Reflections On The Study Of Church History: Understanding The Past – Insight For The Future

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by Gerald Laba, C.P.

As the recent works of various members of the Congregation have shown, the study of Passionist history and spirituality can provide valuable insights into the origin and development of our mission and charism while serving as a guide or point of reference for the future. With regard to the presence of the community in North America, similar kinds of study may help to determine future directions and goals as we are increasingly called to refine our understanding of mission and to collaborate in the work of the local Church.

My own interest in the history of the Church and of the Congregation grew during the years in which I was privileged to work in the newly created inter-Province Novitiate program. Aspects of religious life, the vows, liturgy, and spirituality were subjects for many study sessions and for group reflection. Often, the issue or question of development in all of these areas would spark interest and questions, especially in regard to spirituality, communal and personal. Given a particular period of history, what were the conditions serving as a background to this development? What were catalysts? Was this development part of a wider or long-standing movement? Which individuals or groups were most involved? How did this development express itself in prayer, liturgy, and apostolic service?

As these and other questions surfaced repeatedly over the years, I began to realize the critical role of history in understanding the development of the Church’s life in all of its aspects. It was at this point that, given the opportunity for a sabbatical year, I decided to pursue the study of Church History at Catholic University (CU). It proved to be a great introduction to many dimensions of this fascinating subject. After returning to full-time ministry for a few years, I was again given the opportunity to pursue studies and to continue in the program at CU.

In dealing with so many of the details of historical research, several underlying, more general themes have continued to surface reinforcing my belief in the importance of this area of study, not only to learn about the past but also to think about the future. The first simply points to the clear relationship between historical development and the development of spirituality, religious life, prayer, and apostolate in the life of the Church. The second highlights the importance of contextualization when dealing with any historical moment. The third is a recognition of the importance of sources which emerge from the past and which, at this moment, are being created for the future. And finally, there is an awareness that prevailing, popular views often do not tell the entire story.

Among the benefits of having the opportunity to be involved in studies, several are of a more personal nature, and are reflected in the challenge to clarity in thinking, discipline in study, and perseverance. Other values are tied to aspects of discovery, for example, in tracing the formation of an idea or movement or in observing the interaction of faith and culture in a particular setting. It has also been very helpful to become more familiar with the social, intellectual, political, and cultural dimensions of a particular moment in the Church’s history. This was especially illustrated in a seminar course entitled, Aspects of Jansenism, which surfaced issues related to authority, conscience, politics, piety, and spirituality while demonstrating the widespread interest in and reaction to this movement throughout Western Europe for almost two centuries.

Aspects of Passionist history and spirituality continue to yield valuable topics for future research and reflection. The influence of European experience might be studied from the perspective of the prolonged peninsular period of the Congregation or the development of new methods of preaching, e.g. in England. With the beginning of the expansion of the Congregation during the mid-nineteenth century, adaptation to new political, social, and religious environments became an important factor in fostering the growth of the Congregation outside Italy. It would be valuable to identify and to study what remained “constant” throughout periods of growth and development.

Specific dimensions of adaptation which accompanied the expansion of the Congregation to North America suggest several areas for research. A response to the needs of the local Church has been reflected in the community’s approach to parochial ministry, new methods of preaching, and the development of the retreat movement. Apostolic growth has been reflected in ministries with an ecumenical dimension, the expansion of apostolic ventures, especially after 1920, and an emphasis upon collaboration in ministry. All of this took place in the context of developing traditions within the American Church during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Continued research in these and other areas could provide insight and direction with respect to planning for the future.

During the winter of 1994, I was invited to teach a course at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) entitled, From Trent to Vatican II. There at CTU, I found a great deal of interest in many dimensions of the developing story of the Church. In many instances, students’ research projects were directly related to subjects of personal interest or to the history of particular communities with which they were affiliated.

I am grateful to the community and to our provincial leadership for the opportunity to continue in studies. I am also grateful to the faculty of the department of Church History at CU, especially Professors Jacques Gres-Gayer, Nelson Minnich, Christopher Kauffman, and Robert Trisco, for their personal insights and for their dedication to their respective fields of study. I was especially privileged to have taken a course with the late Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, the acknowledged Dean of American Catholic Church History. He was a man of remarkable wisdom, vision, and insight.

With such support and encouragement, I will hopefully be able to apply my own experience of study to some teaching in the future and to make some small contribution to the study and development of our Passionist mission and charism.

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