How the Popes Saved the Church

Posted on March 24, 2013

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You have heard or read a lot about the new Pope Francis in the press recently. But did you know that he is heir to a tradition that goes back to the time of Jesus himself?

When Jesus left the earth, he sent the Holy Spirit (or Ghost; same person) to minister and empower his disciples. They spread through much of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and eventually reached even Rome, at the heart of the Empire.

The Apostle Paul may have even traveled as far as Spain at the western end of the Mediterranean and brought Christianity to Iberia in the first century, but we can only speculate on that missionary trip from a slender and inconclusive body of evidence.

Christians, even though persecuted by the overzealous Romans who demanded conformity, prospered and spread across the Empire. It was a time of general peace and tranquility inside the borders of the Empire which spread as far east as Persia (modern Iran), west to Britain, and covered the entire Mediterranean world.

In 324 A.D. the Emperor Constantine, himself a Christian convert, stepped into his role as leader of the empire, in all phases, including religion, and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.

It was quite a change, from a persecuted sect to becoming not simply the religion of choice, but also the religion of the authority in the land.

It all came to a crashing end in 410 A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer the modern way of determining dates) when barbarians from beyond the empire in the north of Europe came crashing through the Romans legions guarding the northern borders and reached Rome.

They sacked the city, something difficult for us in the twenty first century in this country to imagine.
For those of us in Tuscaloosa, who were here on April 27, 2011, and were in the path of the tornado, we got a very small taste of suddenly being without water, electricity, gas, food, and shelter, and in some cases seeing our loved ones and friends and neighbors injured or killed.

We have been recovering, but not so the Roman Empire.

Wave after wave of Visigoths, Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Huns and others swept through the empire, bringing with them rape, pillage, burning, hunger, starvation, and the end of the world as Romans knew it.

As Rome collapsed, the Church, led by some extraordinary Popes stepped into the vacuum of authority and order and preserved Western civilization and orthodox Christianity for posterity, of which we are the heirs.

It is a long and complex story, moving from Empire and barbarian invasions to Medieval Europe and the beginnings of the modern world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Pope Leo, sometimes labeled “the Great,” became Pope in the mid-fifth century, right at the height of the barbarian invasions. When Attila the Hun’s armies stood poised in northern Italy in 452 to march on Rome, Leo went to meet the “scourge of God.” They talked, but what they said to each other is not known.

Legend has it that Peter and Paul—armed with swords not bishop‘s staffs–appeared in a vision before Attila when speaking with Leo and threatened Attila with doom if he marched on Rome.

Pope Leo and Attila the HunRaphael’s The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome.

That Attila’s armies were also suffering from a pestilence, dwindling supplies, and a threat of a Roman army coming from the East may have also persuaded him to withdraw, but few doubted that Leo carried with him a deep belief in his mission as the Christian leader of the Roman Church and Attila may have sensed the spiritual power of this Pope.

Vandals attacked Rome just three years later, in 455, and Leo couldn’t keep them out, but did persuade them not burn the city nor murder her people.

Leo basically stepped into the void left by the collapsing Roman Empire and did two things for which he is remembered, and for which we should remember him: he lifted the role of Pope as defender of order and civilization in a period of chaos, and he championed the orthodox principles and doctrines of the Church in the face of continuing heresies that could have dissolved Christianity.

No less significant than Leo was one his successors, Gregory, who became Pope in 590 and built on Leo’s legacy of increasing the power and influence and authority of the Church in a time when the old empire was disappearing. But he did more than that. He was one of the first Popes who came out of a strict monastic background, elevating the monastic virtues of celibacy, order and obedience to the highest levels in church governance.

He loved music and left us the habit of putting Psalms and other narratives into a chanting style of music, and so we have “Gregorian” chants named after him.

He enforced the discipline of clerical celibacy to help priests and monks and friars of all stripes remove the worldly attractions of sex and focus instead on their calling from God.

Beloved by many—even John Calvin of the Reformation admired him and called him the last good Pope—he also was a missionary Pope, sending a mission led by St. Augustine of Canterbury to replant Christianity among the Britons.

He had, in fact, a deep regard for and affection for the people and the poor, not unlike the new Pope Francis. In a period of want and desperation from starvation and wracked by insecurity, many reached out to him, and he responded.

From the Vatican’s Secret Archives (much of them now published) we read:
“I asked you most of all to take care of the poor,” he wrote to a subordinate in Sicily. “And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out … I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children’s shoes and forty bushels of grain ….”

Popes Leo and Gregory did not single-handedly save the Church from destruction by heresies, barbarians, starvation and the barbarian invasions. In fact many of them were Christian, although followers of the Arian heresy in competition with Nicene Christianity which the Popes championed as the only true and orthodox version of Christianity.

Many of you, Catholics and Protestants alike, still recite the Nicene Creed today, confirming the wisdom given these early Popes.

That the Church and Christianity survived was in fact the hand of God at work, but man is God’s agent and through the centuries men and women have been lifted from the throng and endowed with special gifts to do God’s work.

Leo and Gregory were two such men, and set a very high mark for the new Pope. May he enjoy the blessings of God, certainly necessary in today’s crazy world, no more knocked around by circumstances than the barbarians at the gates fifteen hundred years ago.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News, March 31, 2013 as How the Popes Saved the Church