May 2, 2024 // Diocese

‘Popes on a Rope’ Offers Visual Lesson on Church History

By Cindy Black

A project that Father Tom Shoemaker calls “low tech” has been making a big impact on his audiences across the diocese for decades.

“It’s quite simple – just string, index cards, a marker, scissors, and staples,” Father Shoemaker told the audience of around 130 people who came to his latest “Popes on a Rope” talk, which was held on Tuesday, April 23, at the Monsignor Kuzmich Life Center on the campus of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Fort Wayne. The lesson explores Church history through the unbroken chain of the successors of St. Peter, with each of the 266 popes – from Pope Peter to Pope Francis – represented on a rope that spans more than 60 feet in length.

Photos by Cindy Black

Father Tom Shoemaker, Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Fort Wayne, explains Church history as the crowd looks on during his “Popes on a Rope,” in which he has each name of the 266 popes – from Peter to Francis – written on an index card that is attached to rope. His latest talk was held at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne on Tuesday, April 23.

Twenty-five years ago, when Father Shoemaker came up with this visual aid to teach Church History to fourth graders, he had no idea he would receive so many requests to present it to adults across the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. According to Father Shoemaker, the key to its success is that people find it easier to grasp how ancient the Catholic Church is by seeing the timeline rather than just hearing random dates.

“It’s interesting to see when the U.S. was born in comparison,” Father Shoemaker said. “We’re a baby country when you see the long history of Christianity.”

What surprises people the most is just how long the rope is. Events that seem so long ago can be fairly modern developments in the life of the Church. 

The printing press doesn’t come along until about 1450, which is way closer to Pope Francis on the timeline than to St. Peter. Before the invention of the printing press, Father Shoemaker said, even churches did not have complete Bibles because they took a lifetime to pen. Father Shoemaker added that without individuals having access to a Bible, Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura – the belief held by many Protestant churches that the Bible is the sole authoritative source for the Christian faith and its practice – is unreasonable.

Even though the list of popes include holy saints and scandalous sinners, having a clear leader has been necessary to have clearly defined doctrines, said Father Shoemaker, Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Fort Wayne.

“With more than a billion Catholics, there needs to be someone in charge,” Father Shoemaker said. “Think of large corporations’ need for a CEO, or countries’ need for a president.”

Throughout the engaging journey through history, Father Shoemaker repeated, “As Catholics, we ought to know this.” For example, Catholics need to know that the Mass is older than the New Testament. Those who penned what became the Gospels were gathering for the Sunday liturgy from the beginning.

Other notable facts in the presentation included the messy connection between the Church and state, including the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made the persecution of Christians illegal in the fourth century; the split between the churches of the East and West in 1,054 – halfway through timeline; and why most popes have been Italian (something that has changed given advancements in communication and transportation).

Stephan Klingler, who came into the Church this past Easter, told Today’s Catholic that she was impacted by the fact that “sponsors” date back to the beginning of the Church when Christians were being hunted and persecuted. Those seeking baptism needed someone to vouch for them that they were truly converted and not just trying to persecute the underground Body of Christ.

Jim and Linda Fraley, who have been devout Christians throughout their 50 years of marriage, are also new Catholics. Linda remarked: “Again and again, I come back to this deep, rich texture of the Catholic faith. During [OCIA], I began reading the Catechism and found such deep wisdom connected to holy Scripture, [and] now the rich tradition of the Church led by 266 popes without interruption, consistent and enduring over centuries. Everyone should know this; it is the story of the love and protection Christ has given to His bride.”

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