Such is the nature of the human mind and intellect that, although by means of diligent and laborious inquiry it has of itself investigated and discovered many other things pertaining to a knowledge of divine truths; yet guided by its natural lights it never could have known or perceived most of those things by which is attained eternal salvation, the principal end of man's creation and formation to the image and likeness of God.
It is true that the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are, as the Apostle teaches, clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made: his eternal power also, and divinity. But the mystery which hath been hidden from ages and generations so far transcends the reach of man's understanding, that were it not made manifest by God to His Saints, to whom He willed to make known by the gift of faith, the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ, man could by no effort attain to such wisdom.
But, as faith comes by hearing, it is clear how necessary at all times for the attainment of eternal salvation has been the labour and faithful ministry of an authorised teacher; for it is written, how shall they hear, without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they be sent?
And, indeed, never, from the very creation of the world, has God, most merciful and benignant, been wanting to His own; but at sundry times and in divers manners spoke to the fathers by the prophets, and pointed out to them in a manner suited to the times and circumstances, a sure and direct path to the happiness of heaven. But, as He had foretold that He would give a teacher of justice to be the light of the Gentiles, that His salvation might reach even to the ends of the earth, in these last days he hath spoken to us by his Son, whom also by a voice from heaven, from the excellent glory, He has commanded all to hear and to obey. Furthermore, the Son gave some to be apostles, and some prophets, and others pastors and teachers, to announce the word of life; that we might not be carried about like children tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, but holding fast to the firm foundation of the faith, we might be built together into an habitation of God in the Spirit.
Lest any should receive the Word of God from the ministers of the Church, not as the word of Christ, which it really is, but as the word of man, the same Saviour has ordained that their ministry should be invested with so great authority that He says to them: He that hears you, hears me; and he that despises you despises me. These words He spoke not only of those to whom His words were addressed, but likewise of all who, by legitimate succession, should discharge the ministry of the word, promising to be with them all days even to the consummation of the world.
But while the preaching of the divine Word should never be interrupted in the Church, surely in these, our days, it becomes necessary to labour with more than ordinary zeal and piety to nourish and strengthen the faithful with sound and wholesome doctrine, as with the food of life. For false prophets have gone forth into the world, to corrupt the minds of the faithful with various and strange doctrines, of whom the Lord has said: I did not send prophets, yet they ran; I spoke not to them, yet they prophesied.
In this work, to such extremes has their impiety, practiced in all the arts of Satan, been carried, that it would seem almost impossible to confine it within any bounds; and did we not rely on the splendid promises of the Saviour, who declared that He had built His Church on so solid a foundation that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, we should have good reason to fear lest, beset on every side by such a host of enemies and assailed and attacked by so many machinations, it would, in these days, fall to the ground.
For to say nothing of those illustrious States which heretofore professed, in piety and holiness, the true Catholic faith transmitted to them by their ancestors, but are now gone astray wandering from the paths of truth and openly declaring that their best claims to piety are founded on a total abandonment of the faith of their fathers there is no region, however remote, no place, however securely guarded, no corner of Christendom, into which this pestilence has not sought secretly to insinuate itself.
For those who intended to corrupt the minds of the faithful, knowing that they could not hold immediate personal intercourse with all, and thus pour into their ears their poisoned doctrines, adopted another plan which enabled them to disseminate error and impiety more easily and extensively. Besides those voluminous works by which they sought the subversion of the Catholic faith to guard against which (volumes) required perhaps little labour or circumspection, since their contents were clearly heretical they also composed innumerable smaller books, which, veiling their errors under the semblance of piety, deceived with incredible facility the unsuspecting minds of simple folk.
The Fathers, therefore, of the General Council of Trent, anxious to apply some healing remedy to so great and pernicious an evil, were not satisfied with having decided the more important points of Catholic doctrine against the heresies of our times, but deemed it further necessary to issue, for the instruction of the faithful in the very rudiments of faith, a form and method to be followed in all churches by those to whom are lawfully entrusted the duties of pastor and teacher.
To works of this kind many, it is true, had already given their attention, and earned the reputation of great piety and learning. But the Fathers deemed it of the first importance that a work should appear, sanctioned by the authority of the Council, from which pastors and all others on whom the duty of imparting instruction devolves, may be able to seek and find reliable matter for the edification of the faithful; that, as there is one Lord, one faith, there may also be one standard and prescribed form of propounding the dogmas of faith, and instructing Christians in all the duties of piety.
As, therefore, the design of the work embraces a variety of matters, it cannot be supposed that the Council intended that in one volume all the dogmas of Christianity should be explained with that minuteness of detail to be found in the works of those who profess to treat the teaching and doctrines of religion in their entirety. Such a task would be one of almost endless labour, and manifestly ill suited to attain the proposed end. But, having undertaken to instruct pastors and such as have care of souls in those things that belong peculiarly to the pastoral office and are accommodated to the capacity of the faithful, the Council intended that such things only should be treated of as might assist the pious zeal of pastors in discharging the duty of instruction, should they not be very familiar with the more abstruse questions of theology.
Hence, before we proceed to develop in detail the various parts of this summary of doctrine, our purpose requires that we premise a few observations which the pastor should consider and bear in mind in order to know to what end, as it were, all his plans and labours and efforts are to be directed, and how this desired end may be more easily attained.
The first thing is ever to recollect that all Christian knowledge is reduced to one single head, or rather, to use the words of the Apostle, this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. A teacher in the Church should, therefore, use his best endeavours that the faithful earnestly desire to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, that they be firmly convinced, and with the most heartfelt piety and devotion believe, that there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved, for he is the propitiation for our sins.
But since by this we know that we have known him, if we keep his commandments, the next consideration, and one intimately connected with the preceding, is to press also upon the attention of the faithful that their lives are not to be wasted in ease and indolence, but that we are to walk even as he walked, and pursue with all earnestness, justice, godliness, faith, charity, patience, mildness; for He gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works. These things the Apostle commands pastors to speak and exhort.
But as our Lord and Saviour has not only declared, but has also proved by His own example, that the Law and the Prophets depend on love, and as, according to the Apostle, charity is the end of the commandment, and the fulfilment of the law, it is unquestionably a chief duty of the pastor to use the utmost diligence to excite the faithful to a love of the infinite goodness of God towards us, that, burning with a sort of divine ardour, they may be powerfully attracted to the supreme and allperfect good, to adhere to which is true and solid happiness, as is fully experienced by him who can say with the Prophet: What have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth?
This, assuredly, is that more excellent way pointed out by the Apostle when he sums up all his doctrines and instructions in charity, which never falleth away. For whatever is proposed by the pastor, whether it be the exercise of faith, of hope, or of some moral virtue, the love of our Lord should at the same time be so strongly insisted upon as to show clearly that all the works of perfect Christian virtue can have no other origin, no other end than divine love.
But as in imparting instruction of any sort the manner of communicating it is of highest importance, so in conveying religious instruction to the people, the method should be deemed of the greatest moment.
Age, capacity, manners and condition must be borne in mind, so that he who instructs may become all things to all men, in order that he may be able to gain all to Christ, prove himself a dutiful minister and steward, and, like a good and faithful servant, be found worthy to be placed by his Lord over many things The priest must not imagine that those committed to his care are all on the same level, so that he can follow one fixed and unvarying method of instruction to lead all in the same way to knowledge and true piety; for some are as newborn infants, others are growing up in Christ, while a few are, so to say, of full maturity. Hence the necessity of considering who they are that have occasion for milk, who for more solid food, and of affording to each such nourishment of doctrine as may give spiritual increase, until we all meet in the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ. This the Apostle inculcates for all by his own example when he says that he is a debtor to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, to the wise and to the unwise, thus giving all who are called to this ministry to understand that in announcing the mysteries of faith and the precepts of life, the instruction is to be so accommodated to the capacity and intelligence of the hearers, that, while the minds of the strong are filled with spiritual food, the little ones be not suffered to perish with hunger, asking for bread, while there is none to break it unto them.
Nor should our zeal in communicating Christian knowledge be relaxed because it has sometimes to be exercised in expounding matters apparently humble and unimportant, and whose exposition is usually irksome, especially to minds accustomed to the contemplation of the more sublime truths of religion. If the Wisdom of the eternal Father descended upon the earth in the meanness of our flesh to teach us the maxims of a heavenly life, who is there whom the love of Christ does not constrain to become little in the midst of his brethren, and, as a nurse fostering her children, so anxiously to wish for the salvation of his neighbours as to be ready, as the Apostle says of himself, to give them not only the gospel of God, but even his own life.
Now all the doctrines in which the faithful are to be instructed are contained in the Word of God, which is found in Scripture and tradition. To the study of these, therefore, the pastor should devote his days and his nights, keeping in mind the admonition of St. Paul to Timothy, which all who have the care of souls should consider as addressed to themselves: Attend to reading, to exhortation, and to doctrine, for all Scripture divinely inspired is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct injustice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.
The truths revealed by Almighty God are so many and so various that it is no easy task to acquire a knowledge of them, or, having done so, to remember them so well as to be able to explain them with ease and readiness when occasion requires. Hence our predecessors in the faith have very wisely reduced all the doctrines of salvation to these four heads: The Apostles' Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer.
The part on the Creed contains all that is to be held according to Christian faith, whether it regard the knowledge of God, the creation and government of the world, or the redemption of man, the rewards of the good and the punishments of the wicked. The part devoted to the Seven Sacraments teaches us what are the signs, and, as it were, the instruments of grace. In the part on the Decalogue is described whatever has reference to the law, whose end is charity. Finally, the Lord's Prayer contains whatever can be the object of the Christian's desires, or hopes, or prayers. The exposition, therefore, of these four parts, which are, as it were, the general heads of Sacred Scripture, includes almost everything that a Christian should learn.
We therefore deem it proper to inform pastors that, whenever they have occasion, in the ordinary discharge of their duty, to expound any passage of the Gospel or any other part of Holy Scripture. they will find its subjectmatter treated under some one of the four heads already enumerated, to which they recur, as to the source from which their instruction is to be drawn.
Thus, if the Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent is to be explained, There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, etc., whatever regards its explanation is contained under the Article of the Creed, He shall come to judge the living and the dead; and by embodying the substance of that Article in his exposition, the pastor will at once instruct his people in the Creed and in the Gospel. Whenever, therefore, he has to communicate instruction and expound the Scriptures, he will observe the same rule of referring all to these four principal heads under which, as we observed, the whole teaching and doctrine of Holy Scripture is contained. As for order, however, he is free to follow that which he deems best suited to the circumstances of persons and time.