Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327

COMING UP: Summer books for Catholic Bookstore Month

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Summer offers us leisure—time for family, travels, and reading. July also provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of Catholic bookstores, with the third annual Catholic bookstore month. The Archdiocese of Denver has a number of Catholic stores, located within parishes and operating independently. Take advantage of summer to find some extra reading time, checking out a nearby Catholic bookstore and reading some great, Catholic books. Here are a few ideas.

Father Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R., Fatima for Today (Ignatius Press, 2011). With the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, this book provides a helpful overview of Fatima’s message, events, visionaries, and continuing importance. Father Apostoli describes how we can participate in the mission of Fatima by praying the rosary for peace, offering acts of sacrifice and penance for conversion, and honoring Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart on the first Saturday of the month. October 13th marks the centenary of the miracle of the sun and on this day Archbishop Aquila will consecrate the Archdiocese to Our Lady of Fatima. Reading Father Apostoli’s book will help us prepare for this important event.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics). This wonderful novel set in Sante Fe in the mid 1800s, features prominently the Archdiocese’s first bishop. Though Bishop Machebeuf appears with the fictional name Fr. Vaillant, Cather stated that much of the novel is historically accurate and came from William Joseph Howlett’s biography of Machebeuf and excerpts of the letters contained within it. The novel describes the meeting of many cultures in Santa Fe—Native, Spanish, American, and French—and the dedication of Fr. Vaillant and his bishop-friend Latour (Archbishop Lamy in real life). The book inspired me to explore the amazing, Catholic sites of New Mexico.

Blessed Columba Marmion, Union with God: Letters of Spiritual Direction (Zaccheus Press, 2006). Marmion spiritually influenced St. John Paul II, as well as other popes, and this book in particular was mentioned by Mother Teresa as one of her favorites. Bl. Marmion was a diocesan priest from Dublin who discerned a vocation to the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium, eventually becoming abbot there. He led spiritual conferences throughout Europe and gave regular spiritual direction to priests, religious, and laity. Union with God gives us excerpts of letters to those he directed, providing a deep spiritual vision grounded in simple directives for daily life. Through these letters we find an application of Marmion’s central doctrine that our holiness consists in sharing, through sanctifying grace, Christ’s own relationship of sonship to the Father.

Jason Evert, Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves (Totus Tuus, 2014). After George Weigel’s monumental biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope (1999), we might wonder if we need another biography. Weigel himself praised Evert’s book as “an insightful, popular introduction,” which not only provides a succinct and accurate glimpse of John Paul’s life, but details his five loves: young people, human love, the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, and the Cross. It’s an important introduction to the great Pope for those too young to remember him, but also provides a great portrait and testimony to his greatness even for those already enriched by his life and witness. John Paul continues to provide an essential model of holiness and evangelization for the Church today.

Steve Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades (Catholic Answers, 2014). As Catholics we don’t hear much about the “glory” of the crusades, but find ourselves on the defensive as they are listed as an example of Catholic oppression. Weidenkopf, author of Ascension’s Church history resource Epic, shows how the common view of the crusades is mistaken. They were not acts of violent bigotry, but important defensive exercises and even expressions of devotion to Our Lord, by honoring the places He made sacred. The Crusades responded to the pleas of Christians in the Middle East for support and were undertaken as penitential pilgrimages to work toward salvation. Drawing upon recent historical scholarship, Weidenkopf dispels misunderstanding and false accusations, while providing a compelling portrait of the real story.

Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence (Ignatius, 2017) and God or Nothing (Ignatius, 2015). Cardinal Sarah has risen to prominence as a spiritual guide recently with these two monumental, interview books. God or Nothing details his life, beginning in a remote village of Guinea, Africa, coming to the faith through the Holy Ghost Fathers, and entrance into the seminary at age 12. He became an archbishop at the astounding age of 34, suffering persecution under his nation’s dictatorship, and was then called to Rome, where he has served in various capacities. Both books contain a powerful spiritual message: the renewal of the Church and the world will come through prayer. For a more detailed review of The Power of Silence and its timely message in our noisy, technologically dominated culture, see “The Way God Speaks” in the last issue of the Denver Catholic.

Helen Pinkerton, A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems 1945-2016 (Wiseblood Books, 2016). Unfortunately poetry has lost its pride of place in Western culture. Pinkerton’s poems show us why we should begin reading poetry again with their simple elegance, beauty, and profound spiritual vision. Here is one of her poems:


In touching gently like a golden finger,
The sunlight, falling as a steady shimmer
Through curling fruit leaves, fills the mind with hunger
For meaning in the time and light of summer.

Dispersed by myriad surfaces in falling,
Drawn into green and into air dissolving,
Light seems uncaught by sudden sight or feeling.
Remembered, it gives rise to one’s believing

Its truth resides in constant speed descending.
The momentary beauty is attendant.
A flicker of the animate responding
Shifts in the mind with time and fades, inconstant.

We have a wealth of enriching books from a variety of genres made accessible to us through the work of Catholic publishers and bookstores. Take advantage of your summer leisure to explore some Catholic books.