Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day when the announcement of the forthcoming birth of Jesus Christ by the Angel Gabriel is commemorated, which is traditionally nine months before Christmas, unless March 25th might fall during Holy Week, for example. Without question, the birth of Christ may be the most significant event in world history, let alone in Christian history. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ and the Day of Pentecost, when the Church was born, are days that are so essential to a Christian's understanding of who Christ is and his purpose that we would have no faith without them. However, what other significant events have helped shape Christianity (for both good and ill) over the last two millennia? Here are our top five.
1. The Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council, the last of the ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church, opened the Church to the modern world and spawned a reform, and some would say a renaissance, of the liturgy. Its powerful documents have clarified Catholic doctrine and dogma in a way that ordinary laypeople can read and understand, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated in the vernacular today because of "Vatican II."
In the post Vatican II-era, "dissent" has also been rife, as well as plenty of people who do things "in the spirit of Vatican II." The great reforms of the Church, however, that came about as a result of the Second Vatican Council have seen the Church grow by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia, and experience a new springtime in Latin America, which now boasts more Catholics than any other region of the world.
2. The Council of Trent
Trent may get a bad rap from some people who don't really know much about Church History, but much of our modern practice of the Catholic faith, be it the age of confirmation to the basic standards needed to receive the sacrament of holy orders (the need for a real theological education, for example) comes from the Council of Trent.
Trent formally standardized the books of the Bible at a time when Protestants and Catholics didn't agree on the content of the Old Testament, and there had never been a truly "official" list of books.
Initially called in response to the Protestant upheaval, Trent may remain the most influential council in the history of the Western Church.
3. The Protestant Reformation
I have often wondered if the Protestant Reformation would have occurred at all if we had the luxury of mass communication or the internet in the 16th Century. As one of my own instructors rightly pointed out, the "reformers" had legitimate grievances. Many of these grievances had to do with the abuse and misunderstanding of Catholic thought by some folks who were less than literate, because until the invention of the printing press, literacy was not widespread.
There was, however, internal corruption within the Church on a scale not seen since, which baffles the mind as to why press today seems to think the Church's current problems are any worse than what they were in the 16th Century. We're still here.
Division, however, is not rooted in Christ, and the idea that one person can simply declare what they believe to be true about the scriptures or Christian doctrine apart from the handed-down tradition of the Apostles and Fathers would give rise to thousands of denominations, and the scandal of further division within Christianity would harm the advance of the faith in the West.
4. The Edict of Milan
Some people mistakenly think of Constantine as "the first pope," but the Roman Emperor was never Bishop of Rome, spent much of his later career away from the city, which under him was no longer imperial capital, and he was not even baptized until he was on his death-bed, and so the idea that he was a great Christian Emperor is not rooted in historical reality.
However, the Edict of Milan, which granted toleration to Christians (as well as other faiths) allowed for the Church to worship openly and publicly, and for Christian churches and their property to be respected and protected by the state. No one knew or understood it at the time, but this was the beginning of the Christianization of Europe and the West.
5. The persecution of Nero
History records that when the emperor Nero was looking for a scapegoat to blame for the great fire which burned much of Rome, Christians made a convenient scapegoat. However, the willingness of the early Christians to accept martyrdom made a powerful impression on those around them.
The early persecution of Christians may have done more to spread the faith in the Church than any other historical event.