Published November 19, 2020, 11:10 PM

by Fr. Emeterio Barcelon, SJ


Fr. Emeterio Barcelon, SJ

The collapse of the Roman Empire left the Church to try to survive after the invasion of the barbarians and the other vandals from the north. The Roman Empire extended from the English islands down to Africa to the plains of Syria in the second century when the invasions from the north started. Some of these invaders of Rome were Arians who also persecuted the Catholics. What saved the papacy were the invaders of Gaul in Clovis the heathen who converted to Catholicism. Pepin the successor of the clan and Charlemagne his son acknowledged the popes. They made the donation of Central Italy to the Papacy which lasted till 1870. It was also at this time that there appeared a succession of great popes – Leo and Gregory took over the administration of the devastated Rome. From the fourth century to the beginning of the ninth century were the years of transition and the beginning of a new empire under Charlemagne to succeed the Roman Empire in the West.

Most of these invaders from the north were Arians who did not believe that Jesus was divine.  So that up to now in every Sunday Mass we celebrate we profess the Nicene Creed against Arius. We pray: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ the only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father from all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made.” Clovis and his successors accepted the Catholic faith which was the basic faith of the new empire.

For two centuries in the Roman Empire Church was accepted the Catholic faith and then came the invasions.  This constituted the new Christendom of the northern invaders that lasted till the 11th century with the problems with the Muslims and the schism of the eastern Kingdoms. They also started the crusades that disrupted the peace and life of the new Christendom. The break with the Eastern Empire occurred gradually at this time.

Going back to the demise of the Roman Empire of the West, we have Leo the Great who persuaded Attila not to sack Rome and a second time he persuaded Gaiseric the Vandal, coming from conquest of North Africa, not to invade Rome but to have a peaceful sack of the imperial city. It was also Leo who clarified the primacy of Rome over the universal Church. He established that Rome was the court of last resort. The theological question of the humanity of Christ in relation to His divinity was the great controversy of the time. It was the Antiochine church against the Alexandrian theologians.  In the end the Alexandrian school prevailed. Included in this controversy was the title of “mother of God” theotokos.

With the demise of the Roman economy, the economy was then centered on agriculture and it was the monasteries that took up the instruction of the people instead of the bishops. A couple of centuries later, Gregory of Roman nobility became the prefect of Rome but then he gave up everything, including his vast wealth, to become a monk.  But the acclamation of the people forced him to accept becoming bishop of Rome. The Lombards made incursions across Italy and it was Gregory who persuaded their king from invading Rome and its environs. This was at the end of the sixth century. Till about the twelfth century with its problems with the eastern Schism and the Muslims, we had a Christendom of the northern invader who have became Catholics largely through the work of the monks and their monasteries. Exceptional was the work of the Celtic monks and later on the work of the Benedictine monks.

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