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Bernard P. Prusak’s ”The Church Unfinished: Ecclesiology Through the Centuries”

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Bernard P. Prusak’s `The Church Unfinished: Ecclesiology Through the Centuries’ is an excellent account of the history of the Catholic church over the centuries. For anybody willing to broaden one’s knowledge of the church history, the book offers a rich variety of facts supported by extensive documentation. Prusak, being a renowned Christian scholar, offers his audience a helping hand in learning the intricacies of the church history, at the same time not forgetting to introduce topics for deliberation. The book brings up a number of themes that strike a cord with anybody involved in Catholic activities and resonate with my personal experience as well.

Thus, the author ponders over the issue of continuity in the church history. In his perspective, the Catholic church of today draws on many historical developments including Vatican II that produced such documents as “Lumen Gentium – Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, “Gaudium et Spes – Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World”, “Decree on Ecumenism,” the “Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church” and the “Declaration on Religious Liberty.” Recounting these important documents alerted me to the fact that I probably need to explain some backgrounds of the church history to the children to whom I teach religion in a Catholic middle school. Although most of the things Prusak is talking about are too complicated for their young unsophisticated minds, they, too, can learn that the church has a rich historical tradition to look back upon. There are many things in the church history that we as Catholics can be proud of, contrary to the common association of the Catholic church with Crusades and the atrocities of mediaeval Europe. Although the link is not obvious to many Catholics, it still exists in public perception, as confirmed, for instance, by the theme of  the “Catholic “Scandals” and Shortcomings” by David Armstrong (Armstrong 2004).

For me personally the book was a reminder that one should always strive to put things in broader context if one is aiming at in-depth understanding. This is true in human relations –thus, in my work with children I always try to draw on a larger context of a child’s existence in order to understand this child’s specific actions or comments. This is even more relevant to scholarly endeavors to grasp the nature of things. Thus, religious movements do not spring up in isolation. Instead, they always draw on what happened before and incorporate a vast diversity of ideas developed by thinkers in the previous centuries. Prusak’s book tracks the church history starting with the times when it a “community of unexpected persons” gathered around Jesus gave rise to what now became a powerful religious institution. He traces how decisions made in spirit influenced the development of the church over the centuries. When I was reading about different twists and changes in the history of the church, I more than before began to feel affiliated with this history and realised that my existence and my beliefs are yet another link in the chain that binds the previous generations of Catholics to the present. To me as a pastoral minister this means increased responsibility to preserve the positive heritage of my predecessors and the need to lead in progress of Catholic institutions.

The idea of the “The Church Unfinished” alerts any Catholic to the important mission we all have today. Prusak makes it sound as if the church has millennia more to develop and unfold, and thus we all stand at what will seem like the very beginning from the historical point of view. Surely this is how it seemed to the first Christians; however, if we imagine that the history of church will span many more millennia, we may be closer to them than it seems from the current standpoint: perhaps at one time we will all be lumped together in scholarly work as “early Christians”.

In this sense, we are all like the Founding Fathers shaping the future of the church for generations to come. Our aim should not be to reap the benefits of what was created long before us, but to make a contribution that will be appreciated by future generations. The Holy Spirit that was guiding our predecessors in their decisions concerning the form and content of the church activities is as present today as ever before and can assist us in the implementation of reforms and change we may envisage. Once again, Prusak’s view of the Catholic church as something new and still in its formative years contrasts with the public perception of Catholicism as something old, traditional and somewhat obsolete. It is this view of the church as eternally young compared to the long history of mankind that should motivate and inspire Catholics to make their input. This idea is a source of great inspiration for me, inspiration I try to share with other believers and non-believers in my everyday work since it can evoke more enthusiasm for church-related activities.

The author points to an ever expanding memory of the church that has encompassed an amazing diversity of locations, cultures and epochs. Indeed, Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination on Earth today and is bound to absorb variety of cultures existing among its people. All Catholics are united not by uniformity of their lifestyles, but by the unwavering belief in Jesus Christ and adherence to his doctrine. Diversity is an asset, not a liability of our church that unites people of different races, ethnicities, citizenship and backgrounds. The Catholic beliefs can provide the missing link that will unite people despite controversies lying in political, economic or ethnic spheres. Catholic clergy has demonstrated a capacity for reaching out to other Christian and non-Christian denominations in an attempt to resolve the acute issues of regional conflicts and foster religious tolerance. This capacity can contribute immensely to the respect of the Catholic Church and simplify the communication of our main message.

The history of absorbing diversity of views and ideas is especially important in today’s world, balancing between globalisation and localisation. The Catholic Church is in a sense a global movement that unites people across continents. Thus, it is bound to heed all the different voices that form a diverse, yet compatible chorus.

I was also impressed by the ideas of openness to the future and its surprises. In my view, the reform of the church is an issue long overdue, although how exactly we tackle this reform is open to debate. The church does not exist in a vacuum. Wherever church institutions arise, they become part of vibrant and active communities and have to integrate into those communities in order to be able to convey their message. Openness and recognition of ongoing change in the external environment is what marked the most talented of the church leaders. We need to continue with this tradition, stopping the beginnings of any isolation policies. Modern-day Catholics can be no less innovative than the participants of the epoch-making Vatican II with its mixture of the old and the new, perhaps even more if one considers how quick social, technological and economic change in our society stimulates innovation

I often feel as the link between religion and outer world, communicating on a daily basis with children who often lack basic understanding of Christian values and attitudes. Yet I am not willing to let myself treat them as simply unwanted irregularities in my daily activities. I realise that they are living out there in constantly changing world, and it is a matter of survival for them to adjust to the norms and practices existing in this world. I strongly believe that Christian beliefs will only better prepare them to future surprises and leave them better equipped to deal with unpleasant events in their lives, offering them a solid foundation for their emotional life capable of supporting them in the time of hardships. Thus, a few months ago I had a long talk with a child that has just lost a parent due to cancer. She could not come to terms with her loss, and in my view, my talk to her about the inevitability of trials and how this does not disprove Jesus’ love for us seemed to help her a great deal.

Thinking about how Jesus embraced the world instead of rejecting it is inspiring to every Christian, especially to one like myself who is in the teaching position. I often feel indignant about something the children in my class do, but I have to remind myself that if I reject them, I will lose whatever chance I have to influence their lives and change them for the better. So I grit my teeth and go on, trying to overcome my human nature that wants to give up and move away, trying to act more like something Jesus himself would do. The church from its own perspective as a human being can do the same: move from condemnation towards understanding and embracing beliefs and values that seem odd and strange. This will mean better adjustment to continuously changing world realities.

Thus, I strongly believe in ideas espoused by Dr. Prusak – constant dialogue between the church and the world, reliance on the past historical tradition that included a variety of cultures, values and norms, and forward-looking approach to church setup and activities. Adherence to these principles is instrumental in building a new and strong church that will actively draw on the heritage of the past generations, while also retaining the right to be open to changes in its environment. This is something I would like to teach children in my classes. I would be glad if they, too, had a chance to feel unity with the traditions of the past and realise how relevant this information is to their future destiny and decisions. I want them to feel participants in the history of the church that is happening now as ever before.


Armstrong, David. Catholic “Scandals” and Shortcomings. 16 October 2004. 10 Nov. 05 <http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ421.HTM>.

Prusak, Bernard P. The Church Unfinished: Ecclesiology Through the Centuries. New York: Paulist Press, 2004.

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