Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the print interview.
Speaker, author and writer Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s book When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers (Servant Books, 2014) is gripping, compelling and fast-moving. D’Ambrosio doesn’t just bring the ancient past alive: He makes it relevant for us today, even while he makes the Church Fathers into the superheroes they deserve to be.
The Register had a chance to speak with D’Ambrosio about this project and his passion for it.
What was your impetus behind writing this book? Why should any of us care about when the Church was young? Why does it matter to us?
When I was young, a 16-year-old, wide-eyed newly converted, excited “Jesus freak,” God blessed me with a spiritual director who got me reading the Fathers of the Church. I was very reluctant to read them, because, you know, they were a bunch of old dead guys. I fell in love with them, and I realized just how much the world of Rome and the early Christian empire was like ours: same problems, same issues.
The Fathers write with heart. They’re geniuses, but more than anything else, they’re pastors and disciples. They write in a way that people can relate to, and I think everyone who has read Augustine, even a little bit of his Confessions, knows how moving his words can be and how quotable he can be. He’s great for Twitter. He says things and has turns of phrase that are so awesome!
I realized that was important for me, and then I realized that the Second Vatican Council’s whole point was going back to the sources. The sources mean where the water was coming out of the well: the liturgy, the Scriptures and the Fathers. If it weren’t thrown back to the Fathers, those Vatican II documents would have never been written, and the liturgy would have never been revised.
The Fathers are critical right now. It’s a prophetic word that the Second Vatican Council spoke to us, that we need to rediscover them. Protestants are also often interested in them, and, also, the Orthodox are.
It’s a great opportunity. Right now is a special moment for the furthering of Christian unity. It’s a great moment for a book on the Fathers to come out that we can all embrace and talk about together.
What was the hardest part about writing this book and pulling this all together?
Actually, the hardest part was limiting myself to the people that I mentioned, because there were some other awesome people that we couldn’t fit in the book. Augustine wrote so much, and he got 17 pages. For many of the Fathers, you could write a multi-volume work just on one person. The challenge was to keep it moving and interesting enough, and yet give some depth without getting bogged down in any particular idea or one problem.
What inspired the title? Is the Church “old” now, or maybe “middle-aged”?
The Church in Europe is, in many places, regarded as a museum. It can’t be a museum. The Church is not about preserving ancient little artifacts and things in a way that’s not relevant to our lives.
A museum is nice to visit, but you’d never live in a museum. The Church is not a museum.
The reason I wrote this book and used that title is that the Church was vital and alive then. If we have contact with that Church that was vital and alive, it will help bring us more alive.
The Church can never get old. If it does, it’s not the Church anymore. It’s a museum or an ideology or a political party, God forbid. That’s why I think it’s so relevant to read the Church Fathers right now.
Who do you hope reads When the Church Was Young? What do you hope they get from it?
I think my call in general is to take the richness and depth of the Catholic Tradition and make it accessible to people who are not only deeply religious already and committed, but also to the folks who come on Sunday but aren’t necessarily the ones who read a lot of Catholic books or listen to talks and things like that. I want to get beyond those who are the dedicated and loyal disciples and touch the folks who are like I was when I was 16: a churchgoer, but really more formed by society than by the teaching of the Church — not hostile, but not really knowing the teaching of the Church.
I want it to be accessible to a wide variety of people. I had young people read this when I was writing it, because I wanted to make sure the language and the style were accessible to a young adult and even teen audience. So even though it has some great doctrine embedded in it, like on the Trinity and the sacraments, I want it to be accessible to young people.
Another goal is to make it accessible to Protestants and Orthodox. I’m writing as a Catholic, that’s very clear. At the same time, I’m not arguing or trying to hit people over the head with Catholic dogma in a way that’s offensive or pushy or “I told you so.” Rather, I’m trying to open up the richness of the Catholic Tradition in a way that others can recognize: “Wow! That really is our heritage, my heritage, too.”
One of the things I appreciated when I was reading this was how very similar so many of these stories feel to things that are happening now. What’s your favorite example of this?
The person of Augustine and his experience is so relevant to people today. His life is a drama. His conversion wasn’t simple. It wasn’t like “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” one moment. Quite frankly, he started the conversion at age 18, to a deeper spirituality. He was addicted to sexual intimacy. He could not pry himself loose from that, so the best he could try to do was to have a monogamous but not valid marriage. He tried to stay in that for a while and had a son. He went from philosophy to a religious cult to being cynical and jaded and pursuing his career.
In the midst of all of this, his mother [St. Monica]’s praying for him like crazy and he’s disappointing her, leaving her weeping on the dock when he gives her the slip and sails to Rome without her knowing about it. It’s an amazing story.
Finally, the Lord provides a spiritual father figure to him. I think a lot of this stuff points to the relevance of Christian family. We see Christian motherhood, and we see dereliction of fatherhood in Augustine: His father wasn’t really a spiritual father to him; and God, in his kindness, brought a spiritual father to him in the person of [St.] Ambrose. That relationship is so critical in Augustine’s life.
There was a moment of grace that happened, under the fig tree, where he’s weeping, but it’s preceded by years of searching. I think that should give us all hope.
But afterwards, Augustine still understood that the Christian life is not “Now everything’s okay”; he embarked on a lifelong conversion, and he’s always changing and growing. Some people just think that being a Catholic is that you have a conversion, you go to confession, and now you’re going to receive the sacraments and live the teaching of the Church and try to get yourself to heaven, and that’s pretty much it.
But that’s not at all the way in which we see Christian life in the life of the Fathers of the Church. We see a radical commitment to growing in holiness that never stops. And also, of understanding more deeply: Augustine changed his mind and changed his teaching over a period of time. That’s a beautiful thing we see in Augustine, in his story. It’s so relevant to us now, because we need to understand first that, for a lot of people we’re praying for, it’s not just a straight line. Conversion’s going to take them through different paths. God is patient with them, and he has a special plan for them.
After conversion happens, it’s still an adventure. God has a lot of things to do, and we need to constantly be listening and open to him.
How did you pick who made the cut into the book? Three hundred pages seems like a drop in the bucket next to 2,000 years of Church history.
The way I picked them was relevance and importance. There are a lot of other Fathers who are important, but these are the ones who I figured would be the most important representatives from the East and from the West. I wanted there to be representation from both parts of the Christian world. I wanted to make sure some of the key figures were covered, the Fathers who were not only doctors of the Church, but principal doctors of East and West.
I wanted to get the early days before the legalization of Christianity. I wanted to tell that story of the persecution. There’s so much misunderstanding about Constantine and the impact he had. I wanted to make sure that was laid out clearly for people. When people think “early Church,” they think martyrs, Constantine, persecution; there are so many myths about that and crazy ideas.
Some of the figures you highlighted in your book were later proven to be wrong about some things, but you still highlighted them. Give us an example and tell us why you chose to include them.
It’s important to note — and this is really critical — that the name of our Church is not the Augustinian Church or the Aquinian Church or any such thing. The name of our Church is the Catholic Church, which means the universal family of God that is called to infest the whole truth. There’s no one person, other than the Lord himself, who is the one great figure of the Catholic Church. It’s the Lord.
It’s clear that the apostles themselves were wrong and they made mistakes, both before Pentecost especially, but even after. You read in Galatians that Peter made a mistake. Now, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t infallible and that his writing isn’t inerrant and that Paul’s writing is not inerrant, but as persons they were sinners. The fact that they are canonized saints doesn’t mean that there weren’t rough edges that needed to be rubbed off at some point in time or mistakes in judgment.
When it comes to theologians like the Fathers, there’s no Father who was right in everything personally, except one person, Gregory Nazianzen, who’s in the book. Gregory’s probably the one person who didn’t say something or teach something that was later declared not to be in accord with Catholic teaching.
So personally, these guys don’t enjoy infallibility. But together, where they agree, it shows that it’s not something that comes from any one of them. It’s something they’re witnessing to, namely the word of God and the apostolic tradition.
Tertullian is a great example of someone who really messed up big time, but nonetheless did an amazing job of passing on critical information about the early Church to us, about the apostles and what they passed on. From him we learn about the Church’s process about the sacrament of penance. Prior to him, we don’t have any clear witness to how penance was carried out. We know that it happened, but Tertullian gives us insight into that.
He also gives us insight into baptism, the first treaties on the sacraments. As he’s trying to figure out and explain three Persons in one God, he comes up with the word Trinity. Pretty important term! It’s not in the Bible, but it’s a very useful term that we now embrace.
The sad thing is that Tertullian had real problems with patience and humility. He had real problems with having a sharp tongue and a critical spirit toward others. That got the best of him, and he ended up getting involved in a rigorous kind of a cult that basically led him away from full communion with the Church. He’s not a saint, for sure, but, nonetheless, he helped to pass along the apostolic tradition in a precious way, and he helped develop that tradition by giving us this vocabulary, like “Trinity” and “Jesus as one Person with two natures.”
It’s beautiful to see how God can use people despite themselves and despite their own sinfulness.
Our society is increasingly de-Christianized. How do you hope your book speaks to that? What will readers learn from reading your accounts of the Church Fathers?
No. 1: it shows us that there’s nothing new under the sun. The kind of things that we’re seeing now are not progress — they’re regress. It’s going back to a pre-Christian age, which was an age that was brutal and where human freedom and human dignity were not recognized.
It helps us to see that this has been tried before. From seeing sexual experience as recreation to seeing children as dispensable: All these kinds of things have been tried before. Christian morality was radically new when it appeared on the scene. Marital fidelity, openness to children, openness to celibacy and seeing the beauty of the celibate vocation — all these kinds of things were irreplaceable. The uniqueness of the human person — that is a fruit of Trinitarian theology. The idea of personhood really was developed by Trinitarian theology. In the Western world, there was no idea of the irreplaceable uniqueness and the dignity and the inviolability of each human person.
If we lose our grasp on our Christian heritage, we lose that. This book tells us how that battle was really fought: the battle for the Trinity and why it’s relevant. It’s important to know who God is, because, otherwise, we’ll never understand who we are. The Fathers of the Church help us to understand that in the pagan society they were in.
The Christian society of Constantine was one where lots of Christians were still pagans. We can see that this has been tried before. Neo-paganism loses its authority of being sophisticated and new: It’s not. The Church’s tradition shines out, and the uniqueness of Christianity shines through, with its beauty, and it becomes attractive.
It becomes, as it did for Augustine, alluring. Augustine swooned as the Lord drew him to himself — this sophisticated, highly successful man. That can happen in our society as well. Many of those who are out there right now in dismay over Supreme Court decisions … lots of those folks who are fighting us on abortion and fighting us on the wrong side of the battle — a lot of those folks are saints and mystics potentially. We just need to understand that and let the truth speak to them.
In the lives of the men in this story, the truth can speak.