Catholicism in Ancient Times (A.D. 33–741)

By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

This article looks at the history of the Catholic Church from the time of Jesus through the fall of the Roman Empire beginning in ancient Rome.

Non-Christian Rome (A.D. 33–312)

Present-day Israel was known as Palestine at the time of Jesus, and even though it had a king (Herod), it was a puppet monarchy because the real civil power ruling the Holy Land was the Roman Empire. Caesar Tiberius, the emperor from a.d. 14 to 37, appointed Pontius Pilate the procurator (governor) of Judea, and he was the real political power in Jerusalem.

Yet Palestine wasn’t considered a conquered territory of Rome — rather, it was an unwilling and impotent ally. And the Jews were initially exempt from the normal Roman requirement of worshipping the Imperial gods, even though divine attributes were ascribed to Caesar himself, beginning with Augustus. As long as the Christians were seen as a fringe group of the Jews, they enjoyed the same protection and tolerance under Roman rule.

The early Christians

The faithful believed that after Jesus was crucified and died, he rose from the dead. His followers became known as Christians. Mostly Jews who had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah, they wanted to maintain their Jewish traditions and keep practicing the Hebrew faith. They went to Temple and Synagogue, observed Sabbath and Passover, obeyed the dietary laws (kosher), and yet gathered every Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, to hear what Jesus preached and to celebrate the Mass.

The Roman persecutions

The Roman persecutions of the Christians were almost as fierce and as genocidal as the Nazi Holocaust was against the Jews during World War II, but the Roman persecutions lasted almost 300 years. The persecutions lasted as long as each particular Caesar promoted them. Historians designate three periods of persecution: The first period lasted from a.d. 64 to 112, the second period from a.d. 112 to 186, and the third from a.d. 189 to 312.

Christian Rome (A.D. 313–475)

“The blood of martyrs became the seed of Christians,” said Tertullian, a Christian apologist who lived from 160–220. Three hundred years of relentless and violent persecutions ended when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan in a.d. 313, which legalized Christianity. Being that it was no longer a capital crime, Christians were able to come out in the open for the first time.

Although Constantine’s edict allowed Christians to freely practice their faith, it wasn’t until a.d. 380 that Christianity became the official state religion by the Emperor Theodosius. At that point, the tables were turned: Paganism was outlawed, and the once-outlawed Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The consequences of this new alliance of church and state were many. The Church obtained financial, material, and legal advantages from the state. Buildings (particularly the former pagan temples), land, estates, and properties, as well as money, were donated in compensation for the losses incurred during the 300 years of Roman persecutions.

To this day, some of the ancient basilicas in Rome and throughout Italy resemble pagan temples in their architecture because that’s what they were before being transformed into Christian houses of worship. Altars that sacrificed animals to the pagan gods of Rome became altars for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome (A.D. 476–570)

One of the important developments in this period of time was an establishment of religious life, especially monasticism. Monks were men of prayer who left the secular world to commit themselves to a life of ora et labora (Latin for prayer and work), the motto of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Monasteries were large houses that held anywhere from 10 to 50 or more residents with individual austere rooms called cells connected to several community rooms with the chapel as the focal point. Everything was done and shared in common, from food to work to leisure and even prayer. The only private things were sleep and sanitary habits.

Monks took solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They had no wives or children, and their material wealth went to the monastery to be shared by all under the stewardship of the abbot, who was in charge and had the rank of bishop. This pooling of resources, when aristocrats and middle-class Romans entered monastic life, enabled poor men to join as well and truly be considered and treated as equal and full members of the community.

The monks chose to leave the hectic and worldly cities of Imperial Rome, which saved them during the barbarian invasions. The cities were plundered, but the countryside was basically left untouched. The Goths, Huns, Franks, and many more groups invaded the frontier of the Roman Empire, which had grown too vast, too thin, and too undermanned. (More Germanic and Gallic tribes filled the ranks of the Roman Army than tribes of Roman blood from the Italian Peninsula.)

The most famous and ruthless barbarian, Attila the Hun, made his way right up to the city gates of Rome in a.d. 452, accompanied by thousands of troops. Emperor Valentinian III asked Pope St. Leo the Great to do something, and he did: He went out to meet Attila with 100 priests, monks, and bishops, chanting in Latin, burning incense, and carrying crosses, crucifixes, and holy images of Jesus and Mary.

Attila became afraid for the first time in his career. He knew that everyone else feared him and trembled at his name, and he knew that he had superior troops. Yet seeing this saintly man and hearing that he was called the Vicar of Christ on earth and that even angels were under his authority, Attila feared the unseen power of God. Attila agreed not to sack Rome, and he turned back. But Atilla wasn’t the last threat to Rome. Odoacer sacked Rome in a.d. 476, deposing the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Teutonic kings and overlords realized that governing all the people and all the territory would be extremely difficult. No more Roman Senate, no more legal system, and no more local authorities — just the authority of the conquering king. Yet the bishops survived the fall. The pagan kings dealt with the Christian bishops, and that contact with them gradually introduced the faith to the barbarian invaders. The bishops depended on the monks to help. During the invasions, the cities were destroyed, but the monasteries survived. The monks went out and preached about Jesus and the Catholic Church, and many converts were made — especially after a successful conversion of a king or tribal chief.

The invaders got urbanized and suburbanized, as well as civilized. They stopped pillaging and abandoned a nomadic life for a more stable one. This was the genesis of the European nations of Spain, France, Germany, and England. The Church had adopted the Roman Imperial model for governing by creating parishes, dioceses, archdioceses, and metropolitan areas, and that same structure helped the tribes form the civil boundaries and cultures of the Franks, the Lombards, the Saxons, and so on. And guess who taught those newly civilized people to read and write? For that matter, guess who preserved Latin and Greek as a spoken and written language — who protected the books and writings of philosophy and law, poetry and literature, geometry and grammar to allow culture to flourish again? The monks.

The monks not only preserved Greco-Roman literature, law, philosophy, and art, but also agriculture. Nomadic barbarians weren’t natural farmers. They knew nothing of raising livestock, planting, harvesting, and such — but the monks did, so they taught the barbarians how to live off the land.

Pope St. Gregory the Great to Charles Martel (A.D. 590–741)

St. Benedict of Nursia (a.d. 480–547) is known as the Father of Western monasticism because he established the first monastery in Europe at Subiaco, Italy. He also founded the famous monastery of Monte Cassino, Italy, where a crucial battle took place during World War II in 1944. His religious order is the Order of St. Benedict, more commonly known as the Benedictines.

Pope St. Gregory the Great (a.d. 540–604) was a Roman-born nobleman, the son of a senator, who became a Benedictine monk in a.d. 575. The people and clergy of Rome were so impressed with his personal holiness, wisdom, and knowledge that when Pope Pelagius II died in a.d. 590, Gregory was elected to succeed him by acclamation — unanimous consent. Before becoming a monk, he had been Prefect of Rome (a.d. 572–574), and that experience helped him later as pope when the political and military leadership of Rome disintegrated and left the city abandoned. He rallied the citizens by coordinating and personally participating in a monumental project to care for victims of the plague and the starving who overran the city of Rome, which had little civil government left. Gregory’s position as the only visible leader in Rome further enhanced the power, prestige, and influence of the papacy.

Gregorian Chant, religious chants sung in Latin, gets its name from Pope St. Gregory due to his love of music and the Sacred Liturgy. In a.d. 596, he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury with 40 other missionaries to England to convert the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons, who were the Teutonic invaders of Britain, which had been a Roman outpost from a.d. 43–410.

Muhammad, born in Mecca, a.d. 570, became the founder and prophet of Islam at the age of 40 (a.d. 610) and died in Medina in a.d. 632. By a.d. 711, Muslim forces occupied Spain after they had successfully conquered the Visigoths who had controlled it since a.d. 419.

Charles Martel (a.d. 688–741) is another key person in Catholic Church history. He was the illegitimate son of Pepin II and also the grandfather of Charlemagne. Charles won a decisive and pivotal victory over Abd-er-Rahman and the Moors (Spanish Muslims of this period) at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. This was the most crucial victory for all Christendom because it determined whether Islam or Christianity would be the predominant religion in Europe for centuries to come.