Preaching of the Gospel in ancient times led to the Revolution of the Cross. Christ-crucified was front and center of the early Church’s message and spiritual formation. It gave new meaning to suffering, manual labor, poverty and infirmity.
It went further by proclaiming that such misfortunes could be used as instruments of grace and redemption. To be a fool for Christ was a badge of honor. And to be a martyr for Christ was the highest of privileges.
In fact, the saying among early Christians was: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This understanding also allowed for great achievements. But today, suffering as a condition of following Christ or as a means of reparation is not widely understood as being essential. Indeed, sometimes we see persecution and ridicule as genuine setbacks; an indication that God does not look favorably upon our mission. As such, offending people is avoided at all costs; even at the expense of preaching those counter-cultural doctrines on sexuality that many souls really do need to hear about (i.e. contraception and cohabitation).
In those early years, a practice that flowed from the Revolution of the Cross was a manly pastoral discipline on the part of the Apostles and Church Fathers. Jesus said, if a sinner does not listen to the Church then treat him as you would a publican or tax collector; that is, treat him as an outsider.
St. Paul furthermore published names of blasphemers and instructed a fellow bishop, St. Timothy, to "reprimand publicly sinners publicly" so that others might be deterred from sinning. Among our contemporaries, such a pastoral approach is simply dismissed as lacking compassion and and even considered to be counterproductive. Nevertheless, public reprimands or public exclusions helped onlookers to know the difference between a wolf and a sheep. It also signaled to the one being reprimanded or excluded that he or she was in danger of forfeiting eternal life. Public disfavor did not deter the early bishops, also known as “watchman” (cf. Ezekiel 33:7), from carrying out the painful task of fatherly discipline. Saving souls from the Evil One was more important than sparing feelings or courting the esteem of public opinion.
Animated with a spirit to glorify God, bishops not only exercised their divine authority to rouse wayward souls to repentance, but they used to preach to kings, queens and heads of state. They went to lands that were unfamiliar to them. They knew that they had to lead the expansion of God’s kingdom with the fullness of Holy Orders; a fullness that gave a special anointing and efficacy to their words. Indeed, their mission field was not just the basilica or the local church; their mission was also in the public square and even in those places unfriendly to Christianity. St. Patrick of Ireland was a model bishop for this reason. Today, if a Catholic wants to see his bishop he has to burrow through a multi-layered, diocesan administration. By and large, a bishop's public appearance is confined to religious venues. The man on street- that is, the non-Catholic -is just as likely to see a bishop as he would his State governor; which is rarely, if at all.
This last point is the most important consideration for those who want to forestall the evils of a post-Christian world. Bishops, the Successors of the Apostles, are the prophetic voice of Christ; they are the extension of the Word Incarnate. This is not to minimize or take away from the rightful role the laity assumes in “sanctifying the temporal order.” To be sure, the lay person can reach into the corners of society that a member of the clergy can never reach. However, the main duty of a bishop is to preach the Gospel; not just to baptized Catholics, mind you, but to unbelievers and fallen away Catholics as well. With this, they have to be willing to expose themselves to a cruel world like we lay Catholics have to do on the streets, in classrooms, in auditoriums, and in the media. Quite often the prospect of getting ridiculed or criticized inhibits the average bishop from venturing out into the wilderness. And the wilderness is unkind, to be sure, but courage is contagious! And if courage is displayed from a bishop for all to see, I guarantee it, his courage will be multiplied a hundred-fold. His courage and his witness will set the Church of Christ ablaze.
I will end by quoting a Church Father who went by the name of Tertullian, a priest in Africa (around 190 A.D.). He wrote a letter to a ruthless Roman governor in the second century who was authorized to persecute and even killed Christians without cause. Tertullian's attitude and confidence was common among the early Christians. It is something we need to recapture. He wrote a Roman governor with the following boast:
“You will never destroy our sect! Mark this well: when you think you are striking it down, you are, in reality, strengthening it. The public will become restive at so much courage. It will long to know its origin. And when a man recognizes the truth- he’s ours!”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.