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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Beginnings

Written by: Christopher Bellitto

In Christianity's infancy, for example, the word "synagogue," indicating a gathering, was synonymous with the Greek word ekklesia used to denote an assembly of Christians, sometimes referred to as a church and often gathering in someone's home-known as the early house churches. Gentiles, however, could not turn to this same structure and in those earliest years there were no bishops or parishes in a form that we would recognize today, although the roots were already present.

Christians had to establish their own identity not only from Judaism but in the eyes of the Romans, who were inclined to see them as dangerous subversives. They also had to communicate the faith to new believers in what appears as a catechetical process that fused what became baptism, Holy Communion, and confirmation (still today grouped as the sacraments of initiation). A period of as long as three years of probation and learning the Church's core beliefs (known as the kerygma) culminated with a final preparation and testing period during Lent.

Adults were baptized by being immersed in water (usually three times), receiving an anointing with oil, and receiving the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil--a practice restored since Vatican II in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Adult baptism was the norm in the 1st century, although we hear of infant baptism with godparents in the 2nd century. Sunday gradually replaced the Jews' Saturday as the Christian Sabbath, a natural weekly celebration of the resurrection called the Lord's Day.

Within just a decade of Jesus' life, services included a reading aloud of letters (such as Paul's) from other Christian communities, and then moral exhortation from a leader.  A period of scripture study was joined with a friendly meal (agape) before the Eucharistic celebration, but by 100 the two were separated, with the Eucharist assigned to Sunday morning and the agape meal with scripture study to Saturday or Sunday evening.  These two liturgies, of word and Eucharist, fused over time, but the combination may have existed in a recognizable Mass by the early 2nd century.


Study Questions:
     1.    How did Christianity develop out of a Jewish matrix? When did Christianity separate itself from Judaism?
     2.    Why was Christianity’s identity intermingled with Judaism in its infancy?
     3.    How did ritual serve as an agent of identity to the Christian faith?

 

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