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THE CENTRAL FIGURE AND THE STUDY OF HISTORY
REV. WM. J. LALLOU, S. T. B., PHILADELPHIA, PA.
The importance of the study of history needs no apologist. Even in the time of Cicero, ignorance of history was a mark of an undeveloped mind;"Nescire quid antequam natus sim acciderit, id est semper esse puerum." That present insatiable appetite for facts, which makes the newspaper a necessity in everyday life, craves also to know the happenings of the past. Great additions have been made to the store of the world's knowledge of facts by the investigations of the nineteenth century. The monuments of ancient civilizations have been brought to light, the sources of history have been ransacked, the archives of Europe have yielded up their secrets, long cherished prejudices have been shaken, and history, which, as De Maistre wittily remarked, had been a conspiracy against truth, is being re-written with scientific precision from original sources, the ideal being that the past speaks to us with its own voice. What is true of the importance of history in general is emphatically true of the history of the Church, which, as Lord Acton said, excels in importance because of the vital consequences of error. The power of historical knowledge is beyond dispute. Clothed in the armor of historic fact, the controversialist becomes a formidable adversary. No argument so securely sustains a thesis as that which is based on fact.
Polemics aside, much could be said of the study of history, of ecclesiastical as well as of political history, as an element of mental culture. All that extension of horizon, that expansion of sympathies, that true valuation, which is implied by culture, can be gained from the study of history, as it reveals human nature
in its workings in the world, the forces impelling it, the passions disturbing it, and the result of human activity upon the human race. Likewise that true Christian culture, which is based on religion and permeated with the spirit of Christ, is fostered by the study of Church history, which educates the Catholic mind in Catholic doctrine brought to ever clearer light as controversy succeeds controversy and keeps alive the Catholic spirit by the inspiring example of the Church in her struggles and triumphs.
The facts of Church history are information of a most practical character for every educated Catholic. They show the actual working of the Church in the world, how she faced her difficulties and solved her problems, and they give us the truth on controverted points. The study of ecclesiastical history makes good Catholics, it makes for loyalty to Mother Church. Church history is the history of the kingdom of God upon earth, replete with evidences of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the true demonstration of the divine claims of Catholicity. The study of the career of that Church which gave the civilizing uplift to Goth and Vandal and Hun cannot but be a refining influence. Faith must be strengthened by the uncompromising attitude of the Church when principle was concerned, losing thousands in the East because of "a single diphthong" in the Arian heresy, risking and losing kingdoms several times for the principle of monogamous marriage. Edification unto personal sanctity can be found in the study of the lives of the saints of the Church: the courage of her martyrs, the sanctity of her confessors, the labors of her missionaries, the constancy of her virgins. Nothing is more invigorating intellectually than contact through the pages of history with heroic defenders of the Faith like St. Athanasius, with masterly rulers like St. Gregory VII, with acute thinkers like St. Thomas of Aquin, with great secular princes like Charle
So are high types of character and high ideals of life set before us as we study the pages of Church history. Love for truth and justice is also cultivated by the study of history according to the Ciceronian injunction, "Ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri dicere non audeat." We learn to distinguish between the probable and the certain, to see the weakness in
great causes and the strength in weak causes. The true history of the Church does not minimize the faults of her human representatives, whatever idols are shattered or skeletons uncovered, any more than the Gospel narrative suppresses the treason of Judas or the denial of Peter. That same love for truth exposes the calumnies of so-called history against the Church, and the long chapter of the lies and errors and misrepresentations of history is a warning against too ready credence of all that claims recognition as historic fact. Everything that makes for mental culture can be found in the study of Church history: breadth of view, depth of sympathy, love of truth and loyalty to Church.
My thesis is not to establish the place of Church history in the college course as a part of Christian education, but the importance and advantages of the study of ecclesiastical history being admitted and its place, whether as a separate branch or in conjunction with political history, in the curriculum being assumed, it may be asked what this collegiate course may be expected to do for the student. First of all, it should give him a well-balanced outline of Church history that his perspective may be a true one and that the interrelation of events may be generally established. It should give him the answer to the chief objections raised against the Church from the pages of history. But above all, it should inspire in the pupil that lasting interest in ecclesiastical history which will induce him to continue his reading and his study. My knowledge is not of text-books and methods of teaching, but it is certain that no bare narrative of events, no teaching of history which is the mere memorizing of dates of reigns of Popes, of general Councils, or of principal heresies will awaken any permanent interest in the subject. Knowing that a distinction must be drawn between teaching and study, we venture to suggest out of our own limited experience, that what has awakened and sustained the interest in Church history in private reading may, translated into terms of teaching methods, have the same effect in the teaching of history.
Biography is admittedly a valuable adjunct to history. Interest in the career of a man is more readily enkindled than in the mere narrative of events. The man excites a real human interest, a human sympathy, and makes a personal appeal to the
reader. So in the study of Church history let the interest be focused upon some person of a period, more or less prominent, but above all attractive. About this protagonist, who has engaged our interest, can be grouped the men and events of his time, the study of which necessarily carries us backward to learn the causes and influences which produced the circumstances of that time and forward to the consideration of the effect of our hero and his age upon the future, for the shadow of a great man may fall athwart even centuries of history.
A certain French novelist gave as his prescription for a work of fiction that the writer take a cross section of life. So the student of history can to great advantage study a cross section of the life of the Church. It is hardly possible to take a whole tree, roots and trunk and branches and leaves, and subject it to minute examination, but if we take a slice of the tree trunk, however thin, cutting through bark and pith, by studying this cross section we learn much of the life and growth and uses of the tree. So our cross slice of Church history, subjected to close study, reveals not only the features of one epoch, but also leads us back to the deepest roots of the tree and forward to the latest of its leaves. The interest being awakened and sustained by the focus of our attention upon some central figure, whose personality has attracted us, take at the period of his life the cross section of history and about him will cluster the men and events of his time. Thus we might study Saint Athanasius and the age of Arianism; Nicholas I and the Photian Schism; Boniface VIII and the Papal supremacy.
But passing over these great personages of Church history as more obvious examples of central figures, let us suppose our attention fixed upon the period of the Renaissance, the fifteenth century, at which we take our cross section of the trunk of the great tree, which has grown from the tiny seed planted by divine hands. Let our central figure be that fascinating character, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, later Pius the Second, one whose life presents the most striking contrasts, who outlived the vices and retained the graces of the revived paganism, a poet, wit, diplomat and man of the world, who, being secretary to an anti-pope lived to become a staunch defender of Papal rights and died
himself in the pontifical chair, a Crusader Pope, leading his army against the forces of Islam. The story of his life is interwoven with the history of the fifteenth century, for from the Council of Basle to the end of his life, in 1464, he was identified with every event of importance, at least in the Church. The dominating idea of his life, the defense of the Church against the hereditary foe of Christendom, the unspeakable Turk, who, having ravished the Eastern Empire and placed the crescent on Saint Sophia, was ascending the Danube and threatening the states of Western Europe, gives us a link which connects us with the old Crusades and which invites our investigation of the victorious career of the sons of Hagar, pouring like a devastating flood over the fairest lands of Europe. The study of the proceedings of the Council of Basle, of which Aeneas Sylvius was a secretary, which would make the Pope president of a constitutional government with a Council as a permanent parliament, is the study of a critical phase of the history of the Papal Monarchy. Aeneas Sylvius as secretary to Frederick the Third, the Emperor of the West, and the last of the Holy Roman Emperors to receive his crown in imperial Rome from pontifical hands as Charlemagne had, six centuries before, brings us in touch with those relations of Pope and Emperor which have made so much of mediaval
Nicholas the Fifth, the humanist Tomasso Parentucelli, under whom Piccolomini received episcopal consecration, reigning a Papal Cosmo Medici, the founder of the Vatican Library and the restorer of many splendid monuments of Rome, introduces us to the Christian Renaissance, with all its Greek culture, but purged of its pagan vices. Louis the Eleventh and his equivocal revocation of the Pragmatic Sanction under Pius the Second harks back to the French domination of the Court of Avignon and presages the Gallican liberties of the seventeenth century and the French spoliation of our own day. Acquaintance with the holy and learned Greek Cardinal, Bessarion, the angel of peace at Ferrara and at Florence, who became a Latin rather than remain with schismatics, opens the door to the investigation of that saddest of ruptures in the kingdom of God, the Greek schism, with its attempted unions ever broken by Byzantine pride and