Wednesday night, I have to cram two thousand years of Church History into a two hour presentation for the RCIA group at my parish. This requires doing enormous violence to the historical record, leaving out important qualifications and focusing only on the main themes. As a historian by training, I do not equate this simplification with the distilling process which clarifies the liquid to be distilled. It is not the essence one finds when you cast aside the complications, but a distorted and often de-humanized principle, far removed from the lived reality, with all its socio-cultural encrustations, that history presents to us.
That said, it is curious what you stumble upon, or how the process of recalling forces one to dust off faded memories, the way you dust off Christmas ornaments that have been in the attic all year when they were not needed. Yesterday, recalling the papacy of Innocent III, I seemed to remember that his image appears in bas-relief in the U.S. Capitol. And, so it does, in the House of Representatives chamber alongside the bas-reliefs of other great lawgivers in Western civilization. Nor is his the only papal sculpture in the House chamber. Innocent’s nephew, Pope Gregory IX, is also accorded a place among the law-givers. The next time you or your family is visiting the imperial city, be sure to look for these two Catholic additions to our otherwise secular republican temple.
I had also forgotten the story of St. Francis going to Rome to be presented to Innocent III. The pope did not find Francis’s uncouth ways to his liking and told him to go play with the pigs where he belonged. Alas, Francis took obedience seriously and the next day showed up at the papal court covered in pig manure. Innocent, however, was a genuinely pious man and he lent his support to Francis, recognizing the importance of the spiritual regeneration of the Church at all times.
Reading the history of the Church is important for all Catholics. Some who fashion themselves "traditional Catholics" do not seem to recognize that this is redundant. To be a Catholic is to be rooted in a tradition. It is also the case that many who invoke the tradition never really took the time to learn it. Nostalgia for the 1950s should not be confused with tradition. Our traditions are rich, intellectually vibrant, spiritually compelling, confusing and inspiring often in the same moments, complicated, persistent, all at the same time. In that history we see the notes of the Church: holiness, oneness,
Catholicity and apostolicity, as well as their opposites. History is always clarifying reading.
So, as we get ready for some time at the beach, instead of a trashy novel, get the real thing. Pick up a book of Church history and see what you uncover. I’ve been at this stuff for twenty years but I still find myself surprised by what I find.