A message from Father Nick 52


Emperor Charlemagne

 One year on…

The Church, as the “Body of Christ”, belongs to Christ alone. And yet, as we’ve seen during the past year, its life has been affected by all kinds of changing human circumstances: the conversion of Rome; the incursion of Barbarian peoples; the rise of Islam between Eastern and Western Christianity; the Great Schism of 1054 when Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy went in different directions…these are only a few of the early forces which helped to shape the Church we know.

One factor we often miss is the impact of Northern Europe. As contact with Constantinople was effectively broken, a new power base emerged among the Frankish people – most notably in the person of Charlemagne, a powerful protector of the papacy, who was crowned first western emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in St Peter’s on Christmas Day, 800.

Charlemagne was a muscular Christian, to say the very least, but he was also devout and determined to learn. He sat with children in the palace school at Aachen, tugging his moustaches in his mental effort, rejoicing in the gift of an elephant from Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad. Most importantly, Charlemagne secured the services of a truly great scholar from England, the monk Alcuin of York, who led a thorough educational programme – the effect of which has been described as a “Carolingian Renaissance”. (Under Alcuin’s influence Charlemagne abolished the death sentence for paganism in 797.)

Haroun Al-Rashid’s gifts

But through all this came liturgical development. The great historian of liturgy, Joseph Jungmann, identifies two streams of tradition. The first was the intellectual output of the great Church Fathers of the West (Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great…). The second stream, “less visible but all the more significant”, is traceable to the thought world of the Irish-Scottish monks.

“It is known,” says Fr Jungmann, “that it was the Irish monks who first broke through the ruling that the sacrament of penance was to be received only once in life; a fact demonstrable on the continent in the eighth century in the practice of going to confession once each year. In later centuries this contributed to a changed attitude as regards a sense of sin, one less fretful.”

Similarly, the inclusion of the Credo in mass as a conclusion to the liturgy of the Word is first evidenced in the Irish Stowe missal.

And during this time a new kind of gulf between God and humanity seemed to manifest itself. The old emphasis on Christ as mediator (“Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit” became “Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

Again, as Fr Jungmann says,

“It is no accident, apparently, that at the Synod of Tours (813) a new bodily posture at worship was expressly demanded, that of kneeling, ‘so that in this way we may crave God’s mercy and the forgiveness of sins.’ A further consequence of all this was that people looked around for new sources of help, and that secondary mediators were now brought to the fore more assertively: Mary, the angels, the saints and relics.”

Such developments are not surprising. The fascinating thing is the way they are absorbed into our Catholic faith – and the way that faith continues to grow with us.

From the Book of Kells