October 04, 2019

Good afternoon. I’d like to begin by offering a few words of thanks. First, to Dr. Klingshirn and the Center for the Study of Early Christianity for their work in organizing this wonderful conference. Second to Robert Louis Wilken, for joining us as our keynote speaker. Dr. Wilken has been a good neighbor to Catholic University over the years, generously sharing his time and his research with our faculty and students. Finally, I’d like to thank the presenters: our students and faculty, and especially our alumni, who have returned to campus for this event. It’s wonderful to have you back.

In addition to showcasing the treasures of early Christian culture, the day’s events demonstrate the remarkable scholarship on the early Church carried out at Catholic University across disciplines and schools — in the Center for the Study of Early Christianity, the Department of Greek and Latin, the School of Theology and Religious Studies, and the School of Philosophy. Few, if any, universities could put on an event of this scope — covering 600 years, 2,000 miles, and topics ranging from politics and poetry to philosophy and architecture — drawing (but for the keynote and one presenter1) exclusively on their own faculty, students, and alumni.

As I read through the program for the proceedings, I found myself thinking about St. Jerome, whose feast we celebrated on Monday. We might consider St. Jerome one of the pioneers of early Christian studies. In his On Illustrious Men he chronicled ecclesiastical writers, beginning with St. Peter and modestly ending with himself, to demonstrate to the despisers of Christianity that the Church had its own philosophers, orators, and men of learning.

I like best, though, his lives of the saints; Paul the first hermit, for example, and St. Hilarion, a monk from Palestine. Jerome’s vitae are filled with miraculous events: talking beasts, the expulsion of demons, and the curing of the sick. In one particularly vivid passage Jerome describes how a chariot team owned by a Christian won a race against a team owned by a pagan thanks to Hilarion’s intervention2. Subsequently, many of the spectators were converted to Christ. But Jerome also provided details that anchor the stories in a time and place. Paul fled into the desert some time during the Decian or Valerian persecutions. Hilarion was born in a village about five miles south of Gaza in Palestine, and his story overlaps with the reigns of the Emperor Constantius and then Julian.

Whatever you think of Jerome’s historical method, I think his vitae teach us a lesson about the importance of studying Christian history and culture for the life of the Church. First, they demonstrate that even the early Christians were interested in how earlier Christians lived. In the Life of Paul, Jerome is concerned to show that Paul is the first to give an example of the hermetical way of life.

Second, they were not meant to merely chronicle the facts, but to shed light on how we are to live now. Jerome concludes his Life of Paul with an exhortation to his readers to reconsider their own opulent way of life in comparison to Paul’s blessed poverty3:

You drink from jeweled goblets; he satisfied nature with the hollow of his hands. You wear tunics interwoven with gold; he did not possess even the covering of the meanest of your slaves. On the contrary, paradise opens to him, a pauper; hell awaits you, robed in luxury. He, naked, has preserved the garment of Christ; you, clothed in silks, have cast off the vestment of Christ.

These two points go hand in hand, I think. We believe that God has revealed himself fully in Jesus and that the Bible is God’s word. But there are still some things the Bible doesn’t give us. It does not, for example, tell us exactly how to celebrate the sacraments. It does not provide a code of canon law. It doesn’t give us a detailed program for how we are to live Christianity in the particular place and time in which we live. As Blessed John Henry Newman, a great student of the Church Fathers who will be canonized October 13, observed: “The Bible does not answer a purpose[,] for which it was never intended. It may be accidentally the means of the conversion of individuals; but a book, after all, cannot make a stand against the wild living intellect of man4.”

To more fully understand and accept the teaching of Jesus, the wild living intellect of man needs not only the Church’s dogmas and doctrines to interpret Scripture. It needs to see the Gospel in practice in the liturgy and art, in religious devotions, and in lives of the saints. So it makes sense that even in the early Church, Christians were already looking back to the earlier Church for inspiration and examples of how to live Christianity. And this remains true today.

Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I share these thoughts only to express my gratitude for the important contribution our faculty, students, and alumni make to the life of the Church by unearthing these treasures of early Christian culture, which continue to inspire how we live our Christian faith today.

1 The keynote speaker and one presenter are not in any way affiliated with CUA: Robert Louis Wilken, and Joshua Kinlaw (The King's College).

2 Jerome, “Life of St. Hilarion,” in Early Christian Biographies: Lives of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Anthony, St. Paul the First Hermit, St. Hilarion, Malchus, St. Epiphanius (Catholic University of America Press, 1952), 258.

3 Jerome, “Life of Paul the First Hermit,” in Early Christian Biographies: Lives of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Anthony, St. Paul the First Hermit, St. Hilarion, Malchus, St. Epiphanius (Catholic University of America Press, 1952), 237.

4 John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Sheed and Ward, 1987), 164.