Christendom: old and new

Jared Staudt

We have come to think of the Church, the gathering of God’s faithful, in primarily spiritual terms. Throughout Christian history, however, faith implied social and even political obligations, which supplied a concrete expression for the Christian life. In the history of Christendom, one political organization prominently stands out: The Holy Roman Empire. We think of the Roman Empire as ending in 476, the date of the abdication of the last emperor in the West, although it continued with unbroken succession in the Byzantine East until 1453. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned a new emperor in the West, Charlemagne, to serve as the preeminent political ruler of Europe and the protector of the Church. Emperors were longstanding partners of the Pope, the one serving as political and the other as spiritual head of Christendom, though they often turned into rivals.

Peter Wilson provides a thorough account of the Empire, and a defense of its effectiveness as a political body, in his Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Belknap, 2020, paperback ed.). The extensive book (of just under 1,000 pages) does not provide a standard chronological account of figures and events, as it examines the overlooked heart of European culture through three sections focused on the ideal of the Empire, its unique sense of belonging that held it together, and finally its governance. The book’s organization provides an interesting and fresh approach, but it could have used a stronger narrative through coherent stories and summary of the key contributions of important figures (somewhat supplied by the timeline at the back of the book).The Empire’s key characteristics included its transnationality (centered in Germany and embracing at least parts of twelve other modern states); its decentralized authority, with governance dispersed among the Emperor, kings, electors (tasked with voting for new emperors), princes, prince-bishops, counts, knights, and free cities; and its cooperation with clergy, with bishops integrated into its civil rule.

As the nature of Christendom implies, the Church is not solely spiritual; it is a lived social and even cultural reality in the world, and the laity have a role in regulating Christian life in the world. The emperor was the chief representative of the laity and even held veto power within the papal conclave. As such, the emperor was the main defender of Christendom against external enemies and promoter of internal peace. The Holy Roman Empire experienced remarkable stability and purpose, uniting such a large expanse of territory and peoples through an understanding of the Empire’s role in the defense of local rights and of Christendom itself. It provided a sense of corporate identity and freedom by seeking consensus and peace, rooted in faith: “Freedom was expressed and celebrated collectively through communal gatherings and festivals, and by verbal and visual reminders of the community’s traditions and identity” (579).

Christendom is currently taking on new forms in the southern hemisphere. Despite having its original heartland in the Middle East, even 100 years ago it would have made sense to speak of Christianity as a religion centered in Europe and North America. No longer. There is a drastic shift in the proportion of Christian population to the southern hemisphere, ensuring Christian growth for the next 100 years and leading to new spiritual and social expressions of the faith. Philip Jenkins thoroughly explains this shift in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2011, 3rd ed.). Although the Catholic Church should experience significant growth in Latin America, Africa (which will become the largest Christian continent), and Southeast Asia, much of the global growth comes from Pentecostal and independent groups. “The Christian world will have turned upside down,” Jenkins notes, as a solid majority of Christians will come from the south, while “Christianity worldwide is becoming steadily more charismatic” (113, 85).

With growth in numbers, new social expressions of Christianity will follow. And like the Dark Ages of Europe, the Church is stepping into the social void to provide stability: “All too often the Catholic Church occupies such a prominent role because it is literally the only institution that can hope to speak for ordinary people” (179). As Christians work to rebuild society, “we might even imagine a new wave of Christian states, in which political life is inextricably bound up with religious belief” (172). It is hard to predict the future, even as a very different trajectory seems inevitable, as the Christian faith, once again, proves itself adaptable by finding fertile soil for spiritual and social renewal. Reflecting on Christendom helps us to realize not only what we’ve lost, with the breakdown of the social reality of the Church in the West, but what could be, building upon the growth of Christian culture in the global south.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!