“It is an eternal law of history that, in order to pass effectively into deeds, all revolution has need of three fundamental and simultaneously present attributes: a revolutionary situation, a revolutionary doctrine and a revolutionary personnel,” said Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops.
In his book, The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs (1948), Daniel-Rops explained how these three attributes of revolution were employed by the early Church.
As far as the situation was concerned, during the first centuries of Christianity (33 A.D. to 313 A.D.) the Roman Empire had grown old from within. The bachelor was esteemed by the public more than the father; the ease of cohabitation was chosen over the sacrifices of marriage; the practice of abortion and infanticide were widespread; children were seen as a liability rather than a blessing to the family; gladiator games, which consisted of the killing of human beings, served to entertain the mob; citizenship was cheap; the centralization of government grew by leaps and bounds; and manual labor was believed to be beneath the dignity of the average Roman citizen.
And as far as the Greco-Roman religions were concerned, there was a god for every town. Hence the principle of religious unity and the benefits it lavished on culture had ceased to exist.
But then came the preaching of the Gospel. And at the heart of the Gospel redounded the words of St. Paul: “We proclaim Christ-crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It was a new and revolutionary interpretation of suffering and sacrifice; one that would re-prioritize values. Pleasure and convenience were no longer the standards by which actions were judged to be morally good. And the anticipation of adversity ceased to be an obstacle for works of charity and countless humanitarian enterprises. Few today understand that when Christians infused meaning and love into suffering, they, at the same time, unveiled human dignity. By the power of the Holy Spirit, virtues that were once considered out of reach in ancient paganism were practiced by the early Christians with great effect.
As for restoring the family, Daniel-Rops wrote, “Where all the legislative efforts of the emperors to rebuild the bases of sexual and family morality had failed, the Gospel appeal to purity was to prove successful; the crisis affecting the institution of marriage and the birth-rate would be resolved at last.” The cross beams of the Crucified even had a profound effect on the work force. “The Christian attitude towards work,” Daniel-Rops continued, “placed the subject in an entirely new light by insisting that labor sanctified the individual who performed it. This completely broke with the idleness and sloth of which the classical world was dying…” Through this work ethic, saintly men and women from the monastic movement literally rebuilt Western Civilization with their hands; first with prayer, then with work.
The preaching of the Gospel was truly revolutionary. In the words of Daniel-Rops, “(I)t put forward the revolutionary doctrine for which the ancient world was waiting, simply because, on all of the essential points which were being questioned by the human conscience of the period, on all those matters on which society was soon to be acutely conscious of its own shortcomings, the Gospel offered the valid answers and solutions.” Yet, without revolutionary personnel, the doctrine- no matter how good it is –is a dead letter. But this was not the case with the early Christians. The Church contained within itself- as it does now -an “incomparable reserve of strength” to sustain men and women who were to put its doctrine into practice. They were determined to ensure that the Gospel would prevail. This was their greatest ambition. No doubt, their witness was seasoned the words that they spoke. Their love and courage gave life to their message. Knowing this, they smiled at death. Again, to quote Henri Daniel-Rops:
“The ‘revolutionary personnel’ of the early Christians was to consist of all those countless hosts of martyrs in whom the spirit of sacrifice would be pushed to heights normally unattainable by mere humanity, martyrs who awaited and even desired death from the circus lions or the executioner’s sword in order to declare their faith.”
Such heights of sanctity were possible only by being well-versed in the wisdom of the Cross. They knew that mere words were woefully insufficient to infuse new life into souls. They knew that in order for the pagan world to be renewed, they had to be world-renouncing. Daniel-Rops said,
"(The Church) was in this decaying world but without being in any way a part of this world. To act effectively in a society is bound to accept a certain detachment and separation from that society, as Christ had taught his followers.”
As St. Paul bid St. Titus, Christians were open to every good enterprise and even embrace all that was truly good and honorable in the world. But yet, they were fully aware what Christ had prayed to the Father on their behalf: “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” (cf. John 17:14) By being in the world but not of the world they were able to change the world!
The Cross was truly revolutionary in the Greco-Roman world. And no doubt, it still is. After all, as people are growing more pessimistic about the future, the situation in 2012, as in ancient times, is lending itself to its triumph. Now, all we need is for the revolutionary personnel to step up and bring to life all that the Cross stands for.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.