The Continuity of the Catholic Church
It must be recognised, and the fact is not overlooked by critics, that the Church has had to endure punishing persecutions from time to time and that, as the result, she has been seriously weakened in whole countries. True enough. Such misfortunes, however, no matter how tragic they may be, do not and cannot break the Apostolic continuity. If and when the Church is suppressed in one part of the world she enjoys freedom in another. When bishops in one country are prevented from administering the Sacrament of Holy Orders, their colleagues in other countries are undisturbed. In the sixteenth century, for instance, nearly all the Catholic bishops of England were eliminated. But all the while there were numerous bishops on the Continent, through whom the priesthood and episcopacy were kept alive. Finally, after three centuries of exile, the hierarchy returned to England.
To go back further in history, the Mohammedan invasion in the eighth century practically destroyed Christianity in northern Africa, where for centuries it had prospered. No Catholic bishops and priests were left. But all the time there were bishops across the Mediterranean in Europe in whom the Apostolic succession was preserved. During recent generations bishops have been returning to North Africa, to preach once more the Gospel of Christ, to ordain new priests, and to consecrate new bishops. Without doubt the Islamic interruption in Christian progress is a most tragic chapter. It will leave its dismal trail in civilisation for perhaps another thousand years, but the point to be noted is that it has not destroyed the Catholic Church.
It is possible that another persecution will come, even more crippling than that by Mohammedanism. Perhaps it is already underway in the curse of Communism. Conceivably it could destroy all civilisation in Europe and in the Americas. Conceivably it could destroy the Catholic Church everywhere except on one little spot, such as a remote island in the Pacific, leaving only one bishop alive. Let it be noted that even then, even in such an extreme catastrophe, the Church would live. That one bishop would exercise the authority left by our Lord. He would ordain new priests; he would consecrate a few of them as bishops. Immeasurable harm would have been done to the Church, to civilisation, and to everything good in the world, but the succession of authority from the Apostles would not have been broken. It could be broken only if all Catholic bishops were simultaneously destroyed; but against that fatality stand the clear promises given by our Lord Himself.
Here I touch the premise upon which rests Catholic confidence for the future. Every Catholic is sure that no matter what occurs, no matter how much the Church is maligned and persecuted, no matter how many mistakes are made by her own representatives, even by her clergy and higher officials, the Church will continue to live. With this, no assurance known to man can be compared. It is unique in all human history; it is solid beyond all dispute.
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