With the death of Pope Saint Leo the Great, the 45th successor of Peter, the Roman Empire
continued to be ravaged by barbarian hordes throughout Europe. Through the
generosity of Constantine, the Church flourishes as basilicas and ornate
churches are built to accommodate the growing faith. Various liturgies of
the Mass would sprout from the different rites and it would be left to Pope Saint Gregory the
Great, one of the great and holy Doctors in Church History to package a
liturgy that would be acceptable to all parties late in the sixth century. His mixture of Gregorian
Chant, pageantry, devotion, and reverence for the Liturgy would unify the
Church against the various schisms threatening Christ's True Church on all
sides. From the conquests and migration of warring tribes, intermarriages
and the thirst for peace, the door for Christianity is opened and allowed to take root in the
far regions of the Roman Empire as the populace turns to the Holy See for
both spiritual and political direction.
In the last installment, we dealt with the Fall of the Roman Empire and
the Rise of Christianity thanks to Constantine the Great. When this
emperor moved the seat of his empire to Constantinople, (today known as
Istanbul), Rome was pretty much abandoned and left vulnerable to the prey
of successive hordes of barbarians. Without an emperor, the Romans turned
to the Popes as their only governors and protectors. Pope St. Leo the
Great became legendary for saving Rome from Attila the Hun, known as 'The
Scourge of God" and later from Genseric the hated Vandal. After years of
religious persecution by the Roman emperors, the barbarian invasions took
their toll with the populace.
Though victorious, the Popes were still forced to try to
compromise with the horde leaders for anarchy reared its ugly head in all
regions. This came about because those who feared the barbarians would
flee to other regions. Yet they sadly became the very things they were
running from, pillaging, and looting others in order to exist. Chaos
became the norm and despair hit an all time high. Many believed the end
was near including Saint Augustine when the hordes were laying siege to his
beloved area of North Africa. Some accounts say that this renowned Doctor
of the Church died assuming it was the tribulation prophesied in the
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 that 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. Besides, in times of
conquests intermarriages become more prevalent. The bloodlines had been
drawn. It was left to the Church to pick up the pieces and reconstruct
civilization fostering the fruits of persecution and hardship through the
rise of monasticism, great schools and ultimately the affluence of Gothic
architecture, which would manifest itself in future centuries.
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
Popes and disputes were settled by the pontiffs. There have been many
appeals throughout the long history of the Church. In the fifth century the Bishop in the East, Saint Theodoret was deposed and appealed to the Pope who in turn ordered him reinstated. Though the saint
was martyred, the papal proclamation proved that both in the east and west
the Pope was recognized as the head of the Church. This was accepted until
great schism of the Eastern church in the ninth century. In every case, they
were always referred to Rome. Leo the Great had solidified the power of the Sovereign Pontiff in Rome and it would be left to his successors to carry this out as the Church expanded to further regions of the expanding Roman empire. Leo's successor was Pope Saint Hilary who was elected on November 19, 461 and served as 46th in the line of Peter until his death on February 29, 468. He was a carbon copy of Leo in political thought and came to the decision that a certain level of culture was necessary in the formation of the priesthood and also that popes and bishops should not name or nominate their successors. He also firmly established the Church in the far reaches of Spain by instituting an apostolic vicariate there.
Pope Saint Simplicius followed Hilary on March 3, 468 and ruled for fifteen years. It was during his pontificate that the great Roman Empire fell and the schism slithered in which led to the founding of the Churches of Armenia, Syria and the Coptic Church in Egypt. In later years most would return to the fold. Simplicius, born in Tivoli, regulated the distribution of offerings to pilgrims and allocated these funds for new churches.
His successor was Pope Felix III, elected three days after Simplicius' death. It was left to Felix to try to restore peace in the disturbed Eastern Church. Felix was married before celibacy was mandatory for clergy and fathered several sons, one of which would become the father of the famous Saint Gregory the Great. Very little else is known of this 48th successor of Peter who died on March 1, 492. On the very same day he died Pope Saint Gelasius I was chosen to lead the Church. His pontificate lasted four years until September 21, 496. Gelasius is called the "Father of the Poor" because of his sincere charity to the people. Gelasius instituted the Code for the uniform regulation of ceremonies and rites and is remembered fo rmaintaining supremacy of the Church over that wielded by monarchs and other rulers. It was Gelasius who inserted the Greek Kyrie eleison into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and established the Feast of the Purification.
Gelasius was followed by the first non-canonized pope in the nearly five hundred year line of popes when Pope Anastasius II was elected as the 50th successor of Peter. Born in Rome, he was elected on November 24, 496 and died two years later. It is amazing that Anastasius was not a saint considering it was he who brought about the conversion of King Clovis, monarch of the Franks which included the Frankish people and ultimately all of France which to this day remains Catholic. Many believe because he was weak with the schismatics that he was never canonized. In the middle ages, when the satirical poet Dante placed Anastasius in hell in his "Inferno", that did not endear anyone to this misunderstood pontiff who ruled only for two years.
His successor was Pope Saint Symmachus who would not only return the line of pontiffs to the status of saints for the next succeeding popes, but also bring the Church into the Sixth Century for he was elected on November 22, 498 and would oversee Holy Mother Church until his death on July 19, 514. Symmachus, the 51st in the line of Peter, was born in Sardinia and, as pope, ransomed all the slaves he could, giving them their desired freedom through consolidation of Church property. He also established a permanent benefices for the support of the clergy. To St. Symmachus is attributed the first construction of the Vatican Palace.
In the next installment we shall cover the first half of the Sixth Century, the Century of the growth of monasticism when Saint Benedict would become the father of western monasticism with the establishment of his Order of Benedictines.