Writing in about the year 116, the pagan historian Tacitus described a fringe group of religious blasphemers who lived in Rome under the emperor Nero. They refused to honor the gods. They engaged in “superstitious abominations” and worshiped a crucified criminal. They were blamed for Rome’s great fire in A.D. 64, and as a result, they were hunted down and put to death.
Three hundred years later, they were the official religion of the Roman state.
Numbers can be misleading. They’re never the best way to measure the health of the Christian faith. The Church in Rome’s catacombs was small. But she was stronger than any of her critics or persecutors. And that’s as true today as it was in the time of Tacitus.
A century ago, sub-Saharan Africa had fewer than 2 million Christians. Today it has more than 130 million. That’s a growth rate of nearly 7,000 percent. We live in a supposedly “post-Christian” age. But Christianity is alive and growing rapidly across the entire Southern Hemisphere – arguably faster than any other religion in the world, including Islam.
That’s the good news. Of course, there’s another side to history.
In A.D. 600, the Mediterranean world had hundreds of thriving Christian communities. Around that time, two Greek monks, John Moschos and Sophronius, began a pilgrimage. They went to Egypt, Jerusalem and around the great Middle East heartland of Christianity. They wrote a journal called The Spiritual Meadow. A best seller in its day, and still a Christian classic, it was a kind of spiritual travelogue — a record of the wisdom, visions and stories from the historic center of the Christian faith.
John Moschos died in the year 619, unaware of an obscure Arab holy man named Mohammed. Within a hundred years, Muslim armies had overrun all of the Middle East, North Africa and most of Spain. Today, St. Augustine’s diocese of Hippo is a Muslim town in Algeria. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit was once a center of Christian scholarship. In the birthplace of Christianity, after centuries under Islam, Christian minorities face discrimination and frequent violence. They barely manage to survive.
Here’s my point. Jesus said the gates of hell would never prevail against his Church, and his word is good. But he didn’t promise anything about our local real estate and institutions. The Canadian scholar Douglas Farrow once wrote that “St. Peter will have his successors until the Lord comes, but his successors may not always have St. Peter’s.”
In other words, God is faithful — but he makes no guarantees about infrastructure or the status quo or even our next breath.
Human beings make history, not the other way around. This is why each of our lives matters. God is love; a God of life and deliverance and joy. He made us to be happy with him; to be loved by him; and to bring others to know his love. That’s the glory of being alive. That’s the grandeur of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The task of preaching and teaching, growing and living the Catholic faith in our time, in this country, belongs to you and me. No one else can do it. The future depends on God, but he builds it with the living stones we give him by the example of our lives.
So today, tomorrow, and in the coming Year of Faith — which begins in just a few weeks — we need to remember the words of the Epistle of James: “Be doers of [God’s] word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas. 1:22).
We live for the glory of God, and we prove it in the love we show to each other.