by HFH Reuvers


To understand our contemporary Church, it's useful if we know something of its history.

We saw that, in the Roman era, young Christendom suffered much from persecutions. But the number of Christians grew despite oppression. The Roman emperor Constantine the Great saw during a decisive battle a large cross in the sky with circumscription In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will gain the victory). He won the battle, gave the Christians freedom of religion, and henceforth called himself emperor 'by the grace of God'.
(He also founded the fundamentally Christian city of Constantinople. Later on, this city was to become the capital Byzantium of the Eastern Roman Empire and the centre of the Greek Orthodox Church, which was to deviate from the Roman Catholic Church in relatively minor points only. Nowadays, it's the Turkish city of Istanbul.)
Only at his death bed, Constantine had himself baptized. This happened in the year 337.

In the next couple of centuries, the Roman Empire was first overrun by Germanic, Slavic and Asiatic tribes. In the subjected Gallo-Roman region where now France is, the heathen Franks formed the upper class. But their king Chlodovech had himself and a large part of his suite baptized in 496 at Reims. From monasteries in England and Ireland, where Christianity had been able to hold out during the migration of the nations, missionaries came to the European continent.
In the end, king Charlemagne could subject a large part of Western Europe and safeguard the subjected area against the attacks of Mussulmen, Slavs and Vikings. Now he wished to restore the old Roman Empire in a Catholic variant. To this end he allied himself with the pope, and in 800 he was crowned emperor at Rome. Under his guidance, a Christian civilization came into being in the Occident.
However, after his death the empire was divided in three parts in accordance with the Frankish law of succession: an eastern part that was later on to become France, a part in the middle, and a western part that was to develop into the holy Roman empire of the German nation. Kings fought against rebellious vassals, and popes against emperors who wanted to appoint bishops. Therefore, life could never again be so fine as during the reign of Charlemagne.