This thought returned to me frequently while reading Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s latest book, the masterful When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers. The vibrant portraits Dr. D’Ambrosio paints of the Church Fathers helped me better understand both Church history and the development of thought within our faith.
This book has been a surprising balm during the recent world events. Amidst the headlines of Christian persecution abroad and at home, the buzz that’s been created about the upcoming synod on marriage and family and the recent changes in church leadership, it’s been such a comfort to return to the pages of When the Church Was Young and be reminded that the Church has never been without hard times, persecution, and even confusion, and has endured nevertheless to this day.
Beginning with Clement and Ignatius and concluding with Gregory the Great, Dr. D’Ambrosio traces the lives of the Early Church Fathers, their great works, and the atmosphere in which they lived. Far from a mere history book, When the Church Was Young captures the spirit of each great man with details that make their humanity come alive. For example, in writing against the Donatists, a rigorist sect based in Africa that disagreed with the greater Church’s re-acceptance of those who had rejected their faith or had handed over fellow Christians during the years of persecution, Augustine writes:
The clouds roll with thunder, that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth; and these frogs sit in their marsh and croak—“We are the only Christians!”
D’Ambrosio notes, “The Church, for Augustine, was a hospital for sinners, not an exclusive club for saints. (p. 237)
Leo, Clement, Basil, Athanasius…the list goes on, but each is brought to life in the pages of When the Church Was Young. Dr. D’Ambrosio easily and clearly explains the development of tradition, history, the various heresies that threatened the deposit of faith, and the heroes who God raised up to lead His people on.
This book is for anyone who wants to understand the enormous treasure that is our faith. And though Qoheleth was correct in saying that there’s nothing new under the sun, Dr. D’Ambrosio rightly points out that newness comes only from the Son and the love that He brings to the world. The Church, though now two thousand years old, can still indeed remain young and vibrant if it remains a font of God’s love for the world.
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