Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
The Middle Ages had begun, and the complete collapse of the Roman Empire in the West makes that commencement a chronicle of savagery, lawlessness, and ignorance. In the gloom of the century following Gregory's death no fewer than twenty men take their places in the succession of the papacy and none of them approached the stature of his magnitude. Their story is mainly a repetitious narrative of doctrinal controversy, preservation of hierarchical harmony, and continual struggle with the Byzantine Emperors and Patriarchs. To the name of one the stigma of heresy is attached, to another the glory of martyrdom. Forty or more years after the death of Honorius, actually a pious and saintly man, condemnation came, not for formal heresy, but because as one of his successors, Leo II, declared: "He did not extinguish at once the incipient flame of heretical error, as befitted Apostolic authority, but by his negligence nourished the same." The martyred pope was Martin I who, presiding at a council which antagonized the Emperor Constans II, was seized by troops and brought to Constantinople where at an outrageously unjust trial he was convicted of being a traitor and blasphemous usurper. A victim to the harsh treatment of his imprisonment he diedto become, despite the propaganda of the
[paragraph continues] Emperor, an object of veneration and inspiration to the faithful. In continuity the pontiffs of the Seventh Century and the first years of the Eighth were: Sabinian, 604-6, Boniface III, 606-7, Boniface IV, 608-15, Deusdedit, 615-18, Boniface V, 619-25, Honorius, 625-38, Severinus, 640, John IV, 640-42, Theodore, 642-49, Martin, 649-54, Eugenius, 654-57, Vitalian, 657-72, Adeodatus II, 672-76, Donus, 676-78, Agatho, 678-83, Leo II, 682-83, Benedict II, 684-85, John V, 685-86, Conon, 686-87, Sergius, 687-701, John VI, 701-5,John VII, 705-7, Sisinnius, 707-8, Constantine, 708-15.
The absence of individual genius in the recorded acts of the seventh century popes does not rob the Church of the credit due for the survival of the graces that made for the machinery of civilization. Private law had usurped public law but in the chaotic gloom that followed there was one brightness, the stabilizing influence of the monasteries. The monks had spread everywhere and not only were they zealously implanting and nourishing the truths of Christian philosophy but the network of monasteries was founding a structure that was to be the only hope for a social order of any kind. From the wild coasts of Ireland to the equally wild shores of Africa the monks labored and preached; their monasteries housing the principles of justice and the exercise of mercy. In an age when academies of learning were but ruined buildings and their uses the dimly remembered echoes of earlier generations the cloisters were alone open to the practice of the arts. Not that all these champions of the faith were scholars and philosophers. There was also the vast army of their sturdy brethren, bound by the same vows of service, who tilled the soil, hewed the wood, and performed the many other prodigious tasks of industry which made possible the formation and continuance of those communities which, in
the seas of surrounding disorder, were self-supporting havens of peace, citadels of learning, and asylums of charity.
Christian monasticism had originated in the deserts of Egypt during the IVth Century when groups of ascetic hermits gathered to dwell under one rule. The movement in various forms spread rapidly throughout the Christian world. The great figure of its inauguration in the East was St. Basil; in the West, nearly two hundred years lateralthough it had existed there previouslySt. Benedict. This founder of the great Order which was to be of such immense service to the papacy, and from whose ranks were to come over four thousand bishops, sixteen hundred archbishops, two hundred cardinals, twenty-eight popes, and five thousand saints, can best be judged by St. Benedict's description of the ideal abbot ". . . he must be chaste, sober, and merciful, ever preferring mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy. Let him hate sin and love the brethren. And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. And by this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up; but that prudently and with charity he should cut them off, in the way he shall see best for each, as we have already said; and let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be violent nor over anxious, not exacting nor obstinate, not jealous nor prone to suspicion, or else he will never be at rest. In all his commands, whether spiritual or temporal, let him be prudent and considerate. In the works which he imposeth, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, when he said: 'If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.' Taking, then, such testimonies as are borne by these and the like words to discretion, the mother of
virtues, let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm."
Such were the standards the monks had for their guidance when they set out to implant their faith throughout the world and such were the standards that were to keep the spirit of the Church alive when many princes and prelates, dazzled by the pomp of sovereign status, succumbed to the temptations of rank. These indeed were the standards so gloriously upheld by Gregory the Great. Benedictine wisdom shines in his letter to an abbot missionary in England. "Tell him," he wrote, referring to St. Augustine whom he had sent to convert England, "what I have long been considering in my own mind concerning the matter of the English people; to wit, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed may remove error from heir hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all
things for their abundance; to the end that, while some out- ward gratifications are retained, they the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off everything at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps . . ."
The spirit of such men was to prove of immense aid to the Church. But in this, the VIIth Century, there also was born another influence which for centuries was to be a bitter and fiercely militant antagonist of Christianity. A theocratic state was welded in Arabia by one Mohammed who claimed to be a true Prophet of God. With fanatical zeal he propounded to his nomad listeners a religion that was a strange mixture of Judaism, Christianity, and Paganism.
"Four women I revere above all others," he said, "the sister of Moses, the Mother of Jesus, my wife Kadiza, and my daughter, Fatima."
His doctrine did not call for a definite priesthood although there were to be interpreters in the form of doctors and preachers. The real leaders were to be warriors, for it was by sword and conquest he proposed to spread his faith. "The sword," he declared, "is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a sigh spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven at the day of judgment, his wounds shall be resplendent as vermilion, and odoriferous as musk; and the loss of his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim."
The visions such eloquence conjured dazzled his audiences and they became frenzied armies which, as they rushed rapturously to battle, chanted "There is but one God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God." With
astonishing swiftness the standards of Islam were implanted throughout Arabia; then, defeating the Byzantine legions, in Syria; and in Palestine, Egypt, and Persia. For a time the bulwark of Constantinople was avoided, but not so the fertile islands of the Mediterranean or the coasts of Northern Africa. Unafraid and feared, the indomitable Saracens marched and sailed and plundered and at the beginning of the Eighth Century they had landed in Spain and with determined eyes fixed on Gaul were triumphantly advancing to the Pyrenees. Such was the alarming progress of their conquests, achieved in less than a hundred years, when Pope Gregory II succeeded Constantine I in 715.