Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
IT WAS seven weeks and four days since Christ had been nailed to the Cross. Fifty-three full days since the awful sentence that was so to change the course of mankind. A Procurator might brood in Herod's palace but his soldiery must patrol with watchful eye, for crowds of pilgrims were swarming upon Jerusalem eager to celebrate the Pentecostal rites, so ancient and significant to their race. On such a day, as the centurions well knew, the fires of nationalism could easily flare but as it happened there was no such trouble. Except by a few the tragedy of Calvary was either unknown or dimmed in the memory and a festive mood occupied the twisted streets. Rich harvest there must have been for the merchants and bazaars; and the clang of Roman arms, surely a minor note in all that Eastern tumult, continued to exact the usual respect although in the afternoon there was an incident which could not have escaped the attention of the patrol commanders. Around one narrow corner the flow of the mob had halted and the gay jostle and babble had faded as a man flanked by a small group of zealous-eyed companions began to speak. From his simple dress, the gnarl of his hands, the weathering of his face, one would judge him to be a laborer. He certainly was no known Doctor or richly fringed Pharisee yet he spoke, and with a strange authority, of God. And so eloquent was his faith, so convincing was his testimony that his haphazardly congregated audience, numbering between two and three thousand, did not jeer or scoff but listened with respect. It was the first sermon of Peter, the beginning of the Church on earth as an organized society, administered by men. A
momentous event, this gathering on the crowded street, the commencement of a long story that has never yet sighted the horizon of finality, a story stained with blood and tears and woven with glory and shame, with triumph and disaster, but never obscured with the blanket of absolute defeat.
Although supernaturally inspired the new company was but of mortals and as such it was of course necessary to have authority vested in one person. Chosen was one well proven to have lived his full share of human weakness and folly. No unusual man, more righteous than his fellows, no pale blooded scholar, surfeited with learning, no ascetic celibate, ponderous with rectitude, had been the brawny fisherman when, in obedience to the divine command, he had stowed his nets and made fast the halyards of his small craft for a last time. Simon, born in the village of Bethsaida, had been his name; but the One whom he obeyed changed it to Kīphā, meaning in the Aramaic language, Rock, from which is derived Peter. "Thou art Peter (Kīphā) and upon this rock (Kīphā) I will build my church" were words that gave to the unlettered fisherman a precedence never to be questioned by his fellow Apostles and to him, after the departure of their Master, naturally fell the duty and dangerous honor of delivering the first public proclamation of the Christian Church.
Persecution of that Church is an accompanying theme from the beginning and it was not long before Peter and his friend John were summoned before the Jewish High Council and commanded to cease their activities. Their courageous reply was that they were bound to obey God rather than men. Death was then threatened and an end to their lives, prompt and cruel, would have undoubtedly been their lot if it had not been for the good offices of Gamaliel, a tolerant minded and highly respected doctor
of laws, who advised his colleagues that: "If this counsel or this work be of men it will come to naught; but if it be God, you cannot overthrow it." This plea served for the moment but the High Priests, wrapped in the obstinacy and jealousy of their own man-bestowed rank, remained unconvinced and eventually their bitterness resulted in the stoning to death of the deacon Stephen. Thus was enacted the first Christian martyrdom. To witness it, glowering satisfaction at the bloody sight, was a zealous young Pharisee, himself unknowingly doomed for a martyr's crown: he was named Saul, and was to be called Paul, when, upon changing his views, he became the great Apostle to the Gentiles.
The Church was born and it was in being but in those very first days it was not yet catholic. For long centuries their composite heritage of religion and race had been jealously guarded by the Jews. Conquered they might be, indemnities of gold and obeisance they might deliver but their blood remained undiluted, the Mosaic law undefiled. Gentiles might sometimes overwhelm and rule them but Gentiles also, according to the precious tradition, were to be considered unclean and unfit to worship in the synagogues. Therefore in that all-Jewish community of his fellow believers there was consternation when Peter, prompted by a vision and without even attempting any preliminary rites of racial adoption such as circumcision, baptized one Cornelius, a man of rank in the Roman Army of occupation. Without ostentation or elaborate ceremony the Gentile officer was touched by the Jewish fisherman with water, thus enacting with simplicity an event that proved to be of the highest historical importance, the act that marked the development of the Church into the international and inter-racial society which from that time on has offered participation to all, no matter of what race
or rank. Many of the early Jewish Christians, or Nazarenes or Galileans as they were then called, were to show considerable hesitation before sharing what they had sincerely believed was their birthright of race. It was difficult for these members of the chosen people to realize that the common God of all, as St. Paul afterwards explained to the Athenians, "bath made of one blood all races of men."
It was inevitable that the new religion should spread to Rome. All roads led to the seat of Imperial splendor, all things came there, for in truth it was the center of the known world. Roman rule and valor persisted everywhere and the measured tramp of the Legions was a sound as familiar to the Libyan plains as to the forests bordering the Rhine and Danube. There seemed to be no end to the mounting power of the Imperial City; and the Imperators themselves, in reality a sad succession of debauched murderers, not content with the glories of the purple, had even assumed the mantle of divinity. But in the administrative structure of the great city which possessed an Empire there was one weakness. Many religions were practised, many gods were worshipped, but lacking was the sustaining influence of a true moral force. Thus it was an opportune time for the new faith, which at first was greeted by the Romans as a depraved and decadent sect sprung from the absurd religion of a conquered people. Actually there is no historical record to tell us when Christianity was first established in Rome, or who brought it there. It is supposed in some quarters that amongst those converted by the Pentecostal sermon there were Jewish pilgrims front Rome and that upon returning to their homes they formed a community of believers. Whether this was their founding or not, a group of Christians did exist to welcome Peter when he arrived to establish his headquarters in the second year of the reign of Claudius.
At the very fountain-head of temporal might and power the unarmed fisherman had come to preach a strange and new doctrine of a universal brotherhood. The humble Jew had come to give challenge to the code of the Emperors which said that men's consciences were, like their persons and properties, subject to the will of the State. Details of his life in the capital are not known. Licence in vice and a wild and ceaseless pursuit of pleasure in all forms was the fashion of the Roman populace; and that peculiar and arrogant characteristic of debauchees, exhibitionism, caused public scenes which could not but have saddened Peter who, when writing to the churches of Asia, sent greetings from "the Church that is in Babylon." It was an obvious comparison that makes very clear the opinion he held of his environment. Tradition places his episcopate as having lasted a quarter century but this could not have meant actual residence. There was so much to do and the world was his parish. Many and laborious must have been the missionary excursions and the visitations to co-religionists in near and distant provinces. Some historians claim that he spent some seven years at Antioch, at that time a most flourishing center of Christian life. To Jerusalem it is certain he returned to preside over the First Council of the Churcha congregation of the Apostles which met to discuss the controversies that still attended the conversions of Gentiles, and which, owing to the inspired pleading of St. Paul, definitely decreed that excepting for a few restrictions such converts need not adopt or observe the Judaic conventions.
Upon Herod Agrippa, made King of the Jews by the Emperor Caligula, there falls the dark distinction of being the first monarch deliberately to single out the Christians for oppression. This had been in the year 42, the year the Apostles had dispersed to carry their faith to the world.
At that time Peter had been imprisoned but had effected a miraculous escape. Twenty-two years later, however, a vastly more powerful prince than Herod was to turn the force of his malignity upon the new religion. The great conflagration of Rome in July of the year 64 was too immense a calamity to pass without somebody being blamed. The belief had swept through the city, perhaps with justification, that it was the latest crime of the Emperor Nero whose vicious appetites were notoriously without control or limit. As the mobs began to mutter he, in order to avert this suspicion, quickly turned the finger of accusation upon the Christians and in the orgy of bloodletting that followed it was his tortuous mind which devised new and elaborate ways not only for men to die, but their women and children too.
These helpless victims of a debauchee's lie and a rabble's fury perished both collectively and individually with what now seems an incredible heroism. The long centuries which separate their age from modern times are apt to endow their savage deaths with a perspective of unreality, but it should never be forgotten that the fierce fact of physical pain was no less then than it is today. The unlessening faith shown before lunging attacks of starved beasts, or in the awful agonies of the stake, or during the lingering tortures of crucifixion, produced an inevitable result. For every Christian who thus died a hundred were born.
During these massacres both Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom. Paul as a Roman citizen was given the "privilege" of being beheaded whereas his friend was sentenced to the ignominy of the cross. And when the end came, displaying a mood unlike that of earlier days, the fisherman was calm and serenely courageous, making but one plea of his executioners. He declared he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Master and begged them to
make the execution different by nailing him to the cross head downwards. The plea, it is said, was granted and so died Peter, the first of the pontiffs, in the year 67. Little is known of his immediate successors save their names, the approximate years of their terms, their common heritage of humble birth, and the fact, significant if unrecorded testimony, that during their time Christianity, despite all opposition, continued on its steady growth. Linus was the first to inherit Peter's mantle, officiating until the year 79.
It is probable he was a Jew. We do not know, but Jew or not, as a Christian he must have grieved when during his time Jerusalem was razed by Roman troops under the command of Titus. He was succeeded by Cletus (or Anacletus) who presided until 89. Throughout these years, because of the persistent menace of persecution, perhaps sometimes dormant but never absent, the administration of the Church was conducted with as much secrecy as can cloak the activities of any society which seeks new adherents; and despite the displeasure of the Imperial authorities the new doctrine was being carried by zealous missionaries throughout the known world, even as far as the mystery-shrouded regions of distant India. Clement, who followed Cletus had been a friend of Peter and Paul and it is in his time we can first clearly discern the workings and formations of ecclesiastical rank; the subjection of deacons and priests to the discipline of their bishops and these same bishops acceptance of the authority of Peter's successors. The first known example of the exercise and acceptance of this authority was when Clement, in a firmly phrased letter, exerted his influence over ecclesiastical affairs in the distant city of Corinth, an act highly significant for living at Ephesus, much closer to Corinth than Rome, was one of the original Apostles, St. John.
In the sixth year of Clement's term the Emperor Domitian,
who had assumed the title of Lord and God, commenced a new persecution. Much blood was again shed but this time it was not only slaves and obscure foreigners who perished. Many of the Roman aristocracy had by now been converted and they too showed they could uphold the Christian tradition of dying with fortitude and serenity. Domitian's severity was not confined only to the realm of religion and (in 96) he was to meet his own death at the hands of an assassin. Nevertheless the persecutions he had inaugurated were continued, although perhaps with less vigor, under the two year reign of the aged Nerva who succeeded him. Up to this time Clement by some means had eluded arrest but he was now seized and given the comparatively mild punishment of exile. Banishment, however, to him meant merely an excellent opportunity for missionary activities. He persisted and exercised his priestly functions even in the midst of the soldiery. Finally, after refusing to obey an Imperial order to render sacrifice to the gods, he was executed by being, so tradition tells us, hurled into the sea with a heavy weight fastened to his neck.