August 14, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: A time of missionary activity

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

Technically, I guess, my last column, about Pope Gregory the Great, should have been part of this series about the medieval Church, instead of the series about the early Church, because historians usually date the beginning of the Middle Ages with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.

The decline of imperial Rome actually dates from the sacking of Rome by the Vandals in 455, which Pope Leo the Great was unable to prevent. After that date, most of the people of Western Europe were no longer subjects of the Roman emperor.

Many Germanic tribes were living in Europe: the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in what is now France and Germany, the Angles and Saxons in England. In 496, a significant event occurred when Clovis, King of the Franks, converted to Christianity and became a defender of the Church. The Franks became a Catholic people.

St. Benedict (480-543) was the most significant Churchman during the beginning of the Middle Ages. A hermit early in life, he eventually shifted toward community life and began to build one of the most famous monasteries in the world—Monte Cassino. The rule he developed for his monks prescribed a life of liturgical prayer, study, manual labor and living together in community under a common father (abbot).

During the Middle Ages, all monasticism in the West was brought under the rule of St. Benedict, while the monks of the East continued to follow the rule of St. Basil from the fourth century.

The early Middle Ages were also the time of missionaries. St. Patrick spanned the end of the early Church and the beginning of the medieval Church since he arrived in Ireland in 432, and he died in 460 or 461. By the time of his death, most of the country had been converted from paganism, monasteries were founded and a hierarchy established.

As we saw in last week’s column, Pope Gregory the Great sent 41 Benedictine missionaries, under the leadership of St. Augustine of Canterbury, to England in 596. Augustine also met with great success, and much of England was converted.

That led to one of England’s greatest saints, St. Bede (672-735). Although he spent his entire adult life in the Benedictine monastery of St. Paul in Jarrow, he exercised great influence through his 45 books, 30 of which were devoted to commentary on the Bible. He was also learned in philosophy, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, ecclesiastical history and the lives of the saints.

While St. Bede was writing in England, St. Boniface (672-754) was making converts out of the pagans in Germany. He established bishoprics and numerous houses of prayer that took the form of Benedictine monasteries. He and 53 of his companions were massacred in 754 while he was preparing converts for confirmation.

Germany at the time was part of the Frankish kingdom, and one of the reasons Boniface had so much success was that he had a letter of safe conduct from Charles Martel, the powerful Frankish ruler. I’ll write more about him and his successors next week. †

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