Sacrum Imperium

Christmas brings all sorts of joy, for all sorts of reasons. Readers of Dom Prosper Gueranger’s Liturgical Year will be reminded in his first volume for the season of three great historical events that took place on Christmas Day — the conversion of Clovis, the conversion of England, and the crowning of Charlemagne: “Three hundred years after [St. Augustine of Canterbury’s mass baptisms at York], God gives us another glorious event in honour of the Birth-Day of his Son. It was on this divine Anniversary, in the year 800, and at Rome, in the Basilica of St. Peter, that was created the Holy Roman Empire, to which God assigned the grand mission of propagating the Kingdom of Christ among the barbarian nations of the North, and of upholding, under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiffs, the confederation and unity of Europe. St. Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Here, then, was a new Caesar, a new Augustus, on the earth; not, indeed, a successor of those ancient Lords of Pagan Rome, but one who was invested with the title and power by the Vicar of Him, who is called, in the Sacred Scriptures, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”

Later on, in the same volume, wherein the good Benedictine is describing the ceremonies of the seventh lesson of Christmas Matins (dealing with the order of Caesar Augustus for the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem) at St. Peter’s Basilica, he writes:

This seventh Lesson, according to the Ceremonial of the Roman Church, is to be sung by the Emperor, if he happen to be in Rome at the time; and this is done in order to honour the Imperial power, whose decrees were the occasion of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, and so fulfilling the designs of God, which he had revealed to the ancient Prophets. The Emperor is led to the Pope, in the same manner as the Knight who had to sing the fifth lesson; he puts on the Cope; two Cardinal-Deacons gird him with the sword, and go with him to the Ambo. The Lesson being concluded, the Emperor again goes before the Pope, and kisses his foot, as being the Vicar of the Christ whom he has just announced. This ceremony was observed in 1468, by the Emperor Frederic III, before the then Pope, Paul II.

Indeed, there is a great deal to be found throughout the Liturgical Year about the Imperial Office. His entry on June 12 regarding St. Leo III includes the following information regarding the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperors at Rome:

Space fails us, or gladly would we here describe in detail the gorgeous liturgical function used during the middle-ages, in the ordination of an emperor. The Ordo Romanus, wherein these rites are handed down to us, is full of the richest teachings clearly revealing the whole thought of the Church. The future lieutenant of Christ, kissing the feet of the Vicar of the Man-God, first made his profession in due form: he “guaranteed, promised, and swore fidelity to God and blessed Peter pledging himself on the holy Gospels, for the rest of his life to protect and defend, according to his skill and ability, without fraud or ill intent, the Roman Church and her ruler in all necessities or interests affecting the same.” Then followed the solemn examination of the faith and morals of the elect, almost word for word the same as that marked in the Pontifical at the consecration of a bishop. Not until the Church had thus taken sureties regarding him who was to become in her eyes, as it were, an extern bishop, was she content to proceed to the imperial ordination. While the apostolic suzerain, the Pope, was being vested in pontifical attire for the celebration of the sacred Mysteries, two cardinals clad the emperor elect in amice and alb; then they presented him to the Pontiff, who made him a clerk, and conceded to him, for the ceremony of his coronation, the use of the tunic, dalmatic, and cope, together with the pontifical shoes and the mitre. The anointing of the prince was reserved to the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, the official consecrator of popes and emperors. But the Vicar of Jesus Christ himself gave to the new emperor the infrangible seal of his faith, namely the ring; the sword, representing that of the Lord of armies, the most potent One, chanted in the Psalm; the globe and sceptre, images of the universal empire and of the inflexible justice of the King of kings; lastly, the crown, a sign of the glory reserved in endless ages as a reward for his fidelity, by this same Lord Jesus Christ, whose figure he had just been made. The giving of these august symbols took place during the holy Sacrifice. At the Offertory, the emperor laid aside the cope and the ensigns of his new dignity; then, clad simply in the dalmatic, he approached the altar and there fulfilled, at the Pontiff’s side, the office of subdeacon, the servitor, as it were, of holy Church and the official representative of the Christian people. Later on, even the stole was given him: as recently as 1530, Charles V on the day of his coronation, assisted Clement VII in quality of deacon, presenting to the Pope the paten and the Host, and offering the chalice together with him.

Yet again, during Holy Week, when Dom Gueranger is describing the rites of Good Friday, he mentions the prayer for the Emperor which could be found in the Roman Missal until Pius XII’s revision of 1955:

Let us pray also for our most Christian Emperor N., that Our God and Lord may, for our perpetual peace, subject all barbarous nations to him.

Let us pray. Let us kneel down. R. Arise.

O Almighty and Eternal God, in Whose hands are the powers of all men and the rights of all Kingdoms; graciously look down upon the Roman Empire, that the nations that confide in their fierceness may be repressed by the power of Thy right hand. Through Our Lord. R. Amen.

Of this collect, he wrote that “The Church of Rome, in the following ‘Prayer,’ had in view the Emperor of Germany, who was formerly the head of the Germanic confederation, and, in the Middle Ages, was intrusted, by the Church, with the charge of propagating the Faith among the northern nations. This ‘Prayer’ is now omitted, excepting in those countries, which are subject to Austria.” On Holy Saturday, the exultet contained the passage “Regard also our most devout Emperor N., and since Thou knowest, O God, the desires of his heart, grant by the ineffable grace of Thy goodness and mercy, that he may enjoy with all his people the tranquillity of perpetual peace and heavenly victory.” Here, Dom Gueranger commented that “The words here put in parentheses are only said in those countries, which are subject to the Emperor of Austria.” Of course, on September 10, 1857, Bl. Pius IX issued the Bull Imperii Galliarum, by which the Church in France was allowed to address these prayers to God on behalf of Napoleon III.

These were far, however, from the only references to “the Emperor” in the pre-1955 missals. Among the “Occasional Prayers,” (sets of collects, secrets, and post-communions for various intentions, to be said by the priest after finishing the propers), we find the following, “For the Emperor:”


O God, the Protector of all Kingdoms and in particular of the Christian Empire, grant to Thy servant our Emperor N. always to work wisely for the triumph of Thy power, that being a prince in virtue of Thy institution he may always continue mighty by virtue of Thy grace. Through Our Lord.


Accept, O Lord, the prayers and offerings of Thy Church for the safety of Thy suppliant servant, and work prodigies habitual to Thine arm for the protection of nations faithful to Thee: that, the enemies of peace having been overcome, Christian peace may allow of Thy being served in security. Through Our Lord.


O God, Who hast prepared the Roman Empire to serve for the preaching of the Gospel of the Eternal King: present Thy servant our Emperor N. with heavenly weapons, that the peace of the Churches may not be disturbed by the storms of war. Through Our Lord.

Despite Dom Gueranger’s references to the Emperor of Austria and Bl. Pius’ to the Emperor of the French, there is a certain universality implied in all of these prayers. Indeed, if one turns from the Roman to the Byzantine Rite (Catholic or Orthodox), one stumbles upon similar prayers in the older service books. The opening litany or Great Ektenia of their liturgy of the catechumens prays “For our most faithful and God-protected Emperor N., for all his palaces and armies, that the Lord would aide him in all things, hasten to grant him all his desires and place under his feet every enemy and adversary.” The Troparion (Collect) for the Holy Cross implores “Save Your people, O God, and bless Your inheritance. Grant victory to Your most faithful Emperor over his enemies and protect Your people by Your Cross.” In the Anaphora of the more commonly used Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the Byzantine Canon), alongside other folk, God is asked to “Remember our most faithful Emperor and all his palaces and armies. Grant him, O Lord, a peaceful reign, so that by his tranquility, ‘we may lead quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and purity.’” The Liturgy of St. Basil, reserved for special feasts and seasons, is rather more elaborate, and somewhat reminiscent of the Roman Good Friday collect:

Remember, O Lord, our most devout and faithful Emperor N., whom you have set to rule on the earth. Crown him with a weapon of truth, a weapon of good will; let your shadow fall upon his head in the day of war; strengthen his arm, exalt his right-hand, establish his empire; subdue beneath him all barbarous nations that desire to make war; grant him deep and enduring peace; speak good things to his heart for your Church and for all your people; so that by his tranquility we may lead quiet and peaceful lives, in all piety and purity.

In the last century, Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics placed the name of the Austrian Kaiser in the appropriate spots, while their Russian Orthodox co-ritualists used that of the Russian Tsar. But the prayers themselves predate both the Austrian and Russian Empires, first being composed for the Emperor we call Byzantine, but who referred to himself as “Roman” — even as did that Sovereign whom we call “Holy Roman,” but who did not use the first adjective for himself, reserving it for the Empire over which he ruled. In a word, liturgically, symbolically (both Holy Roman and Byzantine Emperors, as well as the later Austrian and Russian rulers who claimed to succeed them used the Double-headed Eagle), and philosophically claimed the same role: successor of the Caesars, temporal leader of all the Christian people throughout the world, and chief lay protector of the Church of Christ — in a word, the role seen for himself by Constantine the Great, and consecrated by Pope St. Sylvester I.

This idea of the “Holy Empire,” citizenship in which (after Emperor Theodosius I) was conferred alongside membership in the Church by Baptism, is one which has haunted the Christian mind ever since. This is so despite innumerable blows dealt to it by such unpleasantries as Imperial sponsorship of the Arian, Monophysite, Monothelite, and Iconoclastic heresies; struggles for independence by various Popes from both Eastern and Western Emperors; the Great Schism; the Investiture Controversy; mutual betrayals during the Crusades; the Massacre of the Latins; the Fourth Crusade; the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines; the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks; the Protestant Revolt; the Thirty Years’ War; Josephinism (from which both Catholic and Orthodox monasticism and devotion suffered); creation and suppression of the Uniates (depending, of course, upon whom you speak to); the French Revolution; the ephemeral Bonaparte Empires; and the Fall of the Dynasties due to World War I.

All of these horrors and scandals cannot efface the more positive side of the coin — those sadly rare times when Popes and Emperors, East and West, collaborated for the common good. It is not just that the events were not as frequent as one would hope — it is also that lovers of division, for whatever reason, have always preferred not to dwell upon them. But there were more than a few: the relationship between Pope St. Agapetus I and the Emperor Justinian; the collaborations between Charlemagne and Empress Irene; the alliance between Emperors Louis II and Basil I; the marriage of Otto II and Theophanu, and the pan-Romanism of their son, Otto III; the reign of the latter’s cousin, St. Henry; the cooperation of Alexios I and the First Crusaders; the attempts of Michael VIII and John VIII to reunite East and West; Emperor Sigismund’s contribution to ending the Western Schism; the Westerners who came to the aid of Bl. Constantine XI in 1453; the marriage between Ivan III of Russia and Princess Sophia Paleologus, arranged by Pope Paul II; the Holy League of 1684; Tsar Paul’s protection of the Order of Malta; and Alexander I and the Holy Alliance — to touch upon a small number of episodes. It is significant that both Bl. Charles of Austria (and his Empress Zita) and Nicholas II and his family, the last reigning representatives of their respective Imperial traditions are considered saints by their co-religionists — and that the visit of Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and her son George to Pope Benedict XVI, and the similar visit of the Archduke Otto von Habsburg and his subsequent funeral should be considered newsworthy.

Practical history aside, the idea of the Holy Empire, of Christendom, of the Christian Commonwealth has continued to wield an extraordinary influence in such notions as the Renovatio Imperii, Translatio Imperii, and the Third Rome — just as Mankind’s seemingly overwhelming propensity to sin has not drowned the yearning for virtue. From Dante through Novalis to Soloviev, and even today, Christians have not ceased to yearn for political as well as religious unity, for an Emperor who will set all things to right — a successor to Constantine and Justinian, Bl. Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick II, Bl. Constantine XI, and Charles V — indeed, of Bl. Charles I and Nicholas II. From this yearning came the prophecy of the Great Monarch, who will come before the arrival of Anti-Christ, and according to some be defeated by him before the end. But from it also came the spurs for Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonisation and royal patronage of missionary activity — as well as, in a real sense, the British Empire, which self-consciously, in its latter days modelled itself upon the Holy Empire of old — as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica concludes its article on “Empire:” “The British Empire is, in a sense, an aspiration rather than a reality, a thought rather than a fact; but, just for that reason, it is like the old Empire of which we have spoken; and though it be neither Roman nor Holy, yet it has, like its prototype, one law, if not the law of Rome – one faith, if not in matters of religion, at any rate in the field of political and social ideals.”

Much the same could be said of that Empire’s daughter, these United States, whose constitution’s authors had in mind, alongside the Iroquois Confederacy, Montesquieu, St. Robert Bellarmine, John Locke, the later Holy Roman Empire’s institutions. The College of Electors had some influence upon our own Electoral College; the relationship of the Imperial States with the Emperor is reminiscent of the original view of State’s Rights.

The idea of Empire, however, influenced many other peoples. Long isolated from the rest of Christendom by Muslim invasion, the Emperors of Ethiopia conducted themselves in ways recalling the Roman Emperors. The Ottoman Sultans claimed to be successors in some sense of the Byzantine Emperors — uniting to it their own ideal of the Caliphate; this was a vision picked up by their Persian and Mughal co-religionists. European missionaries and explorers saw much that reminded them of the Christian Imperium in the rulers of China, Japan, and Vietnam, and so called them “Emperors” — a title the late 19th century King of Korea seized when trying to assert independence from both of his neighbours. The two Napoleons’ attempts to renew the Empire of Charlemagne we mentioned in passing earlier; their examples led newly independent nations in the New World — Mexico, Brazil, and Haiti — to claim the title. Here in California we even had our own Emperor Norton I.

But although only the ruler of Japan is now called Emperor, the Imperial dream lives on today in unexpected ways — and not only in the innumerable institutions, customs, and buildings founded by Imperial fiat. The European Union, in its earlier, Christian days, looked explicitly for inspiration to Charlemagne, as the works and comments of Coudenhove-Kalergi, Adenauer, Schuman, Gasperi, Monnet, Neues Abendland, and the founders of the Karlspreis show. Despite the EU’s present-day extremely anti-Christian bias, such groups as the Paneuropa Union and Identita Europea attempt to push it back along the routes suggested by those earlier men.

In similar wise, the notion of the United Nations is simply the most recent incarnation of the idea of a World State. Certainly the global civilisation it encompasses is built upon the foundations of the 19th century colonialism that was inspired — in various ways — by the Empire. Without a doubt, consciously or otherwise the attitude of the Holy See toward both the EU and the UN is heavily influenced by the long history of Papal-Imperial relations — and the undying hope that perhaps this time a power can be found that will keep a universal peace that allows the Church to do her job of sanctification.

How real those hopes are, is another issue. But what is certain is that the ruins and traces of the Holy Empire are all about us. An understanding of its history and continuing influence is key to understanding the practical implications of the Social Kingship of Christ — which idea, in so many ways, is the ideal successive Emperors and their loyal subjects sought to follow on Earth, and without which, as Pius XI teach in Quas primas, real peace is impossible. Whether or not the Great Monarch returns in our day (and I for one would be happy to see him), it would be good to know upon what basis such a Sovereign would rule; if nothing else, it shall show us what we ought to be able to expect of our rulers — and how far short they usually fall.

In our next instalment, we shall look at the founders of the Christian Empire: Constantine the Great, St. Helena the Empress, and Theodosius I — as well as such of their subjects as Ss. Ambrose, Augustine, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Hilary of Poitiers, and others who helped formulate the whole idea of the Sacrum Imperium.