Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Giving a 'New Impetus to Historical Studies'

by Pope Saint John Paul II


For the Congress marking the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences on April 16, 2004, the Holy Father addressed a Message to the group's President, Mons. Walter Brandmuller, in which he expressed the hope that this even would give "a new impetus to historical studies" to "assure the new generations of an ever deeper knowledge of the mystery of salvation".

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, April 28, 2004

To Rev. Mons. Walter Brandmuller President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences

I. The Church of Christ has a respon­sibility towards men and women which, in a certain way, extends to every di­mension of their lives. Therefore, she has always felt committed to fostering the development of human culture, en­couraging the search for the true, the good and the beautiful, so that human beings may correspond ever more to God's creative inspiration.

To this end, it is also important to cultivate a sound historical knowledge of the various areas in which individuals or communities live their lives. Nothing is more incongruous for people or groups than to have no history. Igno­rance of one's own past leads fatally to a crisis and the loss of identity of indi­viduals and communities.

Historical research has played the lead in demolishing barriers

2. Moreover, scholars who are believ­ers know that in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Covenants they have an additional key to acquiring a proper knowledge of mankind and the world. It is through the biblical mes­sage, in fact, that we learn about the most hidden aspects of the human con­dition: creation, the tragedy of sin, re­demption. In this way are defined the true horizons for interpretation within which we can understand even the most hidden meaning of the events, processes and figures of history.

In this context, it is also necessary to note the possibilities for a harmonious coexistence of peoples that a renewed historical context can open up, sus­tained by mutual understanding and a reciprocal exchange of each one's re­spective cultural achievements. Histori­cal investigation, free of prejudice and guided by scientific documentation, has played an irreplaceable role in pulling down the barriers between peoples. In­deed, as centuries passed, strong walls were frequently built by biased histori­ography and mutual resentment. As a result, misunderstandings still persist to­day which hinder peace and brother­hood between individuals and peoples.

The most recent aspiration to over­come the boundaries of national histori­ography in order to expand our vision to broader geographical and cultural contexts could also prove to be most useful, for it would guarantee a compar­ative view of events, allowing for a more balanced assessment.

The Incarnation of the divine Word was a historical event

3. God's revelation to human beings happened in space and in time. Its crowning moment, the Incarnation of the divine Word, his birth from the Vir­gin Mary in the city of David during the reign of Herod the Great, was a histori­cal event: God entered human history. We therefore start to count the years of our history from Christ's birth.

The foundation of the Church, through which Christ wanted to pass on to humanity the fruit-of the Redemption after his Resurrection and Ascension, is a historical phenomenon. The Church herself is a historical event and thus a priority subject for historical science. Many scholars, some of whom do not even belong to the Catholic Church, have devoted their interest to her, mak­ing an important contribution to work­ing out her earthly events.

To know more about the truth of faith, delve into Church history

4. The essential goal of the Church, in addition to the glorification of the Tri­une God, consists in transmitting the goods of salvation that Jesus Christ en­trusted to the Apostles - his Gospel and his sacraments to every genera­tion of humanity in need of truth and salvation. The salvation she receives from the Lord and transmits to men and women is precisely how the Church fulfils herself and matures throughout history.

When this process of transmission is developed through the legitimate bodies it is guided by the Holy Spirit in confor­mity with Jesus Christ's promise, so that it acquires a theological and supernatu­ral significance. Therefore, all the devel­opments of doctrine, sacramental life and the order of the Church that have taken place in harmony with apostolic tradition must be seen as her organic evolution. The history of the Church has thus proven to be an appropriate area from which to draw for a better knowl­edge of the truth about faith itself.

Meticulous teaching of Church history is vital to future priests

5. As for the Holy See, it has always encouraged the historical sciences through its scientific institutions. This is borne out, among other things, by Pope Pius XII's foundation of this Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences 50 years ago.

In fact, the Church is eagerly interest­ed in knowing more and more about her own history. To this end, especially today, a meticulous teaching of the his­toric and ecclesiastical disciplines is vi­tal, especially for candidates to the priesthood, as the decree Optatam Totius of the Second Vatican Council recommends (cf. n. 16). However, if studying ecclesiastical tradition is to be worthwhile, a sound knowledge of Latin and Greek is absolutely indispensable. The lack of it bars access to the sources of ecclesiastical tradition. It is only with the help of these languages that it will also be possible to rediscover in our day the experience of life and faith that the Church has accumulated in 2,000 years of existence under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

New Church history discoveries, new flourishing in ecclesial life 6. History teaches that in the past, ev­ery time new knowledge of the sources was acquired, the foundations were laid for a new flourishing of ecclesial life. If "historia magistra vitae" [history is the teacher of life], as the ancient Latin say­ing affirms, then the history of the Church can certainly be described as "magistra vitae christianae" [the teach­er of Christian life].

I therefore hope that this Congress will give a new impetus to historical studies. This will assure the new genera­tions of an ever deeper knowledge of the mystery of salvation, active in time, and inspire in an ever greater number of the faithful the desire to draw copi­ously from the sources of Christ's grace.

With this wish, Monsignor, I impart my affectionate Blessing to you, to the Relators and to the participants in the Congress. Ioannes Paulus pp. II

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