Think evangelization is tough? You should have seen it last time
In this Year of Faith, the Church seeks to re-evangelize countries where the fire seems to have burnt itself out. Can it make a comeback? MercatorNet interviewed Mike Aquilina, an expert in early Christianity, about the challenges of the first evangelization.
- October 31, 2012
Mike Aquilina: It's not a tough job. It's an impossible job. If you look at the odds against Christianity in the first, second, and third centuries, there was really no chance the Church would survive. Rome had brute power. And it controlled everything -- the jobs you wanted, the media and entertainment, travel. And even if Rome had somehow managed to lose its grip, its enemies were no warmer toward Christianity. It's not like the Church could have played the Persians against Rome.
The first evangelization took place at a time when Christians really had no advantages. They were outcast by everyone. Their religion was a capital crime. They were denied a voice in the public square.
Yet Christianity prevailed, and the empires died. I suppose you could say it took just shy of three hundred years, if you're counting from Pentecost to the Edict of Milan, the decree that made Christianity legal. But even then a large portion of the population still worshipped the old gods. The thorough evangelization of Europe probably took about a thousand years. And some, like Sigmund Freud, said it never really took in the barbarian lands. So maybe this new evangelization is simply a renewal of those long-ago efforts.
What were the obstacles faced by the first Christians in the world ruled by the Roman Empire?
The criminalization of Christianity was a big deterrent. Remember, executions were public, and they were enhanced for entertainment value. If you've seen a few people tortured to death in the circus, you'll probably think twice before doing the things they did. There were other obstacles as well. The chattering classes scorned Christianity as an ignorant superstition, suitable for women and the lower classes, perhaps, but not for respectable folk. And then there were the perennial obstacles: apathy, the attachment to an immoral life.
What was the moral climate at the time?
It was a pornographic culture. Entertainment was all about sex and spectacular violence. Abortion and infanticide were considered a normal part of family life. Adultery was so common that private investigators were among the few growth industries in third-century Rome. It was legal to sexually abuse a slave. It was socially acceptable to sexually abuse children. All the emperors did it. Domitian was considered moderate because he kept only one boy lover.
There was great material prosperity in Rome, but no hope, really. People moved from one wine-fueled hookup to the next, but couldn't come up with good reasons to have children. They coddled their pets instead. The emperors saw the demographic crisis coming. They worried about homeland security. So they tried to legislate fertility. But their efforts came to nothing. The law is a lousy aphrodisiac.
This has a contemporary ring to it…
Full Story: Early Christianity: a tough gig