Once upon a time: Catholicism’s westward journey

Christ is as present today in Diocese of Knoxville as he was in early days of the Church

It was the mid ‘60s of the first century of the Christian era. Our first Holy Father was well into his fourth decade as Christ’s vicar on earth. The Church was well-established with headquarters in Rome. We do not know about the physical health of Christ’s appointee to lead the Church during the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and into the ‘70s of our early Christian days.

Besides Sts. Peter and Paul, names like Cletus and Linus were mentioned as leaders of the Church in the city of Rome. Peter must have been in fairly good physical health. He was a public figure, spending some time in the jails of the Eternal City. Persecutions raged off and on and were quite violent from time to time. Historians tells us that both Sts. Peter and Paul were executed, perhaps on the same day. One would think that we would have known every detail about the deaths of these early Church leaders, but we don’t. We do know that St. Peter was martyred near the crypt of the present Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and that St. Paul was beheaded at what we now call the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

From the list of Church leaders, somebody was selected to lead. Perhaps St. Linus, followed by St. Cletus and local bishops in Ravenna, Athens, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem did their share of leading place by place. Although various leadership styles prevailed, the Church’s governance style was hierarchical.

Please fast forward to the time of St. Ambrose. The popes were elected as were the bishops. The bishop of Milan had died. Some youngster in the crowd yelled, “Let Ambrose be our bishop!” However, there was a problem. Although Ambrose had been a great governor of that metropolitan city, he was not Catholic. So we are told, Ambrose received the shortest possible preparation for bishop. Within just a few days he finished instruction, was baptized, installed in the minor orders, ordained a sub-deacon, deacon, priest and bishop – all within a short time. History attests that it worked out well. Two friends of Ambrose have become our friends, too: St. Augustine took instructions from St. Ambrose, and Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, sought the counsel of the bishop of Milan.

By the year 600, the missionary thrust of the Church was in full swing. The pope was a Benedictine monk and he sent missionaries to the British kingdoms. The evangelizers brought some of the converts back to Rome. Papal commentaries reported people exclaiming when they saw tall, blue-eyed, blonde converts brought from England, “Look! They’re angels!” One commented, “No, not angels, but angles.”

Pope after pope followed. Pope Pius VI established the Church in the United States, although South and Central American and Caribbean archdioceses were well established by 1790 when Baltimore became a see.

We Catholics along the East Coast of the United States probably think exclusively of an English-speaking U.S. Church. It isn’t as simple as that. Granted that our Diocese of Knoxville came from Nashville (1988); that Nashville came from Louisville (1837); and Louisville (Bardstown, Ky.) was established in 1808. Who would have thought that just 50 years ago there were so few Spanish-speaking Catholics in East Tennessee. By 2088, our diocese will be 100 years old and articles on the diocese will have more Spanish names than English or Irish or French or Italian – just more “proof,” if you will, of the evolving Mystical Body of Christ in our lives. The Church presently is blessed to be led by Pope Francis, who is from the western hemisphere and is a Jesuit. May God grant him length of days.

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general and the historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.


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