Hello Rosary Lovers! In today’s post we will ask: When was the Catholic Church established?
In short, the Catholic Church was established during the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
We cannot put a definitive date on it because it depends how you look at it.
For instance, was the Catholic Church established when Jesus was born, or when he was conceived, or when he was baptised, or when he chose his 12 apostles, or when he died, or when he rose again?
Any of these events of the life of Christ could be thought of as when the Church was established or formed.
A Mistaken Notion
There is a common idea put forth by many protestants that the Catholic Church (which many protestants like to somewhat disparagingly call ‘the Roman Catholic Church’) was formed in the 4th century with Constantine, or even later.
This is incorrect. The Catholic Church has existed since the dawn of the apostolic era.
We know this because St Ignatius of Antioch was Bishop of Antioch at the end of the 1st century. He calls all true believers ‘Catholics’, and speaks of ‘the Catholic Church’.
“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there, let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Letter to the Church at Smyrna, Chapter 8).
The date of these words is around 107AD. It’s right at the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd century.
To put this in perspective, the apostle John hadn’t long passed away. So this is VERY close to the time and lives of the apostles.
Now here we have a Bishop and an early Saint. It’s very interesting that he is in fact a Bishop. The early Church had Bishops.
We’re talking about a man who knew, yes knew, the apostle John! Evidently the apostle John had no issue with the existence of Bishops in the early Church.
But we’re also talking about a man who claims that there is a Catholic Church in the world.
The way he uses this phrase indicates that this was a very well-known title for the Church, and had probably been around for a long time. Perhaps the apostle John himself sometimes used this title for the Church, who knows.
It’s highly unlikely that St Ignatius of Antioch is making up this title. It’s obvious it is a title that many were familiar with, or else he wouldn’t have used it so freely.
So the title ‘the Catholic Church’ is a very, very old title for the Church of Jesus Christ. Evidently, the Catholic Church was in existence before 107 AD, when St Ignatius is writing this.
Therefore, we can conclude that from historical sources, the Catholic Church was definitely founded before 107 AD, most likely in the 1st century.
Jesus Founded the Catholic Church
Theologically, we know that it was Jesus who founded the Catholic Church.
For instance, we have Jesus being born into the world. With the arrival of God into the world, we have the beginning of the Catholic Church, because into the world is born her supreme Head. Jesus is the absolute Head of the Catholic Church.
But later on, we have Jesus being baptised by St John in the river Jordan. This is the start of his apostolic ministry, and very soon after this he chooses his 12 disciples to be the first apostolic followers of himself, the Supreme Apostle.
Apostle means ‘sent one’. Jesus was sent into the world by God, and is called in Scripture the ‘Apostle of our Faith’. Jesus is the Supreme Apostle.
But we know that the 12 apostles were also men who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, who saw him alive again after he had died on the cross. Being a witness to this was a crucial part of being an apostle.
The 12 apostles were also Bishops in the Church, the first Bishops the Catholic Church had.
The connection between the Catholic Church and her Bishops is absolutely fundamental. There is no Catholic Church without Bishops, and there is no Bishop without a Catholic Church.
Jesus even made Peter the Rock of the Catholic Church (Matthew 16:16-20), thus creating the Papacy. So we have the first Pope established in the Gospels themselves.
So it seems that we can nail down the proper establishment of the Catholic Church to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, especially in the selection of his apostles.
Nevertheless, we also know that the Catholic Church at this point was without the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, the Church at this point had no sacraments, a vital part of Catholicism.
So we have to wait for the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and then his sending of the Holy Spirit onto the Church before we can really say with confidence: ‘Now we have the full establishment of the Catholic Church in the world.’
And of course, even at this early stage, the Catholic Church was very, very much in its infancy. It had a very long way to go.
Saul needed to become Paul and preach his Gospel, which was to shed such tremendous light on the apostolic faith, such as his letter to the Romans.
The apostles needed to ordain new Bishops to replace them for when it came time for their deaths.
Scripture needed completion.
The Gentiles needed to begin to accept the faith, not just the Jews.
And so on.
But the Catholic Church had already begun before all of this. It began with the ministry of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, he is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which is planted and yet becomes a massive tree covering the earth.
The life of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Catholic Church. After him, his apostles spread his message, and preach holy Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Eventually, especially during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church covers huge sections of the world.
Today the Catholic Church is by far the largest form of Christianity, numbering 1.3 billion, and counting.
Most nations of the world have Catholic Churches. Clearly the Kingdom that Jesus Christ established on earth has reached the ends of the earth through the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church!