What Is Christendom?

The question posed by the title of this article was asked several of us by our august editor. Its immediacy is reinforced by the season of Christmas – which, despite being under sporadic attack by “holiday” partisans, centers on the one Holy Day still observed by the majority of the world. Despite the anti-Christian moral tone of many of “her” governments around the world, the Queen receives a sprig of the Glastonbury thorn, very publicly attends church on Christmas, sponsors a notable annual Epiphany service, and delivers a generally inspiring Christmas message. Most Heads of State in countries with large numbers of self-proclaimed Christians do the same – even our own president follows suit, subject of course to the modern “holiday” caveat. For a short but blessed time, we are universally reminded of Longfellow’s poem:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

But once the Christmas trees are tossed out, public life throughout the world returns to its accustomed downward course. That Christendom whose belfries had rung out unanimously their joy at the birth of the Prince of Peace vanishes once more like Brigadoon – only to revive slowly as Holiday sales advertising commences the day before Hallowe’en.

Since few or no regimes today (with the partial exception of Liechtenstein) claim to be Christian – as opposed to the multiplicity of states that claim to be Islamic or Buddhist – answering the question “what is Christendom?” needs to be preceded by understanding what it was.

In one sense, Christendom began at the Cenacle on that first Pentecost when the Church, as we know it, was born. From the beginning those first Catholics were armed with Our Lord’s dictum to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Nevertheless, and despite prayer for their pagan sovereigns within and without the Roman Empire and yeoman service in the militaries of said sovereigns, persecution was their lot on every hand. But over the following two centuries the work of conversion went on, and bore fruit. The Kingdom of Edessa, led by its ruler Abgar V, was the first to convert. It was rapidly followed by Armenia, Georgia, Ethiopia, and Nubia. But it was the conversion of a Roman Emperor that led directly to the creation of Christendom (Roman patronage of the Faith in turn induced the Empire’s then-chief foe, Persia – which had simply persecuted its Christians prior to that time – to encourage the local Church to adopt Nestorianism, distancing “their” Christians from those of Rome). Indeed, Emperor Theodosius the Great made Baptism automatic reception of Imperial citizenship. The Eastern half of the Empire survived, centred on Constantinople; the baptism of Clovis ensured the survival of the vision of Christendom in the barbarian kingdoms of the West. This last eventually resulted in the rise of Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. All of these events taken together – and supplemented by the adventure of the Crusades – resulted in what we might call the “First Christendom,” the Res publica cristiana.

Lasting from whenever a given area was Christianised until the Reformation, this period had any number of horrors and mishaps occurring during its sway – as every time does. But the institutions of society were expected to reflect to the highest possible degree the Divine order as revealed by the Church.

So it was that Emperors and Kings began their reigns with the sublime rite of Coronation; each had their own chaplains and observed the Holy Days of the Church publicly; each sponsored certain parishes and monasteries. Moreover, they provided for pilgrims to and supported institutions in Rome and the Holy Land, and gave oaths at their crownings that they would protect their people from heresy. The sessions of nascent parliaments were opened and closed with Masses, as were those of the courts; bishops and abbots often served in legislative and judicial roles. Priests accompanied the military into battle – the latter’s fields of combat were limited by the Truce and Peace of God. In towns, merchants and trades organised into guilds which looked after the spiritual as well as physical needs of their members. They and the confraternities often sponsored the processions and miracle and mystery plays that were such a big part of the celebration of Holy Days in towns. Agricultural life was organised around the feasts and fasts of the Church, as were fairs and markets. Universities placed their faculties of theology above those of law and the arts – and the chapels of their colleges were the centres of academic life. The monastic, mendicant, and military orders fanned out over Christendom, providing as tight a web of unity as did the dioceses and the network of pilgrims’ shrines. When the age of discovery commenced, the Kings of Spain and Portugal attempted to expand this Christendom to the ends of the Earth.

To be sure, it is easy to romanticise this state of affairs; it could be bloody, anarchic, and corrupt from time to time – and of course it varied wildly from place to place. Nevertheless, its eulogies by such as Chateaubriand, Novalis, Digby, and Gautier were not entirely wrong. Of course, it might be argued that we moderns, seated happily as we are above millions of infant skulls, beneficiaries of innumerable atrocity-filled wars in the name of freedom, and proponents of an unprecedented moral code as regards marriage and sexuality, may not be the best judges of blood, anarchy, or corruption on the part of our Christian ancestors.

Regardless of what view one maintains of the First Christendom, it came to an end in the East with the Ottoman conquests of the 14th and 15th centuries, and in the West with the Protestant revolt in the 16th, and the revolutions of the 18th and 19th – a process culminating in World War II. Oddly enough, Protestant Europe retains innumerable mummified remains of institutions dating from the First Christendom. Such phenomena as the royal rituals of the British, Danish, Swedish, and other Protestant Monarchies; Protestantised remnants of the Order of St. John and the Teutonic Knights; guilds in London and the rest of England, Switzerland, Scotland, and elsewhere in northern Europe; Lutheran monasteries and chapters of Canons (notably Brandenburg, Meissen and Naumburg) in Germany; faculties of theology in state universities; Bishops in the House of Lords; and many more such continue to give a certain amount of charm to life in those regions. This kind of thing was swept away more thoroughly, ironically, in Catholic Europe by the militant children of the Enlightenment.

These successive assaults on Christendom brought forth heroic figures and martyrs ready to do or die against whatever the threat to Faith and Order du jour happened to be. Quite a few were sovereigns: Constantine XI, last Byzantine Emperor (considered a blessed by Catholics); the House of Habsburg, especially its last reigning monarchs, Charles I and Zita; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, and their great-nephew the rightful Henri V; the Anglican Charles I (who has both British and American admirers) and the Russian Orthodox Nicholas II are so acclaimed by their co-religionists. Much may be said also for the groups who rose in defence of such rulers – the Jacobites, the men of the Vendee, the Carlists, the Miguelists, the Papal Zouaves, and so forth. Nor were all such Heads of State Monarchs, as the 19th and 20th centuries wore on: Garcia Moreno, Dollfuss, Salazar, Franco – some would add Petain – all combated in their time for some fragment of the ethos of Christendom in their countries. Innumerable counter-revolutionary thinkers sprang up as well as political parties and groups. This resistance – in all its variety and failure – we may call the Second Christendom. In a real sense it died at last in World War II, crushed between Hitler on one hand, and Stalin and Roosevelt on the other. Whether they joined the resistance or the collaboration, their efforts for Christendom were in vain, at least as the outward world may see it. Consciously or otherwise, the realisation of this defeat seeped into the consciousness of the senior clergy of the Church. Benedict XVI summed it up thusly: “In the period between the two World Wars and especially after the Second World War, Catholic statesmen demonstrated that a modern secular State could exist that was not neutral regarding values but alive, drawing from the great ethical sources opened by Christianity.” Therefore, “…it was necessary to give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern State that would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence among them and for the freedom to practise their own religion.” The more sarcastic might say that the Church had thrown in the towel in its struggle with the Modern State.

Despite such figures as Adenauer, Schuman, Gasperi, and Otto von Habsburg who attempted after the ruin of World War II to salvage some place for the values of Christendom in the modern world of liberal or religiously neutral states, the optimism of the Fathers of Vatican II as expressed by Pope Benedict has been sadly disappointed. The Second Christendom has ended, and the Church hierarchy has nothing to show for letting go of it so easily – except, perhaps, survival.

But what of today, in our era of secular states engaged in a never-ending quest to befoul themselves and their denizens as much as possible, whilst desultorily attempting to contain an Islam of renewed militancy? Well, there is a Third Christendom, in my estimation, which differs from the first two by being far harder to identify. Rather than being divided by nationality, this new Christendom – which may be either a last gasp or a seed bed of the future – is broken into two major divisions: conscious and unconscious.

In the former camp may be found the network of Traditionalist orders and movements, as well as the varied remnants of the Second Christendom whose proponents, however marginalised, soldier on. Were one to restrict one’s vision to them alone, however (and I say this as both a Traditionalist and a Monarchist), he would have to be rather pessimistic.

But the second division holds much promise, both by being much larger and in a position to affect the Church and the World in a more powerful way. There are still areas of what was once Christendom where the Faith remains deeply embedded in the hearts and customs of the locals – Germany’s Eichsfeld, Italy’s Abruzzo, Brittany, our own southern Louisiana and northern New Mexico, and, thank God, many other regions and provinces from the Philippines to Poland. There are innumerable shrines throughout the Catholic world where – however secular the surrounding area – with the confines of the place and among those who come to pray, Christendom lives on. It does so too on pilgrimage: not only on the roads to Chartres or Auriesville, but Compostela and many other places. In many monasteries and some of the new religious orders and Catholic movements also does Christendom live.

The devotional brotherhoods most common in Italy, France, Spain, and Latin America (but to be found elsewhere) bring Christendom to life on certain feasts, as do the shooting fraternities in the Catholic German-speaking world. These last explicitly number among their goals “a united Christian Europe.” Indeed, in any town where the festivals of the Church are openly celebrated with religious solemnity and secular observance, there too is Christendom. It may be found for that matter in many of the initiatives of the “New Evangelisation,” such as the Anglican Ordinariates and renewed attempts at healing the Eastern Schism. It is up to those of us who consider ourselves conscious citizens of Christendom to help those engaged in all these efforts to see their work as part of a greater whole. Whatever scrap of Christendom may be left in our neighbourhood – be it a community observance with Catholic roots, an historic church or building, or a shrine, no matter how obscure – let us join the effort to preserve it, while kindly showing its other defenders its larger significance. Perhaps such efforts will be the foundation of a new Christendom, but certainly they will help save souls.

There is a fourth Christendom. It is at once older than the other three, and newer than even ourselves. Ernest Oldmeadow, in his A Layman’s Church Year (p. 277), describes it eloquently: “Christ the King has other rebels besides Russia and Mexico and France. The map of His dominions shows not only the Empires and Kingdoms and Republics, but also the counties, the towns, the villages, the hamlets, and – like the ordnance maps of largest scale – the homesteads each and all. Indeed, it goes farther than the work of any human cartographer; because it shows the inmost places of every human heart. Even the humblest man or woman or child alive is, so to speak, a tiny province in the dominions of Christ the King: a province either submissive or disobedient, either loyal or rebellious.” That fourth Christendom is in each of us, who by our baptism were made members of the Mystical Body of Christ, sons of the Church, and – by Imperial decree, no less – subjects of the Holy Empire, whose boundaries are wherever any of us happens to be, and regardless of whether or not a human Emperor sits upon his throne. With St. Paul, we can say, “I am a Roman Citizen.”

Our attempts at rebuilding Christendom must be intimately linked with performing the Spiritual and Corporal works of Mercy. It may be that what we do in the temporal sphere might indeed lay the foundations for some future outward revival of Christendom – though what form that shall take is doubtless as impossible for us to imagine as the work of Justinian and Charlemagne was for Ss. Ambrose and Augustine, for all that that duo’s efforts were essential to both Imperial revivals. But whether or not that happens, may our spiritual endeavours alongside the other result in our becoming permanent subjects of that celestial realm of which any earthly expression of Christendom, however grand, is only a poor shadow and reflexion. Whatever discouragement and temptations to despair we may feel in this glorious quest, we should remember the further words of Longfellow in the Christmas carol cited earlier:

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”