The more I read about the fourth century–that’s the 300’s, for all of you who are like me and don’t absorb history quickly–the more I see it as a kind of birth period for the Church. Of course, Christ founded the Church from the cross and revealed her at Pentecost, but as soon as the Roman Empire figured out that Christians were not Jews then it was illegal to be Christian. Even though the Church was by her nature a public and missionary thing, it’s hard to be all that public or all that missionary when anyone around you might rat you out to the government.
Imagine you have a foam model of a cathedral. Then you squish it down and mash it and squash it until you can fit it into a tiny cube-shaped box. The foam cathedral in the box is like the Church in the ages of persecution: it’s all in there, but it’s compressed, in some ways beyond recognition. When you take the foam cathedral out of the box, you see the Church over the course of the fourth century: slowly, she spreads out her parts, unfolds herself, assumes her natural size and shape. It was all in there, but in a way it is “being a cathedral” for the first time.
Of course, it’s wonderful to find out just how much was in that little box during the ages of persecution: the doctrines already in place, like purgatory and the authority of bishops and the efficacy of sacraments; the practices already in place, like the Mass with its main parts already in force as they stand today. But I have come to put a special value also on what seems to appear during the 300’s. What did the Church do the very moment she was taken from the box? That also tells us something very important.