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 well 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 who’d been a perpetual problem pressed in from the North.
What eventually spelled doom for the Western Empire was that Rome had forged treaties with some of the 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 & Goths, it seemed 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 cared about the welfare of the people, they managed to hold the decaying Empire together for a time. Pope Leo of Rome 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. Leo didn’t have as much luck with the Vandals who arrived a few years later. But he did manage to persuade them to limit their sack of the city 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 – whose name interestingly enough was 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 few 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 had been communes of Christians since the 3rd Century, but the number of monasteries began to grow during the 5th Century. 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 lesson 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 & organization. He formulated a simple Rule for monastic living that was easily transferable 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 & work. Benedict’s sister Scholastica adopted a similar formula for convents.
Monasteries became repositories & treasuries of the learning & 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 & spent considerable time copying ancient texts of both scripture & classical antiquity. The Renaissance would eventually be fed by the work of those monks & 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 & 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 nw ancient & badly decayed infrastructure; things like baths, sewers, & streets. His appointment came in the same year that both the pope & the 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 7 monasteries & 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 & live a life of humble devotion to God, his gifts as an effective administrator had fixed a reputation to him he was unable to dodge. In 579, Pope Pelagius II made him 1 of 7 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 & 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 the commune’s walls, Gregory went into the city to help the sick. This earned him great admiration. After Pope Pelagius II died, it took church leaders 6 months to pick Gregory to replace him. He balked & fled Rome to hide in the countryside. When he was eventually located they persuaded him to return & take up the Bishop’s seat.
Gregory seemed ill-suited to the task. He was 50 & 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 & probably 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 for 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 during this time. 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 was falling apart.
Pope Gregory I was a tireless leader. He seemed able to accomplish 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 & overwork. Seeing himself as genuinely the first among equals with the other bishops, he kept up a vast correspondence with them, making sure the lines of communication between the churches kept everyone abreast of the affairs of the Church. That alone would have been a full-time pursuit. But Gregory did more.
He knew from both his own time as a monk & 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 God. 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 ministry 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 & 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 called 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 for the Faith. His contribution to theology was remarkable. He wrote more on theology than any previous & 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 Augustine 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, & 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 & 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 encourage 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 standard part of church liturgy. The answer is, as the Western Roman Empire folded and church leaders became increasingly looked to, to provide governance in Western Europe, 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 & Christian practices. All Gregory did was standardize this syncretistic blend and bequeath it to the church of the Middle Ages.
Gregory endorsed an earlier practice of appealing to past martyrs & 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 & 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 or agents who negotiated a better deal for the Earth-bound.
Gregory encouraged the collection and veneration of relics; things like strands of hair, finger nails, toes, or pieces of clothing from past saints & martyrs; as well as paraphernalia supposedly connected to the Bible, like pieces of the cross, the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, a towel used to wipe Christ’s bleeding brow. It was universally thought these relics possessed special power to heal & to give the armies that venerated them favor in battle.
Gregory taught that the body & blood of Christ were really present in the elements of Communion, the bread & wine. He said that partaking of them nourished & strengthened one’s spirit, just as literal bread & 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 sin required both attending Mass & 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 as the basis of the selling of 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 for the population. They took over the infrastructure of providing food & the necessary collection of taxes to maintain some semblance of civil affairs. Later casual arm-chair historians lament the blurring of the line between church & state that marks the history of the church. But 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 & oversaw this new tax & public assistance system. As the Lombards drew closer to Rome, Gregory took charge of the defense of central Italy. He appointed the military governor & arranged for a peace with the enemy leaders.
Think of this now à Gregory had been trained as a 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 & the civil sphere of capable leaders, Gregory was drafted by his peers 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, Gregory’s 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 & Constantinople vied for authority, 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 & his resistance to pride which was 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 & Justinian. The title had been confirmed in an Eastern synod in 588. But Gregory considered the title an usurpation of Rome’s primacy & a blatant arrogance God would not allow. He did all he could to have the title revoked & called down mighty anathemas on it. He threatened to break off all connection with the Patriarch & demanded the Emperor rescind the title. When someone applied the same title to him, Gregory’s reaction was immediate & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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?
I think I’ve made it pretty clear that there was no one day that 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 as centered in Constantinople, Antioch & Alexandria honored the Rome bishop as first among equals, there were nearly 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 that it does today. The word simply meant the Faith that followed the creeds set out by the ecumenical councils – those gatherings that had been 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 & 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 & career wholly in God’s service but wielding both secular & spiritual power like one of the ancient a Roman senatorial rulers.