History Repeats Itself and Other Reasons to Revisit the Past

At a recent lecture on the Book of Revelation, a disappointed gentleman objected when I pleaded ignorance regarding whether these are the end times or not. I explained that control of the end times is a management decision. God is management and I am in sales. My role is to preach the Gospel, and live it. Our Lord will handle the concluding scene just fine without any attempts by me to direct things.

The disappointed and peeved gentleman continued, “But don't you think these are the worst times in history? How can things get any worse?”

At that point I realized that a wider historical perspective would benefit him, so I suggested that 1938-1944 was far more bleak because of Hitler, Tojo, and Stalin. Things would have to get far worse before these could be considered the worst times in history.

Since that lecture, I have continued to reflect on the importance of history. Learning from the past is a gift developed by human beings better than by any other animal. Not only can our minds remember more data than other animals, but they can research the past with a drive to understand it and an ability to sift its evidence that far outstrips the most clever primate. At the same time, humans forget much of the past and even choose to neglect much of what they know. Without this part of the process, how can a person learn to accommodate the new experiences that life affords?

The same process occurs within the Church. The nature of the liturgy is remembering the past: knowing the Sacred Scriptures, which record the history of God's relationship to Israel and the Church; celebrating the sacraments, whose actions and words recall the past. Church history records the saints, scoundrels, and turning points of the Christian past. However, our Christian ancestors’ assumptions and vocabulary are too frequently portrayed as the model of backwardness, patriarchy, closed-mindedness, triumphalism, and other trappings.

The medieval Church is particularly the target of such criticism because of the Inquisition, witch trials, Thomism, and so on. This negative view of Church history often enough has its roots in a belief in social evolution and a triumphalism of the present. If evolution is true, then the present state of society must be our highest point to date.

The task for such a believer is to read the signs of the times for cultural advancement and further its development on the cutting edge of evolution. Of course, such a focus on the signs of the times may induce the reader to accept them at face value and buy whatever the signs are selling. That is where history helps.

Christian history offers a vantage point from which to observe the present precisely because it suggests premises different from modernity. As fish in water who are unaware of their liquid environment until they are caught and pulled into the air, modern people of every age are unable to assess their times without examining the past. Everyone can learn a variety of lessons from the past, lessons that might even correct the assumptions of the present.

First, historical research might show that commonplace claims about the alleged folly of the past are not even factual. Medieval theologians did not argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, as a recent science column in The New York Times alleged. This was a reductio ad absurdvm argument advanced by Protestant reformers who were critical of the scholastics.

The Inquisition did not execute 9 million women as witches just to keep control of women, as certain feminists allege; Europe had a population of 25 million people, half of whom were men. The execution of three-quarters of the women, with no appreciable decline in the rest of the population, would be impossible. These and many other truisms can be ferreted out and corrected by historical research.

A second use for historical research is to learn from the great Christians of the past. The saints are marvelous models of the love of God and neighbor, of commitment to the truth of the faith, and of heroism in the face of sometimes horrifying adversity. Furthermore, well-written lives of the saints are excellent and enjoyable resources for learning about Church history.

Finally, knowledge of the history of the Church is an antidote to the concern of the gentleman at my lecture on Revelation. Given today's scandals, it may be cheering to know that St. Peter Canisius wrote to St. Ignatius of Loyola that he felt blessed to find even one or two priests in any Rhineland city who were not living in open concubinage. Given the vocation shortage today, we might find courage to realize that it is the third such decline in vocations—the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution were also periods of vocation decline.

Perhaps more importantly, it is important to know that God our Lord raised up saints like Ignatius of Loyola, Peter Canisius, Philip Neri, Teresa of Avila, and a host of others at the time of the Reformation. After the French Revolution, hundreds of new orders of men and women began. Not only did they replace the lost vocations, but they set out upon the Church's greatest period of foreign mission work and conversion of nations.

Instead of despairing for our times, let us look to the past, pay attention to God's faithfulness in granting new saints in every age, and ask God to use us for his work here and now.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a noted writer and speaker on Scripture, the New Age, and other topics.