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Who was the 1st Catholic?

The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world. Tracing its history back to Jesus Christ and the Apostles in the 1st century AD, the Catholic Church has had an immense influence on the development of civilization for over two millennia. But who was the very first Catholic?

To answer this question, we must first define what it means to be “Catholic”. The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning “universal”. It refers to the universal nature of the Church, its worldwide reach and appeal. In the early Church, the term “Catholic” was used to distinguish the true Church founded by Christ from heretical groups and localized denominations.

So in essence, the first Catholics were the earliest followers of Jesus Christ who made up the original Christian community that would later become the Catholic Church. The apostles, who were chosen by Jesus to preach the Gospel message to the world, were the first leaders and missionaries of this nascent Catholic community.

St. Peter as the First Catholic

Most Catholics and historians consider St. Peter to be the first Catholic Bishop of Rome and the first universally recognized leader of the early Church. Jesus himself picked Peter as the leader of the apostles and the rock on which he would build his Church:

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

As the chief apostle who preached the Gospel in Rome, founded Christian communities, appointed bishops, and was martyred for his faith in Jesus, Peter fulfilled his special role as leader of the early Church. For this preeminent position and his confession of Jesus as the Christ, Peter is considered the first Pope and leader of the Catholic Church.

Peter’s Journey to Rome

After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Peter took on a leadership role in the nascent Christian community at Jerusalem. He preached the Gospel and led the Church during a period of persecution. According to tradition, Peter went to Rome in the early 40s A.D. to avoid Emperor Caligula’s persecution. In Rome, Peter preached the Gospel, converted thousands to the faith, and appointed Linus as bishop.

As the leader of the Rome church, Peter worked to unify Christian communities across the Roman Empire by encouraging uniform practices. He continued preaching even as Emperor Nero unleashed a violent persecution against Christians in the 60s A.D. Peter was ultimately martyred in Rome between 64-67 A.D by being crucified upside-down. His relics are believed to be buried under St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Marks of Peter’s Primacy

There are several key reasons why Peter is recognized as the first Catholic Bishop of Rome and leader of the universal Church:

  • Selected by Jesus as chief of the apostles and given special authority
  • Bishop of major Christian community in Rome and strong unifying force
  • Empowered other bishops and founded episcopal sees
  • Primary preacher of Gospel to early Church communities
  • Witness to Christ’s resurrection after denial
  • Carried out missionary journeys spreading Christianity
  • Faithful disciple even to point of martyrdom

For these seminal contributions in the early decades of Christianity, St. Peter laid the foundation for the Bishop of Rome to become the principal leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.

St. Paul and the Early Church

Although St. Peter holds primacy as the first Catholic, the apostle Paul played an equally crucial role as “Apostle to the Gentiles” in the nascent Church. In fact, Paul’s Epistles composed in the 50s and 60s A.D. are the earliest Christian writings that have survived.

Paul’s Conversion and Missions

Paul (Saul) was originally a zealous Pharisee dedicated to persecuting Christians. His dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus around 34 A.D. transformed him into the greatest missionary of the early Church. Paul preached the Gospel widely across the Mediterranean region on three missionary journeys to pagan Gentile populations. He established Christian communities in Asia Minor and Greece and appointed his own successors. As a Roman citizen, Paul was able to evangelize freely within the Roman Empire.

Paul’s Writings and Influence

In his many New Testament letters or “Epistles”, Paul provided the first written teachings of Christianity and encouraged the nascent communities of believers. Key themes include justification by faith in Christ, the primacy of love, the centrality of the resurrection, and moral conduct. His writings profoundly influenced early Church doctrine and theology.

Along with Peter, Paul is recognized as one of the two central figures of Apostolic Age Christianity. His missionary work was crucial to spreading Christianity beyond Palestine to the major cities of the Roman world. The communities of believers founded by Paul in the Greco-Roman world laid the foundations for the universal Catholic Church.

Other Key Figures in the Early Catholic Church

While Peter and Paul were the preeminent early Catholic leaders, there were many other important figures that shaped the primitive Church.

James and the Jerusalem Community

James “the Just”, believed to be Jesus’ brother, was the leader of the pivotal Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem after Peter’s departure. As bishop of Jerusalem starting in the 30s A.D., James presided over the Council of Jerusalem around 50 A.D. that welcomed Gentile converts and helped determine early Church practices.

John and the Church in Asia Minor

John the Apostle was one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus and author of the Gospel of John and Revelation. Together with Peter, John helped lead the Church after Jesus’ ascension. He later preached in Asia Minor and established thriving Christian communities in cities like Ephesus. The last surviving apostle, John died around 100 A.D.

Other Apostles

The original 12 apostles like Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Thomas, etc. were instrumental in spreading Christianity to different regions in the first decades after Christ’s death and resurrection. Church tradition holds that most were martyred for preaching the Gospel message.

Early Bishops and Popes

Early bishops or popes like Linus, Anacletus, and Clement who succeeded Peter as Bishops of Rome provided organizational leadership and pastoral care to the growing Church. Their writings give insight into developing theology and governance.

Female Figures

Important female figures in early Church history include Mary Magdalene, a devoted disciple who witnessed the resurrected Christ, and Mary the mother of Jesus, venerated for her virtue and assent to God’s will. Women like Saint Priscilla who opened their homes for worship also supported the early Church community.

The Persecuted Early Catholic Community

The early Catholic Church in the 1st century faced intermittent persecution from Jewish and Roman authorities who saw the new faith as a dangerous sect:

  • Jewish leaders in Jerusalem imprisoned and beat early leaders like Peter for preaching Jesus’ resurrection.
  • The Apostle James was martyred by King Herod Agrippa I in 44 A.D., the first apostolic martyr.
  • Roman authorities sporadically persecuted Christians for undermining state pagan religion, starting with Nero in 64 A.D.
  • Violent state persecution continued under emperors like Domitian in the late 1st century.
  • Despite opposition, Christianity slowly spread throughout the Roman empire by the 2nd century A.D.

This initial period of persecution strengthened the solidarity and zeal of the early Catholic community. Christian writings from this era emphasize endurance, courage, and faith in the face of mortal danger.

Major 1st Century Persecutions

Persecution Date Location Key Events
Under Jewish Authorities 30s A.D. Jerusalem – Imprisonment of Peter and John
– Martyrdom of Stephen
Under King Herod Agrippa 41-44 A.D. Palestine – Martyrdom of James
– Imprisonment of Peter
Under Emperor Nero 64-68 A.D. Rome – Martyrdom of Peter and Paul
– Widespread persecution of Christians
Under Emperor Domitian 81-96 A.D. Roman Empire – Harsh persecution of Christians

This initial bloodshed was the prelude to centuries of oppression and violence against Catholic faithful under the pagan Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Christianity slowly gained converts and momentum.

The Growth of the Early Catholic Church

Despite bouts of persecution, the small community of believers that began with Jesus and the apostles grew steadily in the first hundred years:

  • Christianity diffused along trade networks connecting major Roman cities in the Empire.
  • St. Paul’s missionary journeys planted seeds of Christian communities around the Mediterranean.
  • The first Christians preached the Gospel message and lived in communion sharing everything.
  • Most early converts were Greek-speaking Jews, Gentiles, slaves, outcasts and women.
  • Congregations initially met in homes led by local bishops/presbyters.
  • The didache provided one of the first written catechisms on doctrine and worship.

By the early 2nd century A.D. there were churches throughout Syria, Greece, Turkey and Italy with members possibly numbering in the thousands. Pagan critics like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger attest to the spread of Christianity by the early 100s. The faith continued to mature and grow in subsequent centuries.

Geographic Spread of Early Christianity

Region Key Cities
Palestine Jerusalem, Antioch
Syria Damascus, Antioch
Asia Minor Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia
Greece Thessalonica, Corinth, Philippi
Italy Rome
Egypt Alexandria
North Africa Carthage

From its origins in Jerusalem, Christianity had reached major urban centers across the Roman world by the early 2nd century. These scattered Christian communities were united by faith in Christ, the authority of the Apostles, and the oversight of their local bishops.

Key Beliefs and Practices of Early Catholics

The first Christians organized their beliefs and practices to pass on their faith:

Basis in Jesus’ Teaching

Early Catholic theology and worship was rooted in the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, as later recounted in the New Testament Gospels and Epistles. Christians strove to imitate Christ’s example through virtuous living.

Baptism and Eucharist

Initiation into the Church was through baptism while the Eucharist meal recalled Christ’s Last Supper sacrifice. Both sacraments were solemnized in community gatherings on Sundays.

Structure of Clergy and Bishops

Local churches were led by elders or bishops assisted by deacons who served the practical needs of congregations. Larger cities had bishops who provided guidance and addressed challenges.

Apostles’ Creed

This brief summary of core beliefs—in God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and eternal life—can be traced to Christian communities of the late 1st century.

Shared Scripture

The four canonical Gospels, the letters of Paul, and other texts were gradually recognized as inspired Scripture that was read aloud during worship and served as the common sacred texts.

Eschatological Expectation

Early Christians believed that Christ’s return was imminent and that they should prepare by living in holiness, fellowship and charity towards others.

Communal Life

The common life of Christians was characterized by prayer, celebration of the Eucharist, sharing of possessions, care for the sick and mutual charity.

From this shared way of life and core set of beliefs emerged the universality of faith and practice that marks the Catholic Church to this day.


In conclusion, the apostle St. Peter stands out as the preeminent leader of the early Catholic community in Rome and the first universally recognized Bishop of Rome. As chief apostle chosen by Christ, Peter provided stewardship and authority in the decades after Christ’s death and resurrection. Along with Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, Peter helped spread Christianity from its origins in Jerusalem across the Roman Empire through vigorous missionary activity. Despite bouts of persecution, the small Catholic community of believers founded by the apostles on Jesus’ teaching grew steadily in numbers and maturity of religious expression. This seminal era of saints and martyrs laid the foundations of the worldwide Catholic Church under the leadership of the Roman pontiff.