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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism


Written by: Christopher Bellitto

Jesus, of course, is the founder of Christianity, but he was not in the business of organizing an administrative bureaucracy. Christians date the birth of the Church to Pentecost, the feast celebrated ten days after Jesus' ascension into heaven, fifty days after the resurrection. Since the first Christians believed Jesus' second coming would occur any day, creating a structure was unnecessary. As time passed and the first apostles were dying before Jesus' return, they had to hand authority down to successors (apostolic succession) by praying and imposing hands over a person that the apostle and/or community recognized as a natural leader, who was likely assisted by others. It is easy to see here a borrowing from the Jewish system of elders, sometimes referred to by the Latin words saniores (older or wiser persons), presbyter, or sacerdos. In a sense, these are the founders of what became organized Roman Catholicism, but it is best to think of the first centuries of Christianity as a string of loosely-affiliated churches throughout the Roman Empire. Each was headed by a local leader who came to be called a bishop (from the Greek episkopos: supervisor, inspector, or overseer) instead of a priest or deacon, but this distinction of office took time. All of these Greek and Latin words seemed to have been used interchangeably for at least a century.

The idea that each local church would have only one bishop made sense, since the communities were fairly small, and this idea is called monepiscopacy. The bishop was many things at once: chief liturgist, preacher and teacher, administrator and judge, and symbol of the community. The bishop and his church were considered inseparable. Ignatius of Antioch, one of these local leaders who was taken from his home in Antioch to Rome and martyred there about 110-117, wrote to the Christian community in Smyrna in Asia minor: "Apart from the bishop let no one do anything pertaining to the church....[L]et the people be present wherever the bishop appears, just as the Catholic church is wherever Jesus Christ is." Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the mid 3rd century, declared that the church is in the bishop and the bishop is in the church.

At times, when the Roman Empire wanted to strike at Christians, they deliberately and literally decapitated the bishop, hoping that by striking the head of the Christian community, the body would fall apart--which didn't happen and only served to increase the prestige of the bishop.

Also, the question remained: what was the authority of each one bishop relative to bishops of other churches, especially the church of Rome that could trace its lineage of bishops back to Peter? Individual bishops were in contact with each other and one of their main functions may have been as a kind of spokesperson-secretary for the community, which seems to have been the case with Clement (91-101) and Soter (166-174) in Rome, as it was for many other bishops throughout Roman provinces. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) contended that each bishop held a part of the episcopacy's totality, while acknowledging the bishop of Rome as the source of episcopal unity even as he challenged his jurisdiction over other bishops.


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