The state of the Christian religion, in the diocese of Italy, until the end of the fourth century.
FORASMUCH as we have scarce any author of this diocese, during the three hundred and fifty-first years after the birth of Jesus Christ, whose writings are still in being, it will be impossible for us to give an account of the state of the Christian religion in that diocese, any other way than by considering the state of the neighboring dioceses, and most other Churches during that interval. But with this assistance we may be able to supply the want of those authors, whose memory time hath buried in oblivion, or whose writings have been destroyed by persecutions or by barbarisms.
We cannot doubt but that the principal articles of their faith were contained in the Apostlesí Creed, which, though it were not written by the Apostles, yet was received with a general approbation, as appears from what Tertullian and St. Irenaeus tell us. Neither did they, without doubt, own any other tradition, besides that of St. Irenaeus, that nothing ought to be laid down for certain truth, but what Jesus Christ hath taught, or the Apostles written, and left to the apostolical Churches as a sacred depositurn.
It is undoubtedly, sure, that this was the instruction which was given to the Catechumeni, who, after private instructions, were earnestly exhorted to read the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles, to confirm and advance themselves in the knowledge of the truths of the Christian religion. And it is as sure that the strangers, who came with this profession, were received as brethren, and they looked upon as heretics who advanced any doctrine contrary to the abridgment of the Christian faith.
The Bishops, when they preached, took the holy Scripture for the subject of their sermon; they explained the mysteries thereof. The Priests and Deacons did as much afterwards, by order of the Bishops, in the several places where they were settled; the one as well as the other being called to their offices by the consent of the people, without which their ministry was not acknowledged, or owned.
They admitted the Catechumeni, after an exact instruction, and baptized them on Easter-day and Whit-Sunday, and prepared them for the receiving of that sacrament by long continued fasts, which were prescribed them, and which the Church observed with them, to witness to them the concern they took in their conversion.
The Catechumeni did not assist at the celebration of the Eucharist, but were admitted to it after that they had received Baptism, and before that were to make confession of their sins, in token of their contrition. It was not till some time after the Apostles, yea even till after the second century, that anointings were added to the ceremony of Baptism, as well before as after the receiving of it; which was the charge of the Bishops, who gave the chrism to the new baptized, together with the imposition of hands. The new baptized were clothed in white, eight days after their baptism: before which they gave them salt to taste, and milk and honey to drink. Thus by little and little did they stuff out this holy ceremony, as if it were come too plain and homely out of the hands of our Savior and his Apostles.
They received the Lordís Supper immediately after Baptism, and the people offered bread and wine on the table whereof they communicated. All that were present were obliged to communicate. The Deacons proclaimed the Sursum corda, which was a sufficient hint that they were to seek Christ with their hearts in heaven, and that they looked upon that ceremony as a commemoration. Both men and women received the Sacrament in their hands, without any adoration exhibited to it, and they communicated all under both kinds.
We do not find that they prayed to any, but God through Jesus Christ; they prayed to him for the penitents, for believers, for all the necessities of the Church and the world, for the conversion of the heathens, Jews, and heretics, for the emperors, and for the government. They blessed God for the triumphant death of the martyrs; and in process of time they prayed for the dead, that God would be pleased to make them partakers of the first resurrection, which was not till after the doctrine of the temporal reign of one thousand years was introduced.
They carried the Eucharist to the sick, and those that were absent, and they called it the viaticum; a name which would better have suited with extreme unction, had that been the last sacrament of the Church.
The Bishops were every one of them heads of their Churches, but they acted nothing without the consent of the Clergy of their Church, and the people. The Priests administered the lesser Churches, but so as that their behavior, as well as their ordination, depended on the Bishop and his Clergy, who exercised discipline upon the delinquents. They were the Bishopís council, they preached, they baptized, they celebrated the Eucharist, they governed the parishes, as well those that were in the city, as in the country; they had Deacons, who expounded also the Gospel, who distributed the Eucharist, who carried it to those that were absent, who baptized, and who sometimes, in less considerable places, had the oversight of Churches. They were ordinarily those that visited the sick and prisoners, and that took care of the temporal concerns of the Church.
In process of time the number of Church-officers was multiplied: there were sub-deacons, acolythi, readers, exorcists, choristers, porters, and men that buried the dead: all these were reduced under the title of Church officers: whereas before, the Bishops and Priests performed the duty of exorcists, which consisted only in praying over the heads of those that were believed to be possessed of the Devil, or which were overtaken with maladies that were looked upon as possessions. The Diaconesses, who were of apostolical institution, and received the imposition of hands, and who, together with the virgins and widows, made, as it were, a part of the Clergy, were employed, to instruct the women in their houses, to visit the prisoners, and to prepare and dispose those of their own sex for the reception of Baptism.
They made a very exact scrutiny into the manners and knowledge of those that were admitted into the number of the Clergy; but it was not required of them in some places to forbear the company of their wives, in order to their admission, until the beginning of the fourth century; neither was it approved of by the Council of Nice in the year 325, which left them at liberty in that respect. In process of time they rarely admitted any to Orders that were married, except they made a vow to abstain from their wives. Pope Siricius was one of the first that endeavored to introduce the usage of ecclesiastical celibacy, and to make it pass into a law for his diocese.
The Church had at the first divided sins into two sorts: there were sins, which whosoever was found guilty of were excommunicated for ever: these were idolatry, murder, and adultery: the others did not exclude the persons guilty for ever from being reconciled to the Church, but only laid a necessity upon them of doing public penance at the church-gate; which at first was done with less severity during the two first centuries, but afterwards was made subject to more strict and severe rules, and continued for some years together, the Church requiring these precautions, the better to be assured of the sincerity of their conversion. The intercession of martyrs and confessors, or the apparent danger of death, wherein the penitents were fallen, obliged the Church to remit somewhat of the severity of these rules, which was called Indulgence.
The respect they had for confessors and for martyrs gave them a great authority, though many times they were only women or laics: oftentimes by their solicitations peace was granted to penitents, especially if they were any way related to them. The memory of their death was celebrated with thanksgivings to God for their triumph; which commemoration was renewed every year. Their bodies were buried very carefully; and the churchyards being often the most secure places for the assemblies of Christians, they celebrated the Eucharist in the same places, and upon their tombs. They boasted of their communion; and, from an heathenish conceit, which crept in during the fourth century, they considered them as present, and joining their prayers with the Church for the salvation of those who resorted to their graves. The veneration they had for their relics was carried so far, after the midst of the fourth century, that in diverse places they lighted lamps and wax candles on their tombs, and brought thither bread and wine, to eat and drink at their graves, and celebrate a kind of feast in honor of them. St. Austin in his Confessions observes, that his mother, willing to observe this African custom at Milan, was reproved therefore by St. Ambrose, as being a heathenish custom, and that she acquiesced in the Bishopís determination.
In the fourth century images began to be introduced into some churches, viz. the pictures of martyrs: but they knew nothing yet of painting the Deity, or of giving the images any religious worship.
They made the sign of the cross on all occasions, as if it had been an abridgment of the profession of Christianity amongst the heathens, or a powerful weapon against the devils.
They did not bury any at first, but in the churchyards; afterwards they began to bury in places adjoining to the church, and at last in the churches themselves. And it was in those church-yards, ever since the third century, that they celebrated the sacrament of the Eucharist, to render thanks to God for the deliverance of those, whose decease had been commendable and praiseworthy.
In the fourth century they consecrated churches but to God alone, and distinguished them from those places where the bodies of martyrs were buried.
They read only in the churches the canonical Scriptures, with the respect due unto the word of God; to which they afterwards .joined some hymns composed by some men of great renown, and the sufferings of martyrs, whose examples were of use to confirm the faith of the Church.
The people sang in their assemblies the Psalms of David; and this was the most ordinary exercise of believers, when they met together before day, and at other hours set apart for public acts of piety.
They almost continually concluded the sacrament of the Lordís Supper with feasts of charity, to comfort the poor, and to entertain brotherly unity amongst believers. At the breaking up of these feasts, they gave alms, which were employed for the maintenance of the poor, and the Clergy, who had no other incomes, until that Constantine had embraced the Christian religion.
They celebrated fasts that were very different as to their duration: some ending after three of the clock in the afternoon, some lasting the whole day; but all of them consisted in a total abstinence from meat and drink. Some of these fasts were kept every week, on Wednesday and Friday; the Church of Rome fasted also on Saturday. These days of fasting having not been instituted by the authority of the Apostles, according to the general consent of ancient Christians, and every one using them with great liberty.
The body of the Christian Churches continued united together by the bond of one and the same faith, and by the mutual care which every Bishop took to keep up the same zeal for the purity of manners, as for that of faith. If there happened any difference, the Bishops and the Priest of the same province assembled, and determined the matter, without any appeal: and it was not till the midst of the fourth century, when the dioceses were better formed, that the Council of Sardica granted to Pope Julius, Bishop of Rome, the privilege of examining afresh all causes that had been determined in the provincial synods; which however never, took full effect, all the Greeks, and a great part of the Latins having rejected that Canon. The Bishops of Rome endeavored to attribute and preserve to themselves this authority, though they could never bring it about, but by means of the favor of the Emperors Gratian at the end of the fourth age, and of Valentinian the Third in the midst of the fifth age.
This was the general state of the Church, whilst under the heathen persecutions, and after having endured the furies of Arianism, which almost wholly laid her waste, during the fourth century. On which occasion I desire the reader to observe:
First, That the most part of the human constitutions I have mentioned were not observed with that rigour, with which Rome imposeth them at present.
Secondly, That some part of those Church-orders have been changed and abolished in process of time.
Thirdly, That a considerable part of these customs, unknown to Scripture, had their rise from a design the Christians had of accommodating themselves to the notions of the Jews and heathens.
Fourthly, That the opinions amongst the ancient Christians upon many questions of divinity being very different, they made use of great forbearance one with another, as long as they did but agree in matters of faith.
Fifthly, That although they received not men excommunicated for scandalous manners in another diocese; notwithstanding the excommunications of one diocese did not hinder, but that those who could prove the injustice thereof might communicate with those whom the Bishops of another diocese had excommunicated.
Sixthly, That every diocese was looked upon as being independent of all other authority: so that what respect soever they might have for the apostolical Churches, yet did not they think themselves obliged to follow them, in case they were persuaded that they had violated the purity of the faith.
And now having made these general observations, which are to be applied to. the state of the diocese of Italy in particular, we shall proceed to what farther information we can get from those authors who have wrote and lived in this diocese.