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Douglas wrote:

Hi, guys —

I recently read that in 380 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church was officially recognized by the Roman Empire.

  • Is that when the Catholic Church first started with Popes, bishops, and priests?


  { When was the Church officially recognized and initially have Popes, bishops and priests? }

Mike replied:

Hi Doug,

The Church had Popes, bishops, priests and deacons right from the beginning, soon after Pentecost Sunday.

In the Scriptures, which remember, reflect the beginnings of the Church, the words bishop, elder, and deacon were used.

It's my understanding that the Roman Empire recognized the Church when the Emperor Constantine become a Christian in 315 A.D. at the Edict of Milan.

Nevertheless, the Church had been in existence (underground) for 347 years before 380 A.D.
The catacombs reflect their on-going Catholic faith.

I'm not the historian on the team, so I'll let my colleague correct anything I have said.


Eric replied:

Dear Doug and Mike,

The idea that we had "Popes right from the beginning, soon after Pentecost Sunday", while true in a certain sense, merits qualification.

The title Pope, of course, came much later, and even when it came, it wasn't restricted to the one we now call Pope. In the beginning there was Peter, who was the visible head of the whole Church; in that sense, we had a pope from the beginning. He wasn't even originally bishop of Rome;
he was first, the bishop of Antioch.

Later, after he becoming bishop of Rome, he died and Linus succeeded him. This was when popes, in the sense we usually use it, started, although it would be years before such successors of Peter were:

  1. called Pope (which means "father") and
  2. were exclusively called pope. It used to be a title of all patriarchs; even today, the head of the Coptic church is called pope.

Even though they may not have recognized the title, nevertheless the bishops of Rome, after Peter, functioned in the way we would recognize, in essential form, as the Pope. They had the essentially same authority and governed in essentially the same manner.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says,

"The title pope (papa) was, as has been stated, at one time employed with far more latitude. In the East it has always been used to designate simple priests. In the Western Church, however, it seems from the beginning to have been restricted to bishops (Tertullian, On Modesty 13). It was apparently in the fourth century that it began to become a distinctive title of the Roman Pontiff. Pope Siricius (d. 398) seems so to use it (Ep. vi in P.L., XIII, 1164), and Ennodius of Pavia (d. 473) employs it still more clearly in this sense in a letter to Pope Symmachus (P.L., LXIII, 69). Yet as late as the seventh century St. Gall (d. 640) addresses Desiderius of Cahors as papa (P.L., LXXXVII, 265). Gregory VII [d. 1085] finally prescribed that it should be confined to the successors of Peter. "

As for bishops and priests (presbyters), the three-fold ministry is mentioned in Scripture. Bishops are sometimes called "overseers" and priests "elders" depending on your translation. The English term "priest" comes from the Greek "presbyter" ("elder"). In the New Testament, it seems that the clear-cut distinction between bishops and priests was not total; bishop seemed to indicate the office and priest the person. In other words, elders functioned in the office of bishop. As for your date, by A.D. 380 the Catholic Church's structures had been in place for quite some time.

By St. Ignatius of Antioch in the year 110 A.D., the three-fold ministry was clearly defined, and bishops were considered distinct from presbyters, the former delegates of the latter. The role and succession of the Pope is ably described in the second century by St. Irenaeus of Lyons in Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3.

As for establishing the official religion of the empire, Theodosius I did this in 380 A.D. according to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"In February, 380, he and Gratian published the famous edict that all their subjects should profess the faith of the Bishops of Rome and Alexandria.

(Cod. Theod., XVI, I, 2; Sozomen, VII, 4)"

Mike said:
It's my understanding that the Roman Empire recognized the Church when the Emperor Constantine become a Christian in 315 A.D. at the Edict of Milan.

Actually it was in 313 A.D. when Christianity was tolerated, but not imposed.


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