As I was thinking of ways how to start talking about the early Church, a stage in her history which simplistically we tend to refer as the “Church of the Catacombs”, a terms that is largely misleading, it suddenly dawned on me that one simply cannot embark on a reflection of the two-thousand year old history of the Church without remitting to the very beginning. The story of the Catholic Church does not start with the martyrs, nor with the primitive Church, nor with the mission of the apostles. Her history takes off from the story of a life that was lived in Palestine at the start of the Common Era.
Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is whom we find at the very beginning of this history that has spent two thousand years in the making. This may surprise us, but it is something that we tend to overlook. Right at the start, I am setting down a very important criteria that should be at the back of our minds as we go along these series: the Church is both a divine reality, but at the same time it is not lacking in human elements. That the Church is a mystery in this sense is evident in every step in the study of her history. This is so true about her that a study of her history would be lopsided if it were seen merely from the political, social, and anthropological point of view. Such an incomplete and lopsided historical perception is mainly to blame for the many myths and half-truths about the Church, especially about her past.
Human and divine. The renowned German historian Joseph Lortz expresses this important aspect of Church history when at the start of his monumental work Geschichte der Kirche he firmly states that the history of the Church is theology. The consideration that this is not merely the history of not just any people, but the People of God not only does it legitimize the scientific nature of this field of study, but it allows us to contemplate it in its proper context: that the Catholic Church makes her progress in history not merely due to social, political and historical factors, but that she goes through history always under the designs of divine providence. Things happen in the Church, present in time, not only due to what man wills and how they execute what they will (for better or for worse); her historical progress follows a design that isn’t foreign from God’s will to save man.
If you want to study how and what the Church is, then you would have to begin with Jesus Christ, who founded the Church. It is in his life and in his death that we would be able to see the seed from which the Church will grow. Thanks to the mystery of the Incarnation, I would venture to say that it is in Jesus Christ that that which is divine, that which is eternal, that which is theological could be dated. For this is what the Incarnation basically is: the irruption of the eternal, the timeless, into man’s history, history which is quantifiable. This is something revolutionary, as one could deduce from the many references that posterior Christian thinkers would make of this mystery: “Oh wonderful exchange!”, Irenaeus of Lyon would say in the second century. But then the Incarnation is not merely a mystery: it also an event. It something that has taken place in time; it is datable, verifiable. The eternal Son of God has been born of a virgin named Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the family of David, the roots of which are found in Bethlehem.
If it is historically verifiable, when was the Son of God born according to the flesh then? We don’t have constancy of the exact date of Jesus’ birth, in the same manner as we would see in our own birth certificates. But this fact does not invalidate the historicity of Jesus’ birth—and as such—his own existence. For one thing, back in those days, people did not keep track of time in the same way that we do (and just because they do not do it the way we do doesn’t mean that it doesn’t tell us anything true). The primary sources that we have of the life and death of Jesus—and what happened afterward with his resurrection and ascension into heaven, is the New Testament, particularly the accounts of the four gospels. These are not biographies of Jesus, strictly speaking: their primary intention is to proclaim the divinity of Jesus Christ and his mission, which is part of God’s plan to save man. Though being such—testimonies of faith in the Son of God, what he did, what he taught—as data they give contribute something that could allow us to get to know the historic Jesus.
Together with other extra-biblical sources, we could gather the following: Jesus of Nazareth was born during the final years of the reign of Herod the Great (ca. 748-50 after the foundation of Rome, or 6-4 BC) and died in Jerusalem (on the 14-15 of the Jewish month of Nisan in the year 783 ab Urbe condita, which corresponds to the 7 of April, year 30 of the Christian calendar), when Caiaphas was high priest and Pilate the procurator of the roman province of Judea. He started his public ministry soon after receiving baptism from John (a prophet who preached the approaching redemption wrought by the Messiah) in the Jordan. Jesus exercised his ministry principally in the lower region of Galilee, teaching, traveling, and curing. Many followed him, but among these he called twelve men who became his inner circle. His company included people from different walks of life, even public sinner, with whom he ate. He exorcised demons, cured the sick and worked miracles. His taught using parables, transmitting his teachings through simple stories and using everyday images; with these he taught his followers and listeners about the Kingdom of God. his ministry—which could have lasted between two to three years, did not end in Galilee but in Jerusalem, where he used to spend the Passover. During this time, he was secretly arrested, and handed over by the chief priests of his own people to Pilate, tried and charged guilty of sedition. He was crucified and died. Soon after, his disciples (the majority of whom fled during the days of his arrest, trial and death), went about preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead.
These data may provide a minimalist image of Jesus, but these facts are enough to establish the basis for a firm knowledge of Jesus and the origins of the Church, which the accounts of the four evangelists and the Acts of the Apostles relate.
Though nowadays very few people would take for granted the fact of the historicity of the figure of Christ, in the early years of the twentieth century, influenced in a substantial way by liberal Protestantism, certain trends of thought began to question the intention of Christ to found the Church. This view is primarily found among modernists. Modernism is basically an intellectual movement which rose during the first half of the twentieth century (before the First World War) that declared that the Church had to change entirely in order to suit the modern age into which it was entering; in order to be more acceptable to modern man, she ought to change not only in her accidental aspects (which could admit change), but also in her doctrine, in matters of dogma and morals (which is unacceptable, since these, being founded on eternal truths, can never change).
One of the points of the modernist way of thinking—condemned by the Church in 1907—was that the Church wasn’t founded by Christ, who never had the intention of founding anything anyway. Alfred Loisy—a French scriptural scholar, maintained that Jesus, who saw the imminent coming of the end of times, had never thought of founding any stable community, much less the Church; however, the Church was a logical consequence of the preaching of the Gospel. It was the prolongation of this preaching while mankind awaited the parousía. This is encapsulated in Loisy’s iconic statement which could be expressed in the words “Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom, but what came out of it was the Church”. Along with others, this was roundly condemned by the Magisterium.
This makes us turn to the question as to whether Jesus really had that intention of founding the Church. Did Jesus really intend to found it? Did he really see himself as its founder, its head?
Unlike how people might do it today, the Church wasn’t founded in a day or in a specific day in particular, with a notary to record it. Rather, in ascertaining the foundation of the Church, we look to certain circumstances in the life of Christ that show this intention to found the Church. Aside from this, there are also singular events in the life of Christ and in that of the first community of believers (gathered around the figure of the Twelve) in which the Church entered into history.
In the first place, there was the preaching of Jesus, which announced the coming of the Kingdom of God; in his preaching he also called to repentance and conversion. It was a conversion that was not individualistic, but always set in the context of the new People of God.
The institution of the Twelve apostles also showed the will of Christ to found the Church: like the twelve tribes that made up the people of God, they were to be the twelve columns upon which the new People of God would be built. Among them he charged Peter with the power of the keys (cfr. Mt. 10:1-4; Mk.3:13-19; Lk. 6:12-16).
Another evident sign of this will to establish the Church was Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, and his granting of the power to perpetuate it in history to the Twelve. In this, Christ transmitted to the Church, in the person of the Twelve apostles who were seated with him in the Last Supper, the responsibility to be the sign and the instrument of that community which he had formed, one which would have to last until the end of time.
Finally, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which had been sacramentally anticipated in the Last Supper (and made present once again every time the Mass is celebrated) gave birth to a united community, in communion with him. This is a community that is called to be both a sign and the instrument of the work that Jesus had started. The Church is born, therefore, from the total self-giving of Christ, his generosity that procured our salvation; it is a self-giving that has been anticipated in the Last Supper and fully realized on the Cross.
The preaching of Jesus of the kingdom of God and his call to conversion, the call of the Twelve and the special mission of Peter, the institution of the Eucharist and the Paschal Mystery: all these were constitutive of the foundation of the Church. Soon after Pentecost, which ushered the Church to go forth and announce the Good News, the Apostles, conscious that that they had to fulfill a mission that had to last until the end of time (since as such they had received it from Christ), perpetuated it by choosing men to succeed them in the task. When at last all of the original Twelve had gone, they left behind a community of believers, with a structure through which the apostolic ministry continued, guiding and sustaining it in communion with Christ. The Acts of the Apostles show that it is an assembly—ekklesia in Greek, kirche in German, Church in English—vitalized and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Throughout this reflection, we have pondered on basically two matters: the fact that Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, eternal God and born of the Virgin, and the fact of his will to found the Church. Jesus is the divine founder of the Church. It is a Church founded on the rock of Peter’s faith, as the familiar passage of Matthew 16:16 would tell us: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”. “And I say to thee, thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”. More than just Peter, the rock upon which the Church is founded on is none other than Jesus Christ himself, the Rock of Ages. He had founded the Church, endowing it with the gift of his own divine life, making it indestructible. Steadfast as Peter’s confession of faith in Christ, the horrors and evil which two thousand years of human history had also experienced (among other things) hadn’t been able to destroy the Church, an edifice founded surely upon firm rock.
 Cfr. Joseph LORTZ, Historia De La Iglesia, vol. I, Madrid 2003, 12.
 Ab Urbe condita means “after the foundation of the City”; this was the way of computing the passage of years in the Roman empire: by taking count of the years since Rome—the City par excellence—was founded.
 Cfr. Domingo RAMOS LISSÓN, Compendio de la Historia de la Iglesia Antigua, Pamplona 2009, 32.
 Cfr. Ibid., 33.
 Mt. 16:18.