Bishops of Rome: from the 1st century AD
The pope is the bishop of Rome. The name derives from a Greek word pappas, meaning father, and Rome’s bishop is seen as the father figure of the early church because of the link with St Peter. Jesus is believed to have appointed Peter as the rock on which the church will be built; and Peter is believed to have been martyred in Rome. As the capital of the empire, Rome is also a natural centre for the growing church.
Unlike any other Christian see, Rome can put at least a name to every bishop in an unbroken line back to the 1st century of the Christian era and to St Peter himself as the first pope. The papacy, though not recognized as such until later centuries, has impressive credentials.
Many popes in the first three centuries of the Christian era are obscure figures. Several suffer martyrdom along with members of their flock in periods of persecution. Most of them are much involved in theological argument with other bishops, as the young church flexes its doctrinal muscles.
The change to a very different role comes during the brief pontificate of Miltiades (311-314). In 313 he holds a council openly in Rome, at the behest of the emperor, in the Lateran palace. A lasting link, between the papacy and temporal power, has begun. And there are immediate signs of the change.
The first churches: AD 312-337
Concrete evidence of the new status of Christianity is seen in the emergence of the first church buildings. The change is most visible in Rome, the strongest Christian community. Until now, in spite of the size of the congregation of Christians in Rome, worship has been conducted discreetly in private houses. Suddenly churches become public buildings, city landmarks as prominent as the temples of the pagan cult.
Some of the churches evolve from the private houses already in use for worship; one such example is SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. Others in the capital city are new and more striking foundations.
Constantine establishes three important churches in Rome. One, intended to be the city’s cathedral, is sited immediately beside his own Lateran palace – already presented to the Christians as a residence for the pope. This church is St John Lateran.
The other two churches of Constantine in Rome are built in honour of the city’s two martyrs, Peter and Paul, on the supposed sites of their graves. One is outside the old city and is called S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls). The other, in the Vatican, is St Peter’s. Both have since been rebuilt.
The sack of Rome: AD 410
In the gravest crisis to confront Rome for many centuries, both the emperor (Honorius) and the pope (Innocent I) are safely elsewhere. They are sheltering on the coast, at Ravenna, when Alaric and his Visigoths enter Rome in AD 410 and spend three days gathering plunder.
On this occasion the papacy can claim no credit for the departure of the barbarians ( who do little damage to the buildings of the city). But when Rome is under similar threat later in the century, from Attila the Hun and Gaiseric the Vandal, the city’s new leadership – in the form now of Leo I – is perceived as being much more effective.
Leo the Great: AD 440-461
The first pope to indicate the real potential of the papacy is Leo I, who has an unusual span of twenty-one years in office. He uses his time well, not only in the papal duty of restraining heretics but also in rehearsing other roles to be played by Rome.
These include defining Catholic orthodoxy (his epistle called Tome is widely accepted by his contemporaries in this context), and the assertion of the pope’s authority over other bishops by the power of the keys, granted by Jesus to Peter and supposedly passed on to his successors: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. What you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven.’
With the collapse of imperial authority in the western empire, as Visigoths, Vandals and Huns move around almost at will, the papacy finds itself well placed to take a lead in temporal affairs. Ambrose in Milan has already demonstrated how a bishop can exert spiritual authority over an emperor. Leo confronts two dangerous men on a more purely diplomatic basis.
During Leo’s pontificate Rome is threatened by Attila the Hun (in 452) and Gaiseric the Vandal (455). He negotiates with both, and is traditionally credited with persuading Attila to turn back short of Rome and with convincing Gaiseric that the city should not be utterly destroyed. Whatever the exact truth of his achievement, his actions predict a broader role for the papacy.
Gregory the Great: AD 590-604
Gregory I, in the late 6th century, reveals in a similar way the future direction of Rome and of the papacy. It can be seen in two significant events. In 592, two years after his election as pope, the Lombards are at the gates of Rome; Gregory accepts papal responsibility for the city, negotiates with the barbarians and persuades them to withdraw (admittedly at the price of an annual tribute). Four years later, in 596, he despatches a mission of forty men to England. Like Gregory himself, until his election as pope, these missionaries are monks.
A temporal ruler of Rome, using monastic establishments to spread spiritual rule throughout Europe – the pattern for the medieval papacy is in place.
Missions to Frisia and Germany: AD 690-754
The careers of two great Anglo-Saxon missionaries, Willibrord and Boniface, are an indication of the value to the papacy of two recent successes: – the acceptance of the authority of the pope in England, at the synod of Whitby in 664; and the developing alliance between Rome and the Carolingian rulers of the Frankish kingdoms.
Anglo-Saxon England is the most sophisticated Christian region of northern Europe. The Carolingians are the most powerful rulers in the area. A collaboration between English missionaries and Frankish empire-builders is a development eagerly encouraged by Rome.
In about 678 Willibrord, a 20-year-old monk, leaves his Yorkshire monastery at Ripon and moves to Ireland. Inspired by the great tradition of Irish missionaries, he sets out in 690 for the northwest coast of continental Europe. The region of Frisia, or Friesland, is still pagan but has recently been conquered by Pepin, the founder of the Carolingian dynasty. Willibrord brings with him eleven companions (more modest in its apostolic implication than the twelve companions of the earlier Celtic tradition).
The missionaries rapidly establish a foothold in the region. With Pepin’s support, and a commission from the pope in Rome, Willibrord is in a position by 695 to be consecrated archbishop of a new see in Utrecht.
Willibrord also founds a great monastery at Echternach, where he dies in 739. By then his efforts have been surpassed by another missionary some twenty years his junior.
Boniface, educated like Willibrord in an Anglo-Saxon monastery, is commissioned by the pope in Rome in 719 to carry the faith into the heathen parts of Germany. He joins Willibrord for three years in Frisia, from 719 t0 722, and then sets off into Bavaria. Converting heathen chieftains, boldly destroying their idols, and establishing monasteries with priests and nuns brought out from England, Boniface makes rapid progress – supported vigorously in his turn by Charles Martel (the son of Pepin).
By 743 Boniface has established eight bishoprics in Germany, and in that year he summons what is considered to be the first German council of the church. From 746 he makes his own archiepiscopal headquarters at Mainz, ensuring the city a long pre-eminence in Roman Catholic Germany.
In 754, when already in his eighties, Boniface resigns his archbishopric in order to return to missionary work in Frisia. The outcome demonstrates both the danger of the work and its impermanence. Soon after his arrival in this area, evangelized by Willibrord sixty years previously, Boniface and his companions are massacred by heathens near Dokkum.
Popes and Franks: AD 753-772
In 753 the pope, Stephen II, makes an unusual journey north of the Alps. He visits the Frankish king, Pepin III, to seek his help against the Lombards who have recently taken the city of Ravenna and who now pose a similar threat to Rome. The pope anoints Pepin at the abbey of St Denis, near Paris, together with his two young sons Charles and Carloman. Pepin duly invades northern Italy in 754, and again in 756.
He is able to drive the Lombards from the territory belonging to Ravenna. But he does not restore it to its rightful owner, the Byzantine emperor. Instead, perhaps believing the fiction revealed in the forged Donation of Constantine, he hands over large areas of central Italy to the pope and his successors.
The land given to pope Stephen in 756, in the so-called Donation of Pepin, makes the papacy a temporal power. This territory is the origin of the Papal States, over which the popes continue to rule until their incorporation in the new kingdom of Italy in 1870. The story of Rome, for the next eleven centuries, becomes almost entirely the story of the papacy.
In the short term the temporal rule of the popes is shaky. Within a few years the Lombards again invade their territory. In 772 a new pope appeals for help to a new Frankish king. Adrian I enlists the support of Charlemagne. This time the Lombards have conclusively met their match. In 774 Charlemagne adds their kingdom to his own.