Christendom: 1. Christians worldwide, regarded as a collective body. 2. the countries occupied by Christians, especially in the Middle Ages. Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002
As we pick up the story of the Demise of Christendom, it would be well to review how construct of ‘Christendom’ came into being in the first place.
Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome (306-337 CE), created it. How and why?
Constantine is a figure of contradiction and controversy. He was born in Naissus in what is now Serbia, the date unsure, but perhaps 272 CE (although some have put it as late as 288). His mother, Helena, daughter of a prominent family, was a Christian; his father, Constantius, a successful Roman general (legatus in Latin) became ‘Caesar (DeputyEmperor) of the West’ under Emperor Diocletian’s political and military reformof 293. Like most Roman soldiers of the3d and 4th Centuries, Constantius was a Mithra worshipper. Mithra was a soldier’s god, the great Conqueror of darkness. He had been imported from Persia (now Iran), and was much akin to Ahura-Mazda of Zoroastrianism. It was Constantius’s religion that was passed to their son, Constantine, not Helena’s.
Constantineis most famous as the reputed ‘first Christian Emperor of Rome’, reigning from 306-337 CE, but as sole Emperor (although not unchallenged) only from 315. There is much controversy about the sincerity of his supposed ‘conversion’ in July of the year 312 the night before the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge just outside of Rome.[i]
As fascinating as the intricacies of Constantine’s rise to absolute power may be for Roman History buffs, we will jump over most of that part of his life to the later stages. Suffice it to say that he finally eliminated his last rival in 324, leaving him with the task of trying to create a new unifying vision for an Empire which had lost its way. The old paganism held on in the rural regions, but about a quarter to a third of the citizenry is estimated to have adhered to Christianity by this point.
Constantine marched into the East and Christianity was catapulted from a despised minority religion for losers to become the imperial religion of choice across the Empire. The new absolute Emperor began to name Christians to positions of prominence and authority. Nevertheless, even as he favoured Christians and offered the Christian leaders the allure of position and influence, he still honoured Mithra and used Mithraic symbols on coins and insignia. As Pontifex Maximus, he participated in and presided over old pagan ceremonies, not wishing to alienate the still pagan majority. In Rome he spent money on renewing old temples while he financed the building of Christian churches,which were now built openly and specifically as public centers of worship.
He called the Christian bishops to pray for the peace and prosperity of the Empire, the health of the Emperor, and to become his advisors. He told them it was time to end their internal ‘civil war’ over the teaching of the arch-priest Arius and to resolve the issue of the Divinity of Jesus once and for all. In turning to the Catholic Church[ii]as his new Imperial religion of choice and unifying principle, he needed theChurch to be unified.
In 325 CE he called the major prelates to meet in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in Pontus (north-western Turkey) to settle the Arian heresy. Politically, he transferred the imperial capital to Byzantium, which he then humbly renamed Constantinople (City of Constantine) and rebuilt on a grandiose scale, taking monuments and artistic treasures from Rome and all over the Empire to embellish his new capital. He considered himself God’s servant as much as any Bishop, on a par with an Apostle as a promoter of Christianity, and presided at the Council of Nicaea, although not interfering (much) in the theological discussions. When the Council was deadlocked in controversy, he called the major Bishops into his presence and read them the imperial riot act.
In doing all this, Constantine laid the foundation for what became known as ‘Christendom’. Geographically, this would evolve from the ‘Christian Empire’ phase of Rome’s last 150 years, and shift west into Europe proper in the following centuries. Politically, socially, and ecclesiastically Constantine brought the Church into full participation as a major influence and center ofpower.
However, full-blown ‘Christendom’ would not be reached until the period we now call the Middle Ages.
The West Roman Empire ended with a whimper in 476 CE. Its vast territories had once included what is now Italy, France, England and Wales, Spain, Portugal, North Africa from Tunisia west, Belgium and the western Netherlands, the Rhineland in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and much of Hungary. By 476, barbarian tribes under barbarian kings had taken over these lands. Some of these Kings were Catholic Christians, some Arian heretics, some straight out pagans. Most were nominal in their faith, as were their followers. It is rather difficult to follow the Prince of Peace while living by pillage and rapine. It would take a settled lifestyle before the Church’s civilizing influence could take hold.
In the Empire’s death throes, the old capital city of Rome had been sacked twice (410 and 455 CE) and the imperial administrative and civil framework had all but disappeared. There were local survivals. But the Church still stood, and, once the dust began to settle and more permanent boundaries began to solidify, the kings and their rough councils realized they needed to have a regular administration with regular laws and a structure by which to maintain order and communicate their will. They needed to meld their semi-nomadic population with the old Romanized population. They needed to find and use the old Roman imperial officials and re-establish structure. But the only structure and dependable source of trained and educated leadership that had outlasted and survived the debacle was the Catholic Church. We will continue the story in our next instalment.
[i] The story is recounted in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius was a contemporary and confidante of Constantine and wrote his famous book, the only extant ancient history of early Christianity, in the 330s, beginning when Constantine was still alive. There is little doubt that he got the story firsthand. Constantine claimed that the day before the Battle he saw a vision of a flaming cross in the sky and heard a voice telling him, in Latin, “In hoc signo vince,” (pronounced ‘vinkay’, hard ‘c’)– “In this sign, conquer” – it is an imperative. Constantine immediately interpreted that Christ had spoken to him. He ordered his legions to use the cross alongside the imperial eagle standard as they went into battle, and some cohorts (regiments) to paint the cross on their shields. His victory was shatteringly decisive, and the new “Emperor of the West” ever after credited Christ with the victory, rather than Mithra.
[ii] The term ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal’ in Greek. In the late 3d Century it became attached to the word Church to differentiate ‘true’ Christianity from the many heretical and strange aberrations that had arisen. Some extremely strange teachings about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit had caused much strife and led many deluded Christians to abandon the major traditions and teachings that had been recognized as having been faithfully passed on since the time of the Apostles.