Cynthia and I spent a month in Florence, Italy, this Summer, and it was a blessed time. We had an apartment in the old part of the city, so we could experience historic Florence for ourselves, every day. One of the dominant realities we basked in was the presence, everywhere, of evidences that oncethe Christian faith was dominant in this place. For a believing Christian, this is very moving—until you begin to have the scales fall from your eyes. Where is that faith evident today?
Massive crowds of people come to stare at the buildings and chapels, the sacred paintings and sculptures. In church buildings and in museums (and in some measure they are the same thing in Old Florence) they see glorious paintings representing Christian themes and biblical stories. They take thousands of selfies, buy some gelato and a souvenir, then move on. We sometimes saw groups of people, numbering in the dozens, go through a sacred spaces like a stampeding herd of cattle. All following the leader, with a flag held high to direct them. Many of them were from Asia. And we could not possibly imagine that they were understanding the faith of Jesus Christ, nor the life and goodness known by his faithful people. Once it was not so.
St. Ambrose of Milan, who later discipled St. Augustine of Hippo once he came to saving faith, fled to this town when he was being persecuted for his faith in Milan. While here, Ambrose helped the growing Christian community set apart its first recorded church building. The year was AD 395. Soon there would be more buildings set apart, again and again, as the faith of Jesus Christ became the way of life for the people of this city and region. At the height of that blessing, it became impossible to walk more that a few hundred yards in Florence without passing another such building. Many of them are preserved to this day. Sometimes they are less that 100 yards apart! But where are the people who built them, and worshipped in them? What happened?
Anyone schooled in the elements of the catechism should be able to answer. The world, the flesh, and the devil happened, of course. Or we should say, the world, the flesh, and the devil were not fought against effectively, with the help of the grace of God, and those old enemies triumphed, at least for a season.
Faith believes that “the gates of hell” cannot prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church that he builds, is invincible. It is made up of those who are called to the Way that leads to eternity. It is made up of those called to the Truth that sets men free. It is made up of those who are called to the Life that is the source of all life. That Church is the one that all the formerly faithful in Florence, Italy, belonged to—and that a remnant belong to today, and will forevermore.
Who will speak to the unbelievers in Italy?