It signaled the beginning of the "Dark Ages" throughout Europe - a time when the early ardor of religious life waned, due largely to the confusion and devastation caused by the wholesale barbarian invasions which had greatly upset the natural order of the Church‚s progression. Yet, throughout history when things look the bleakest, God is always there to rescue His creatures. This He did by allowing the Angle clans from northern Europe to invade Britannia overpowering the Celtic tribes. Strange though it may seem, these conquering clans made it possible for Christianity to spread - for their culture was more conducive to accepting the Gospel since they had already been exposed to it. As the missionaries and teachers of the Church mingled with the barbaric hordes the Light of faith emerged once more out of the darkness.
Adding to the eventual entire conversion of Europe to Catholicism was the strengthening of the authority of the Popes as Rome now became synonymous with the Church. Where previously Holy Mother Church had been overshadowed by the eagle standard of pagan Rome, now the standard of the Cross stood tall and yet a visible target for those who sought to overthrow her authority. As we have seen in past installments, the Bishop of Rome has, from Apostolic times, been looked upon as the universal head of the Church. From the beginning appeals were made to the pontiffs and disputes were settled by the Holy See. There have been many appeals throughout the long history of the Church and in every case they were always referred to Rome. Both in the east and west, the Pope was recognized as the head of the Church and this was accepted until the great schism of the Eastern Church in the ninth century as we shall examine in future installments. As the 5th Century wound down the people of central Italy and along the west coast of Italia became more strongly bound to the Popes, who in turn became more influential in their rule and more universal as the Catholic spiritual and political leader of the world.
With the death of Pope Saint Simplicius on March 10, 483, Pope Saint Felix III replaced him as the 48th in the line of Peter on March 13, 483. He ruled for nine years until 492. During his reign he attempted to restore peace in the disturbed Eastern Church. He was not a celibate Pope but rather a good father who had sons. One of Felix‚ sons would become the father of the famous Pope Saint Gregory the Great whom we shall cover in a future installment soon. Felix died on March 1, 492 and on the same day Pope Saint Gelasius I was chosen his successor. Gelasius instituted the Code for the uniforming of ceremonies and rites. Because of his great charity, he was called by the faithful the "Father of the Poor." Gelasius upheld the supremacy of the Church over that of kings, strengthening the Holy See‚s stature politically and religiously and it is Gelasius who is credited with inserting the Greek Kyrie eleison into the Holy Mass as well as compiling the prayers of the Eucharistic Liturgy into three tomes: one for major feasts called the Temporal, one for the saints‚ feasts, which was the Sanctoral, and one for special intentions aptly named the Book of Votive Masses. The good Gelasius passed away on September 21, 496 to be succeeded a month later by Pope Anastasius II whose papacy lasted only two years. Historians report Anastasius was not as scholarly as his predecessors and therefore weak in dealing with schismatics, even being accused by some of heresy which was passed down through the centuries to the 13th Century when the Italian poet Dante Alighieri placed Anastasius in hell in his famous "Dante‚s Inferno". However those recorders of history fail to note that It was this 50th Pope, born in Rome, who brought about the conversion of Clovis, king of the Franks who, at an early age, had united the many Frankish tribes into one strong state which defeated the Visigoths and other barbaric tribes in southern and western Europe. Clovis' conversion on Christmas Day in 496 also prompted 3,000 of his men to seek Baptism. Clovis' decision occurred through his marriage to Catholic-born Clotilde. Thus Clovis led his people in turning away from Arian belief, which had been the religion of most of the northern area of the region Clovis ruled, to the true faith of Catholicism. By placing the Church's authority at the king's disposal it opened new vistas for his armies as they advanced on new territories and established France as the "oldest daughter of the Church" 1500 years old. Anastasius‚ short pontificate ended on November 19, 498 and it was left to Pope Saint Symmachus, who ascended the Throne of Peter on November 22, 498, to lead the Church into the 6th Century which would give rise to true monasticism with Saint Benedict and one of the greatest Doctors of the Church in St. Gregory the Great.
The foundations for this had been laid in the first four centuries as the liturgy had been evolving from primitive celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the early days of the Church to the liberation from Roman persecution. This freedom allowed the Christians to proclaim their faith openly and through this example, many were converted. This, in turn, brought about a greater need for churches to house the mushrooming masses of worshippers. As we know from past installments, the Emperor Constantine had been nurtured in the faith by his saintly mother St. Helena who is credited with unearthing the True Cross in 326. With this discovery and his mystical experience of seeing the cross in the sky with the words "In hoc signo vinces", Constantine became stronger than ever in his faith - so much so that upon proclaiming Christianity as the state religion of the empire, he generously conferred many magnificent buildings to the Church to celebrate Mass, some of which were so opulent and glorious that they were termed basilicas, derived from the Greek word for "royal" or "regal" which is basilicoi. As the years passed, these buildings needed to be maintained and refurbished. Though the people were poor, Constantine‚s empire was wealthy, allotting enough to satisfy the financial needs of the Church∑so much so that many additional churches were constructed. A pattern had been established. Each church wanted to outdo the next and so these edifices became more magnificent from generation to generation. To match the opulence of these structures, many clerics went to great lengths to wear extravagant garments to celebrate the Mass. People began to be confused by all the abundance confined to the churches alone. In addition, there had been great diversity in the liturgy in all regions of the known world. There had been the Greek Liturgy which had begun in Antioch and spread to Byzantium where St. John Chrysostom established the Bysantine Rite in the fourth century. This, as we have seen, spawned other nationalized rites in Armenia, Georgia and the Ukraine. From Antioch also sprouted the Syriac Liturgy which migrated to Africa as the Maronite Rite evolving into the Chaldean Rite of the mid-east and southwest the Coptic Church came out of Egypt. In the West three liturgies sprouted out of the Hispanic and Frankish influence. They were the Gallican Liturgy which was centered in Gaul, the Gothic Liturgy that permeated central and northern Europe as well as Spain, and the Celtic Liturgy celebrated in the British Isles.
In the first quarter of the 5th Century Pope Saint Celestine I, who commissioned Saint Patrick to Ireland, as we saw in the last issue, sought to correct the incongruities in the liturgy and unify through a letter to the bishops in Gaul. The letter said in part, "We must distinguish ourselves from the people by doctrine, not by vestment; by manners, not by habit; by purity of spirit, not by adornment∑We must instruct and not deceive. It is not a matter of inspiring the eyes, but of teaching souls." It took a while for this to sink in with the faithful, but as time passed they realized more and more there had to be a unification of the language and liturgy if the doctrine was to be heard, understood and accepted by the populace. With all the ethnic tribes and intermarriages, Latin was the only solution to universalizing the Church. As we know today, the languages of Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish all were derived from the Roman influence of Latin - hence the Romance languages evolved. The first five centuries were complete. The foundations of Christianity had been laid, the frames had been constructed, now it was time for Master Craftsmen to send in His specialists in continuing to build His Church.
Over the next few centuries God would raise up great saints to continue this composition of Holy Mother Church and to bring all peoples the light of faith. In the next installment, we shall treat the first "bookend" of the 6th Century - Saint Benedict, the Father of Monasticism before continuing on in the following installment on the other "bookend" which closes the that century - the great Pope Saint Gregory I.