This week’s episode of Communio Sanctorum is titled, “God’s Consul .”
One of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s most important contributions to the Empire was to divide the top-tier leadership up so that it could rule more efficiently. The Empire had grown too large to be governed by a single Emperor, so he selected a co-Augustus & divided their regions of oversight between Western & Eastern realms. Since the issue of succession had also been a cause for unrest in previous generations, Diocletian also provided for that by assigning junior Caesars for both himself & his co-Augustus. When they stepped down, there would be someone waiting in the wings, pre-designated to take control. The idea was then that when their successors stepped into the role of being co-Augusti – they’d appoint new junior Caesars to follow after them. It was a solid plan and worked well while Diocletian was the senior Augustus. When he retired to raise prize-winning cabbages, the other rulers decided they liked power & didn’t want to relinquish it.
Over the years that followed, rule of the Empire alternated between a single Emperor & Diocletian’s idea of shared rule. The general trend was for shared rule with the senior Augustus making his capital in the East at Constantinople. This left the weaker & subordinate ruler in the west with increasingly less power at the same time Germanic tribes pressed in from the North.
What eventually spelled doom for the Western Empire was that Rome had forged treaties with some of those Germanic tribes; turning them into mercenaries who were armed & trained in the Roman style of war. When Rome stopped paying them to fight FOR Rome against their Germanic brothers & the Goths, it was inevitable they’d join them to fight against the rich pickings of the decaying Empire who could no longer field armies against them.
We’ve seen previously, as the barbarians pressed into the Western Empire from the North & East, civil authorities had diminishing ability to do anything about them. People began looking to the Church to provide order. Because the Church was gifted with some remarkable leaders who genuinely cared about the welfare of the people, they managed to hold the decaying Empire together for a time. Pope Leo even managed to meet with the Hun leader Attila as he prepared to march on Rome. Leo persuaded the Huns to turn around, leaving the City intact. But Leo didn’t have as much luck with the Vandals who arrived a few years later. He did manage to persuade them to limit their sack to plunder & pillage. The population was saved from death & rape. After a 2 week loot-fest, the Vandals boarded their ships & sailed away – leaving the city otherwise unmolested.
Historians mark the year 476 as the date when the Western Empire fell. It was then that the Goth leader Odoacer deposed the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Odoacer is called a barbarian, but he was, in fact, a military leader in the Roman army; a mercenary who led a revolt against the very people he’d once fought FOR. While historians mark 476 as the year of Rome’s fall, for the people living at that time, they would not have seen much if any difference between the reign of Augustulus & Odoacer. Things carried on much as they had from the previous decades. Which is to say – it was a mess!
With the Fall of Rome, the Western Empire moved into what we know as the Middle Ages. This was a time when the Church played an ever-increasing role in society. The form that influence took varied over the centuries; sometimes being more religious & spiritual in nature, at other times being predominantly political. But there’s no denying that in Europe during the Middle Ages, the Church played a major role.
During the 5th & early 6th Centuries, as civil society disintegrated, people looked to alternatives. Some found an answer in monastic communities. There’d been communes of Christians since the 3rd Century, but the number of monasteries began to grow during the 5th. Some were highly structured while others were more loosely organized.
The monastic movement took off due to the leadership of Benedict of Nursia whom we’ve already talked about. Benedict’s early attempts at being the leader or abbot of a monastery didn’t go so well; the monks tried to poison him. But as he matured, Benedict applied the lessons learned from his previous mistakes & founded a monastery on Monte Cassino in Italy that became the proto-typical monastery for years to come.
Benedict was a genius for administration and organization. He formulated a simple plan for monastic living that was easily transferred to other communes. Known as the Rule of St. Benedict, it became the organizing & governing principle for monastic life & under it, hundreds more monasteries were begun. The Rule held forth a daily routine of Bible reading, prayer, and work. Benedict’s sister Scholastica adopted a similar formula for convents.
Monasteries became repositories & treasuries of the learning and scholarship of Greece and Rome. As the rest of Europe plunged into what some refer to as The Dark Ages, many monasteries remained places of scholarship. The monks read, studied and spent considerable time copying ancient texts of both scripture and classical antiquity. The Renaissance would eventually be fed by the work of those monks and their hundreds of years of work.
What we know about Benedict comes from his biographer, Gregory, known to us as Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great, a title conferred on him by the Church shortly after his death.
Gregory was born into a wealthy and ancient Roman senatorial family around 540. Following family tradition, he was trained for civil service. But the political landscape was uncertain. During his childhood, the rule of Rome passed through several different regimes. While in his mid-teens, control of Southern Italy was wrested from the Visigoths by the re-conquest of the Eastern Emperor Justinian. But it was only a few years till the Lombards began their campaign of terror. They burned churches, murdered bishops, plundered monasteries, and turned the verdant fields of Italy into a weed-strewn wilderness.
When he was 33, Justinian appointed Gregory as the Prefect of Rome, the highest political position in the territory. Gregory was responsible for the economy, food provisions, welfare of the poor, reconstruction of the now ancient and badly decayed infrastructure; things like baths, sewers, and streets. His appointment came in the same year both the pope and Imperial governor of Italy died.
A few years later Gregory resigned his office. It’s rare when someone who wields great power walks away from it – but that’s what Gregory did. The death of his father seemed to be the turning point. One wonders if it wasn’t his father’s dreams FOR his son that had moved Gregory into a political career to begin with. Once the father was gone, there was nothing holding him to his position and Gregory followed his heart, which was to become a monk. With his considerable fortune, he founded seven monasteries and gave what was left to the poor. He then turned his family’s home into a monastery. As Bruce Shelly puts it, “He exchanged the purple toga for the coarse robe of a monk.” He embraced the austere life of a monk with full devotion to the Rule of St. Benedict.
As much as Gregory desired to dissolve into obscurity and live a life of humble devotion to God, his outstanding gifts as an administrator had fixed a reputation to him he was unable to dodge. In 579, Pope Pelagius II made him one of seven deacons for the church at Rome. He was then sent as an ambassador for the Pope to the imperial court in Constantinople. He returned to Rome in 585 and was appointed abbot of the convent that had once been his house.
Gregory was quite content to be an abbot and would aspire to no higher office, content to finish his sojourn on earth right there. But The Plague swept thru Rome, killing thousands, including the Pope. Unlike most monks who hid behind their commune’s walls, Gregory went into the city to help the sick. This earned him great admiration. After Pope Pelagius died, it took church leaders six months to settle on Gregory to replace him. He balked and fled Rome to hide in the countryside. When he was eventually located they persuaded him to return and take up the Bishop’s seat.
Gregory seemed ill-suited to the task. He was 50 and frail. 50 would be young for a pope today, but when the average life span was a mere 40 years, 50 was already an advanced age. Gregory’s physical condition had been made worse by his extreme austerity as a monk. Drastic fasting had enfeebled him and contributed to the weakening of his heart. But what some might assume his main disqualification, was Gregory’s lack of ambition for power. He simply did not want to be Pope. Coming to the belief it was God’s will that he take up the task, it didn’t take long for him to learn how to wield the influence his office. He began his term by calling for public demonstrations of humility of what was left of Rome’s plague-decimated populace. His hope was to avert more disaster. And indeed, after a while the plague abated.
Gregory hadn’t been Pope long when the Lombards laid siege to Rome. This was a time of chaos throughout Western Europe. Many otherwise cool heads thought it was the end times; Gregory was one of them. In a sermon he said,
Everywhere we see tribulation, everywhere we hear lamentation. The cities are destroyed, the castles torn down, the fields laid waste, the land made desolate. Villages are empty, few inhabitants remain in the cities, and even these poor remnants of humanity are daily cut down. The scourge of celestial justice does not cease, because no repentance takes place under the scourge. We see how some are carried into captivity, others mutilated, others slain. What is it, brethren, that can make us contented with this life? If we love such a world, we love not our joys, but our wounds.
It seemed every aspect of civilization was being shaken to ruins. The church at Rome was one of a few that survived the ordeals that came like hammer blows. Though Gregory saw his promotion to the papacy as punishment, he surrendered himself whole-heartedly to the task of keeping things together while everything else fell apart.
Pope Gregory I was a tireless leader. He accomplished the work of ten. His volume of work is all the more remarkable in that he was often confined to bed because of sickness brought on by his frailty and overwork. Seeing himself as genuinely the first among equals with the other bishops, he kept up a vast correspondence, making sure the lines of communication between the churches kept everyone abreast of Church affairs. That alone would have been a full-time pursuit. But Gregory did more.
He knew from both his time as a monk and in watching his brothers in the monastery, that the quality of one’s work FOR God, is directly proportional to the heart’s devotion TO Him. So in his book Pastoral Care, Gregory reminded spiritual leaders to never be so preoccupied with work that they forgot their own soul. But there was a much-needed counterpoint to that; they must also not become so internally focused that they neglected practical work. This was a point of balance rarely glimpsed in the Christianity of that age.
Gregory was also concerned for the quality of worship in the church and encouraged the use of music. Though he did not invent what is called plainsong or plainchant, he greatly encouraged its use. In honor of his patronage of this form of worship, it’s known as Gregorian chant. Plainsong is a single melodic line without instrumental accompaniment. While a single singer may sing, it was usually sung by a chorus of voices in unison.
Gregory took seriously his call to be the standard-bearer of the Faith. His contribution to theology was remarkable. He wrote more on theology than any previous and most subsequent popes. His main influences were Augustine, Ambrose & Jerome. He leaned heavily on Augustine’s work, even at times drawing inspiration from casual comments he’d made.
Remember back several episodes to when we noted how the church believed baptism washed away all sins, up to that point. Well, what happened to those sins committed after baptism that were not confessed before death and had not been expiated by penance? Augustine mused on how God might, maybe, possibly — remove these sins after believers died. It was from this speculative musing that Gregory developed the idea God purged them in a “purge-atory;” so the doctrine of purgatory was added to church doctrine.
Gregory’s theology encapsulated not only the creeds of the councils and teachings of the Fathers, it also included some of the superstitious accretions of a Christianized paganism.
I understand there are not a few Roman Catholics who subscribe to this podcast. I’ve been mightily encouraged by their kind remarks, and the occasional suggestions they’ve made. Even at points of disagreement, most have been courteous & used a heavy dose of tact when dialoging. I say that because in what follows, I suspect some will think I’m needlessly tweaking the sensitivities of our RC family. I hope I’m not, but am presenting an accurate view of the history here.
To illustrate that, let me pose this question: How do we get from the picture of Christian Fellowship & the kind of church service we find in the NT and the earliest descriptions of them, to the elaborate, formal, highly-structured & stylized services of the Medieval & later Church? There’s an obvious discontinuity between them. When did pastors begin wearing elaborate robes and head-gear and start carrying gilded & bejeweled croziers? To put it bluntly – whence all the complex ritual? I don’t think anyone imagines Jesus conducting such a service, or even Peter. So it’s a legitimate question to ask when these things were adopted and became a part of church liturgy. The answer is, as the Western Roman Empire folded and church leaders became increasingly looked to, to provide governance, they also began to affect some of the trappings of political office. As Christianity became the favored, and then approved religion of the Empire, an all-too-common syncretism began to blend pagan and Christian practices. All Gregory did was standardize this syncretistic blend and bequeath it to the Church of the Middle Ages.
He endorsed an earlier practice of appealing to past martyrs and saints for help in securing God’s aid. The idea was that a penitent sinner could never know if he/she had done enough penance to atone for sin. By appealing to those believers who’d died and gone to heaven for help, they might be able, through their special standing with God, to find assistance in having their sin discharged, kind of like spiritual brokers who negotiated a better deal for the Earth-bound.
Gregory encouraged the collection and veneration of relics; strands of hair, fingernails, toe bones, or pieces of clothing from past saints and martyrs; as well as paraphernalia supposedly connected to the Bible; pieces of the cross, the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, a towel used to wipe Christ’s brow. It was assumed these relics possessed special power to heal and give the armies that venerated them favor in battle.
Gregory taught that the body and blood of Christ were really present in the elements of Communion, the bread & wine. He claimed partaking of them nourished and strengthened one’s spirit, just as literal bread and wine nourished the physical body. But Gregory took it further. The real power of the Communion elements, the Eucharist, was in its renewing of the sacrifice of Christ’s death. The Eucharist didn’t just remember Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, it was a fresh enactment of it. During Communion, in the Mass, offered by a priest, sins were forgiven. What Jesus’ death on the cross did potentially for all people, the Mass applied to specific people who partook of it. So celebrating Mass replaced the need for some forms of penance. Certain sins required both attending Mass and penance. But for the average run of the mill kind of pedantic sins, Mass replaced penance. Then people reasoned, if dead saints could assist them by intercession with God, why couldn’t living believers attend extra masses for departed loved ones to lessen their time in purgatory. Light a candle, say a prayer, attend an extra Mass and you might shorten Uncle Giacomo’s sentence by a week. This theological base fashioned by Gregory would be used hundreds of years later to sell indulgences, and Tetzel’s clever fund-raising ditty – “When in the offering box the coin rings, another soul from purgatory springs.”
Gregory’s realm of oversight wasn’t limited to the spiritual affairs of the Church. During his tenure, the Church owned huge tracts of land in Southern Italy & Sicily; some 1,800 square miles in all. When the Lombards invaded, sweeping away the last vestiges of civil authority, it was church leaders & their representatives who had to step in to provide governance. They took over the infrastructure of providing food and the necessary collection of taxes to maintain some semblance of civil affairs. Later arm-chair historians lament the blurring of the line between church and state. They fail to realize, had it not been for church officials stepping in following the Lombard incursions, tens of thousands would have perished. Gregory was the one who set up and oversaw this new tax and public assistance system. As the Lombards drew closer to Rome, Gregory took charge of the defense of central Italy. He appointed the military governor and arranged for a peace with the enemy leaders.
Think of this now à Gregory was trained from youth for political office and had served well in that capacity until his father’s death when he resigned to seek the quiet life of a monk. When the Plague gutted both the church and civil sphere of capable leaders, Gregory was drafted to take the reins of the Church. The Lombards hammered the last nails into the coffin of Roman civil government, requiring for the sake of public welfare, that Gregory mobilize the leadership of the church to step up and follow his lead of taking on the task of civil authority. Though Gregory greatly expanded papal influence so that from his day on, the Pope was a central figure in European politics, his motive for all he did is seen in his simple concern for the welfare of the needy, as demonstrated by his refusal to stay safely behind the walls of his monastery when the plague ravaged Rome.
The tension between the Eastern & Western church that had begun over a hundred years before as Rome and Constantinople vied for supremacy, grew during Gregory’s term, but certainly not because of Gregory’s personal ambition for power. His criticism of the Eastern Patriarch was due to his belief in Rome’s primacy and his resistance to the kind of pride on full display in the East. The Eastern Patriarch John IV had taken the title “universal bishop,” an honorific granted the Patriarch by emperors like Leo and Justinian. The title was confirmed in an Eastern synod in 588. But Gregory considered the title a usurpation of Rome’s primacy and a blatant arrogance God would not allow. He did all he could to have the title revoked and called down mighty anathemas on it. He threatened to break off all connection with the Patriarch and demanded the Emperor rescind the title. When someone applied the same title to him, Gregory’s reaction was immediate and vehement – no one was to be called a “universal pope”! He said, “I have said that neither to me nor to anyone else ought you to write anything of the kind. Away with words which inflate pride and wound charity!” He preferred to be known as simply – “the servant of the servants of God.”
What appears a contradiction to historians is that while Gregory eschewed pretentious titles, he claimed and exercised authority over the entire Church. While in his case, that oversight was due to his scrupulous sense of duty to serve God by serving his people, later popes would accept the grand titles and use the power of the papacy to less altruistic ends.
Gregory is an important name in the list of Popes because it was under his term that a great wave of missionary outreach began. If Leo the Great had sought to expand the power & influence of the office of Pope, Gregory the Great expanded the influence of the Gospel to new lands beyond the borders of the Empire. Being the first monk to become a pope, Gregory realized monasteries were like spiritual barracks that could send out an army of evangelists. If Rome couldn’t field military legions to repel the barbarians, why not send out legions of missionaries to convert those barbarians, then appeal to their faith to forestall attack? Convert war-like barbarians into daring peace-loving, then peace-spreading missionaries who instead of invading Europe would carry the cross North & East.
Good plan. And Gregory implemented it well.
When Gregory was a youngster, he’d watched as slave ships were unloaded at the docks. The slaves were Angles, from Angle-land, which later becomes England. The name Angle sounded like ‘Angel’ to the young Gregory and set within him the idea that where these barbarians came from needed the Gospel.
Besides his interest in missions to Britain, Gregory also promoted missionary activity among the Germanic tribes. But it wasn’t until about a hundred years later that missionary work among the Germanic tribes would really take off. We’ll cover that in a future episode.
If you’ve been following along with the podcast, a question may have risen that we turn to now. When did the western church, centered in Rome under the overall leadership of the Roman Bishop who’d come to be known as the Pope, really become what today we know as Roman Catholicism?
There was no one day the Church transitioned from being the Apostolic church into the Roman Catholic Church. It was a slow, steady series of events that saw the Roman bishop be looked at as the mostly undisputed leader of the western church. I say “mostly undisputed” because while the eastern church centered in Constantinople, Antioch & Alexandria honored Rome’s bishop as first among equals, there were always a handful of western bishops who esteemed the lead pastor at Rome in much the same way. They didn’t see their role as the bishop of their city as in any way under a Roman pope’s authority.
And don’t forget that the term catholic; which technically just means “universal” carried none of the denominational freight it does today. The word simply meant the Faith that followed the creeds set out by the ecumenical councils – those gatherings attended by a wide cross-section of the leaders of the church so they could define a Biblically faithful position on doctrines being mucked up by aberrant teachers & groups.
An ultra-simple definition then of Roman Catholicism is that branch of the Christian Faith that embodies the early creeds of the church, as it coalesced in Europe, led by the church at & Bishop of Rome. As the generations passed, Roman Catholicism would take on much additional doctrine to that embodied in the early creeds. That doctrine was most often decided by the Roman bishop, whose power and authority grew so that he replaced the Councils.
So while it’s difficult to name a date when Roman Catholicism became, you know – Roman Catholic, many church historians suggest Gregory’s appointment as bishop of Rome in 590 is as good a place as any to drive that stake into the church history timeline. Though Gregory refused the title “Pope,” he set up the system of church government that framed the entire medieval period & is called today the papal system. Gregory set a uniform liturgy to be used in the churches and did much to ensure all the churches walked lock-step with Rome.
When he died in 604, worn out after 30 years of hard work, his epitaph proclaimed him “God’s Consul.” An appropriate description of the man who’ spent his life and career wholly in God’s service but wielding both secular and spiritual power like one of the ancient Roman rulers.