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Church History: the Protestant Reformation

Aug 21

Written by:
8/21/2017 2:27 PM  RssIcon

In our pursuit and understanding of the Church’s missionary efforts, we have reached a critical stage in Church History: the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, a disgruntled Augustinian priest, nailed his 95 Thesis on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and unleashed a firestorm of dissent and confusion across most of northern Europe and chaos across the entire continent as the Catholic Church struggled to respond. In short, we were ill equipped to answer his challenges in a thoughtful and respectful manner, and the Church suffered dramatically because of it.

Yet, there was never a time where the Catholic Church lost membership. New missionary efforts were launched from Italy, Spain and Portugal into the newly discovered (to Europeans, at least!) lands of the West and the Far East. Shortly after the chaos of Reformation began, St. Juniper Serra, OFM, came to these lands through Mexico and established all those missions along the west coast. At the same time, St. Francis Xavier, SJ, left an academic career and traveled from Spain to India and the Far East, making it as far as seeing the coastline of Japan; baptizing thousands of men, women and children along the way.

It was during these long missionary journeys conducted primarily by Franciscans and Jesuits that the Church began to use the term ‘inculturation.’ In short, this is the process of proclaiming the Gospel in a way that the hearer could understand. St. Francis Xavier sought to translate the Bible into the native languages he encountered along his journey. St. Juniper Serra would hold up the good things that were present in the people he met as he traveled throughout Mexico and California. With the inspiration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, millions of native peoples came into the Church and found salvation in the Sacraments.

Over the next few centuries, local churches and dioceses would be established in all parts of the world: the Americas, Africa, India, the Far East and Oceania. There was a great zeal in proclaiming the Gospel and meeting the local people with a new found awareness of the power of living in Christ Jesus.

Yet, as we have seen before, that zeal slowly starts to fade. There were no new lands to explore. Local churches had been established in many parts of the world. And that drive to spread the Gospel slowly faded. During this time, however, there were renewed efforts to re-unite the Christian west, both between Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as ecclesiastical communions spawned by the Protestant Reformation; which serves as a great reminder that evangelization starts at home and in the place that God places before us. And we need to take seriously the Great Priestly Prayer of Jesus in John 17; as He prays that we all might be one as He and His Father are one. The unity of Christendom must be at the heart of our prayers.

Partly because of the divisions in Christendom and because of new intellectual movements in society, it can be easily argued that we now live in a ‘Post-Christian West.’ In response, Pope St. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council and Pope St. Paul VI coined the term the New Evangelization to challenge Catholics to bring the Gospel message into the highways and byways of our world; a theme carried on by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now by Pope Francis. (Side note: I think we are experiencing such a golden age of the Papacy over the last 100 or so years!)

I’ll pick up the New Evangelization in next week’s column…

God Bless
Fr. Kyle Schnippel


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