Where Rome had conquered, some initial Christian seedling churches had been planted. Then the barbarians came and the legions withdrew. A new effort had to be made to convert the chieftains, who in turn pretty much ordered all their tribespeople to convert. Let’s look at how this pattern played out in several of the key western European countries that influenced religion in what came to be called the New World.
Christianity in Spain began in the first century with the siete varones apostólicos (Seven Apostolic Men) ordained in Rome by Saints Peter and Paul: Saints Isicio, Cecilio, Tesifonte, Torcuato, Eufrasio, Hesiquio and Segundo. My namesake, St. Cecilio, is venerated as the patron saint of Granada (then known as Iliberis, later Elvira), where he became the first bishop, around the year 64; he was burned to death during the reign of Nero.
Still a very much a persecuted minority, Christians slowly gained a foothold in Seville, Cordoba and Toledo. Spanish Christianity under Rome was also marked by the Synod of Elvira in 305, attended by 19 bishops and 26 presbyters. After the edict of toleration, it was a Christian who hailed from the Iberian Peninsula, Emperor Theodosius I, who presided over the Council of Nicea.
In the years following 410, while Rome declined, Spain was overrun by the Visigoths. These barbarians had been converted to Christianity in 325 as a result of the missionary work among Gothic tribes by Bishop Ulfilas. However, Ulfilas had taught them the nontrinitarian variant of the faith condemned as the heresy of Arianism.
The Visigothic Kingdom ruled from Toledo led to the expansion of Arianism in Spain. However, in 587, King Reccared was converted to Chalcedonian Christianity, already known as Catholicism at that point, and he launched a movement to unify doctrine; in other words, his subjects were ordered to believe what he believed.
“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (Gaul is divided into three parts)” state the opening words of Julius Caesar’s Comentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), which recount the 58 BCE conquest of what is today France. The three parts were the lands of the Belgae, which comprise modern northern France and Belgium; the Aquitani, people south of the Loire River, and the Celtae or Celts, inhabiting what is now Normandy and Brittany.
The Romans conquered and held this territory until 486. Christianity flourished in Roman Gaul, mainly in Lyons, in a community established by missionaries from Asia Minor—notably St. Irenaeus, the first bishop, who came from Smyrna. Lyons was the site where 48 martyrs were executed in 177.
When Gaul fell to the Franks, who were a confederation of six tribes from east of the Rhine (in the original area the Romans called Francia), Clovis I established the Frankish Kingdom. The king converted to Catholicism at the suggestion of his wife, Clotilde, a Burgundian princess later revered as a saint for her role in the conversion. Clovis was baptized on Christmas Day 496 in a small church near the future site of the Abbey of Saint-Remi in Reims, with distinctive long-term effects on French Christianity.
St. Clotilde’s faith was distinctive among the barbarian invaders in its adherence to Catholicism, despite the Arian influence among the Goths. When Clovis rose to the Frankish crown, Arians dominated Christian Gaul and Catholics were the minority. Consolidation of dominion over all of Gaul in the hands of Clovis led to the massive conversion of Arians to Catholic orthodoxy.
Another consequence was a peculiar new relationship between religion and state power in France, based on variations of the divine right of kings. Although the theological teaching that monarchy was inherently blessed by the Christian faith was the work of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, bishop and theologian at the time of Louis XIV, since the middle ages, the story is told in France of a miraculous event concerning the first Louis (Clovis is a Germanic form of the name) that had a decisive effect on the popular understanding of the idea.
According to the pious legend, depicted in many stained-glass windows in French churches, a holy flask miraculously dropped from heaven, pouring anointing oil on Clovis’ head at his baptism, thus bestowing divine support for his kingship. This event was understood to endow kings with an authority at least on a par with that of medieval bishops.
Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BCE as part of his Gallic Wars and achieved full conquest by 43 BCE, a situation that ushered in Roman Britain until 410 CE. The originally Germanic Britons were culturally assimilated by other Celtic tribes, and their original religion was Druidism.
Under Roman rule, a secret and persecuted Christianity reached Albion, as evidenced by Tertullian’s and Origen’s mention in the third century of native British Christians. This would be the much-fabled but poorly attested church of St. Alban, held by some to be the first British Christian martyr, who died either in the year 209, 251 or 304. All vestiges of this Christianity disappeared with the Romans; whatever survived the Romans was swallowed up by successive invasions of the isles by pagan tribes.
It wasn’t until the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great that Christianity revived in Britain. Reportedly, Gregory’s interest in the Sceptred Isle was first sparked when, as a young man walking about Rome, he came across pale-skinned English children being sold at a slave market. He asked who they were and was told they were Angles.
“Non Angli, sed angeli (They are not Angles, but angels),” he responded, adding that they were “well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.”
A few years after he became pope, he dispatched a Benedictine monk to head a mission to Britain. Augustine was the prior of a monastery in Rome when Gregory chose him in 595.
Augustine selected the Kingdom of Kent as his evangelization target upon learning that King Ethelbert had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I, king of Paris; he hoped the Christian woman would have some influence over her husband. After converting the king and winning his permission to preach freely in the land, Augustine was ordained a bishop and converted many of his subjects, including thousands during a mass baptism on Christmas Day in 597. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and is considered the “Apostle to the English” and founder of the English Church.
The site of the cathedral at Canterbury was reputedly chosen by Augustine because it had been a Druid place of worship. This was a practice followed broadly in Christian missions: to take artifacts of the existing pagan religion or social customs already in place and “baptize” them, as it were; indeed, this is how the holly and the ivy, both pagan ritual artifacts, were incorporated into English Christmas celebrations.
No story of the missions to the barbarians would be complete without St. Patrick, an English Christian. His confessional autobiography states that he was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16, taken to the Emerald Isle to be sold as a slave and escaped back to England six years later.
He returned to Ireland as an adult, already ordained a priest; later he was ordained bishop. Known as the “Apostle of Ireland,” he is the primary patron saint of Ireland, along with Saints Brigid and Columba. Little is actually known about where and when Patrick worked his mission. However, legends about Patrick abound.
The best known credits Patrick with teaching the Irish the doctrine of the Holy Trinity using the shamrock to illustrate the three persons in one God. Another attributes to Patrick the absence of snakes in Ireland; he reputedly chased them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast. He is also said to have carried with him an ash wood walking stick or staff, which he thrust into the ground wherever he was evangelizing and at the place now known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick).
Yet another tale has Patrick being met by two ancient warriors, Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, two former members of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s warrior bands, the fianna. The saint seeks to convert the warriors to Christianity, while they defend their pagan past; the tale contrasts the pagan warriors’ life of fighting and feasting and living close to nature with the peaceful, but unheroic and ascetic life of the Christian.