Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Story of the Church

By Alfred McBride, 310 pages, St. Anthony's Messenger Press.

Theologian and historian McBride links history to the present in The Story of the Church, showing that the truth of the Church and its mission has remained the same throughout the ages.

He refers to controversial house church style worship after Vatican II when discussing the major shift in the fourth century from house churches to the big government-style buildings known then as basilicas. Just as much anxiety accompanied the 4th-century shift to worship in big edifices as the 1970s attempt at worship away from big fixtures. The 313 legalization of Christianity, which led to mass conversions in the Roman Empire, occasioned this shift. McBride shows that many feared that the move would bring about the loss of communal intimacy and closeness to the Eucharist. The priests took over and the Eucharistic prayers occurred at the altar, removed from the laity. Basilica-based worship also greatly reduced the use of spontaneous prayers.

Through a mixture of fiction and historical narrative, McBride brings the reader close to the emotional, spiritual concerns of the people of the day. He has one concerned Christian say,

“Basilica worship will make the 'sacred' central. And 'sacred' will mean whatever is unworldly. There is a growing feeling that an ordained man will be expected to withdraw as much as possible from worldly concerns.” The reader gets a sense of how one event, such as the move away from church houses, brought about another change, in this case the move towards priestly celibacy.

McBride follows the normal church historian practice nowadays of sprinkling the narrative with a certain amount of gnashing of teeth about the Church's behavior over the centuries. Yet he does so with respect, as he shows the reader, for instance, why the medieval Church was so corrupt and had become such a great landholder and ruler in Italy's papal territories. After the fall of Rome, which officially happened in 476, no other power or administrator existed to take care of people and to operate the basic infrastructure of civilization in the West.

The bishops of Rome administered their city, collecting taxes and keeping Germanic chieftains away. In some cases, popes such as Gregory the Great (590-604) managed to dissuade warriors from inflicting damage on Rome or a surrounding area. The Church looked after “schools, farms, unsafe streets, food distribution and price controls.” The Greek churches to the East never had this problem, and were able to develop elaborate liturgy and theology, with the West unable to catch up until the thirteenth century. The Western Church's own great mission even up to the fourteenth century's Black Death included serving the physical needs of the people.

McBride explains interesting and theologically-important aspects of Church history, such the changes in church design. Gothic architecture, which began at St. Denis, near Paris, around 1137-44, emphasized the new accent on the interior life, and more: “Geometric exactness and proportion resulted in harmony, which exemplified the unity of the universe as created by God. The light flooding the interior represented the divine light, the Spirit of God.”

The Story of the Church brings the reader back to an appreciation of the common people. This history attempts to tell the story of all Western Christians, and not just the theologians and popes. Gothic architecture, reflecting the medieval devotion to Our Lady, was rooted in the spirituality of the common people: “Medieval people loved legends about our Lady, and they were delighted to see these stories depicted in stone and glass.”

Again, rather than outlining the bureaucratic or theological history of the Franciscans, McBride notes their impact on lay piety. This order gave Catholics “Christmas cribs, the Stations of the Cross and other dramatizations of Gospel stories.”

McBride places events in their historical context, something that writers with anti-Catholic agendas fail to do. He shows how the Crusades came not from an anti-Islamic sentiment so much as from the internal, warrior violence of early medieval Europe itself. Coupled with a new eleventh-century penitential movement, the Crusades brought together the energies of various elements of medieval Europe. Even though McBride regrets this violence, he sees great wealth in the medieval Church as a whole, exemplified by the development of the universities and disputatious reasoning.

While The Story of the Church contains less material on recent history, McBride does discuss important events such as the Modernist controversy. The late nineteenth-century Church, battered by the French Revolution, German cultural hostility, and Italian unification, did not see democracy as a good thing. However, the popes and the Church always stayed on the side of the people, as reflected in the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, which addressed the terrible working and living conditions of Europe and America's factory laborors.

The Story of the Church ends with thoughts on the strong papal leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the hope this brings to the Church.

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