). Sharing all things in common also became difficult — at the beginning of chapter six the Greeks start complaining that their widows weren’t getting as much as the Hebrew widows. Then persecution broke out, and the Christians of Jerusalem were scattered. It was not long before the idea of holding all things in common became impossible outside monastic communities. But the sign of unity that did remain constant throughout was ‘prayer and the breaking of bread’ — St Luke’s code for the celebration of Mass.

Today it would certainly be impossible to gather all of the members of the Church into a single location. We would struggle to fit the Church in Oxford into our church building — even without social distancing. Yet we are all united with each other, because we are all united to Christ. We are all members of the one living body of the risen Christ. And that unity shows itself when we participate in prayer and the breaking of bread, the celebration of Mass and Holy Communion. Every Mass celebrated anywhere in the world at any point in history  — whether by the Pope with a crowd of thousands or a single priest by himself — is a link to every other Mass, and every other member of the Church, past, present and future.

As we recover more and more of this visible sacramental unity on the way out of lockdown, we should also think about ways in which we can recover the spirit of the early Church. We can’t all gather in a single celebration of Mass every Sunday, and it would not be practical to hold all of our property in common with each other. But we should still strive for the spirit of fraternal charity and generosity that made these happen in the early Church.

Cesare Baronio is one of the more famous of St Philip’s first disciples in the Oratory, and was given the task by him of writing a complete history of the Church. When commenting on the gatherings of the early Church, he wrote:

Certainly it is by the Divine disposition that there has been renewed in our age, in a great part of the city of Rome, the ancient and profitable custom of the Church in the method of discoursing of the things of God to the edification of the hearers. This has been the work of the Reverend Father Philip Neri, a Florentine, who, like a skilful architect, laid the foundation of it… Things being disposed in this manner, and approved by the Pope’s authority, it seemed as if the old and beautiful apostolical method of Christian congregations was renewed.

It is for this return to the spirit, if not the exact practice, of the early Church that Newman dubbed Philip ‘man of primitive times’. But St Philip didn’t set out to re-enact the way of life of a first-century Jerusalem Christian. Like the apostles, he allowed himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit according to the greatest need and benefit of the Church of his day. Recreating the Oratory of sixteenth-century Rome would do us no more good than trying to return to the way of life described by St Luke. Nevertheless, as we approach the feast of the Patronage of St Philip and the anniversary of the foundation of the Oratory in Oxford, we should think about what it means to be members of the Church in 21st century Oxford. And, like St Philip, we should ask the Holy Spirit to guide us according to the needs of our own day, so that our unity — founded on the Eucharist — can display itself in practical charity and holy community with each other.