Walking Through Church History 2: Growing Church

In the first few years of the 7th Century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote a letter to his missionary Mellitus, en route to England. It said in part:

“Tell (Archbishop) Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds. . . .”

The process is called acculturation, and it was a main characteristic of Christian missionary work as the Faith moved north from Italy after legalization in 313. It tried to keep the acceptable in native spirituality, baptizing it, while excluding ideas that were incompatible with Christianity. The big event in the move north was the conversion of the Frankish King Clovis, who was baptized a Catholic with 3,000 followers in the year 496. The strategy of Christian expansion was two fold:

First, conversion of the ruler and ruling class. The model Christian monarch the missionaries used was an idealized version of the Emperor Constantine, and the implied rewards of conversion were power, wealth, and the same prestige enjoyed by a Roman Emperor, or at least a Roman nobleman. Persuasion was assisted by miracles: Clovis’ conversion was clinched by the unexpected survival of his newborn son of a Christian mother. Once the ruler was converted, all the immediate cadre surrounding the lord would follow their leader into the font without question out of personal loyalty. Bishops and monks would then take their place in the bureaucracy, continuing the elite’s education as well as organizing the missionary effort for the hinterlands.

Second, establishment of bishoprics and monasteries to evangelize the ordinary people and teach the faith. These institutions enjoyed royal financing and protection: the famed missionary St. Columban was able to destroy many sacred trees to Thor in Germany because Charlemagne’s troops were nearby to guard him from local outrage. The old process of gradual indoctrination into the Church gradually faded away as Christianity’s rapid growth overwhelmed the system. Evangelizing monks worked from newly built monasteries to convert the masses to the new faith, building support for the newly Christianized ruling class as well as the Church. At times, priests performed secular duties for local rulers: in Charlemagne’s empire, they collected taxes, which meant when the Saxons rose in rebellion against him, one of the first things they did was kill the priests.

The monastic movement that fueled this expansion started in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd Century, and codified by the Rule of St. Benedict in the 6th Century. As official persecution ceased, the monks and nuns, with their renunciation of everything to follow Christ (the White Martyrdom), because the superstars of the Faith. It was through networks of monasteries that knowledge was preserved and communications were maintained in this chaotic period. Monasteries were not only the institutions of spiritual growth but also practical science until the foundation of the great Universities of the 13th Century and the Renaissance.

The Papacy as political power started during the period between 395 and 1054. At first it was a local power, providing civic leadership of Rome and its neighboring territory as Imperial authority crumbled. Internal Church disputes in the 4th through 8th Centuries were arbitrated by whoever ruled Rome, even if that ruler was an Arian (non-Catholic) Christian. As the largest landowner in Italy thanks to the generosity of Constantine and his successors, Popes held significant economic power, but until the mid 8th Century the election of a Pope had to be ratified by the Emperor in Constantinople: the Church was clearly a servant of the State at this time. When Byzantine power faded from Italy in the 740s, Pope Stephen II turned to the Frankish Kingdom for help against the Lombards, who built a kingdom in Northern Italy but whose larger territorial aspirations were resisted by the Romans. When Pepin came to Italy to secure Latium and the surrounding area, he gave it to the Pope as successor to Peter rather than Byzantium, saying he had come for Peter’s sake. This was the genesis of the Papal States, the central Italian kingdom that because the Pope’s secular kingdom and the base of their political power.

As the Pope’s political authority grew, the Papacy itself became a political football for Roman noble families, and the period of 867-1049 came to be known by charming terms such as the Seculum Obscurum (Dark Age) or the Pornocracy. Regulation of the Church around the world rested with local rulers, however: although Rome was a center of pilgrimage and the place where bishops and kings went for validation of their status, Rome’s operational control of the larger Church was severely limited. The dynamic engine of the Church in those days was in the Frankish kingdom’s monasteries, where intellectual, artistic and spiritual growth accompanied the spread of the Faith, empowered by Frankish armies.

Cathedrals all had their resident communities of monks, to pray, work and teach, and there is very little information on ordinary parish life under local priests. In those days, priesthood was frequently inherited as every other profession: if your father was a blacksmith, you were a blacksmith; if your father was a baker, you were a baker; if your father was a priest, you were a priest. Priests were largely uneducated, except to make their way through the Missal, and weren’t looked to for spiritual leadership.

During the rule of Charlemagne, conversion by the sword became widely practiced: as the Franks conquered territory, the losers were forced into the rivers for baptism. The rationale was that over time, genuine conversion of subsequent generations would assuage any injustice done to the conquered, and it was acceptable to force people to do what was good for them, whether they thought it was good or not. Unfortunately, conversion by the sword became the norm of Christianity until after the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, and the main enforcer of doctrine as well. It was around the time of Charlemagne that bishops also began to receive their authority from their local rulers rather than the Church at large, creating the possibility for abuse of Church power as kings and dukes appointed unqualified followers to positions of Church authority. Royal supervision of the Church fueled a major Reformation, and ultimately led to conflict between Church and State for power.

Throughout this period, East and West were one Church, although they had periodic issues of contention. After the rise of Islam, the Iconoclast controversy, which sought to remove icons from all churches, divided East and West for a short time. The rise of Islam also saw the diminution of the three ancient Patriarchies of the East: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, leaving the Patriarch of Constantinople in the theocratic Byzantine Empire as the last great leader in the Eastern Church. The limits of Papal influence in relation to Constantinople was also disputed during this time, with emerging churches in Eastern Europe choosing to orient themselves toward Constantinople rather than Rome.

There were three great reformations of the Church between 395 and 1054. The first was around the year 750 when the Papacy went from domination by the Byzantines to domination by the Franks, which was essentially a move toward independence. The second came in the 10th Century, originating with the monastery of Cluny in 910: these monasteries tried to correct growing local corruption in the Church by putting themselves directly under the authority of the Pope rather than the local Lord. The third reform was by the Holy Roman Emperors in the mid 11th Century, where they forcibly ended the local corruption of the Papacy and used their control of most of Europe to further centralize the Church. This is also the lead event that made the Roman liturgy universal: the Mass as celebrated in Frankish lands of Henry II’s time (1024) became the model for the universal Church, including Rome, and later codified in the Tridentine Missal (1570).

This centralization led the Pope’s to claim primacy and operational authority over the Eastern Church.  Before the 11th Century, the Pope had arbitrated disputes between Eastern Patriarchs, however they did exercise this authority unbidden. The test case of Papal acceptance became the filioque clause in the Creed. The dispute was over a small difference in wording, an iota’s difference, between whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son. The East says both formulas are acceptable and had been from Nicaea onward; the West attempted to impose the second on the East. The break came with mutual excommunications between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, and the rift widened by warfare over the next three centuries. Attempts at reunion in 1272 and 1439 ended in failure due to the rejection of the agreements by the Easter Churches, the rejection based on Crusader attempts to subjugate them during the Crusades.

The main issue I would have with this period is that large populations became Christian without any comprehensive process of conversion: the strategy of catechizing after baptism ultimately failed, and much was grafted onto the common religiosity that was alien. It was here that ordinary folks became spectators at Mass, largely due to a pre-Christian practice of passivity by the ordinary people during pagan rituals that carried over. Some prayers and practices of devotion became openly identified as a kind of magic which rewarded right practice with privilege. The alienation of the ruling classes from ordinary people, widened by 8th Century technological advances such as the invention of the chimney, fueled by the agricultural boom the horse collar and new kind of plow that brought riches to local lords, and deepened by the institution of Feudalism, was reflected in the organization of the Church as clergy and religious became more set apart. As the Church took up its role of the great organizing force in society, it also succumbed to the evils and injustices of the society it tried to manage.

It’s hard to walk back and tell them what they did wrong, though.  Every evolution in how the Church did things was fueled by a new situation it tried to address as best it could, trying to repair a current injustice or accept a new reality. We hear everything that relates to faith through the attitudes and viewpoints we grew up with; this was true in every age of the Church. When Clovis first heard the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death, he said that things would have been different if he and his Franks had been there, which showed he really didn’t understand what Christ was about right away.

In spite of conflicts large and small between churches and questions of authority between bishops and secular rulers, orthodox Christianity was one entity until 1054. Churches were operating around national entities, deciding key issues mostly through local synods such as the Synod of Whitby (664) that settled the observance of Easter in English realms, among other things. The larger Councils of the Church that took place tended to fine tune the points of Faith while dealing with questions of the boundaries of influence. The territory Christianity occupied spread from small pockets around the Roman Empire and adjoining regions to include almost all of Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor. The rise of Islam diminished Christianity’s authority in many places, but the Church was never completely eliminated in North Africa and Asia Minor.

In spite of its faults, it was a time of growth and grace. It was a time of great saints, and a time that still forms our world view today in many ways. It’s still a time that offers us much in our understanding of our Faith, both good and bad, and much to inspire and guide us for the future.


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