A period of vigorous revival

Editor’s note: This continues a series of columns by Father  Buote on Catholic worship.

Political and military intrigue were as common in the ancient Roman Empire as they are in the 21st-century world which we know. Though the Jews had earlier made an alliance with Rome, Pompey conquered Jerusalem and defiled the Temple. In the Roman civil war of 49 B.C., when Julius Caesar besieged Pompey in Alexandria, Egypt, the Jewish leader Hyrcanus sent reinforcements from Jerusalem to aid Caesar. In appreciation, Caesar granted certain benefits to Jews, including the recognition of Judaism as a licit religion. Since Christianity would be seen as a movement within Judaism, these special grants would be in place for the followers of Jesus as well. However, as friction developed between the followers of Jesus and the main group of Jews, and as more and more non-Jews joined the movement, the officials of the empire came to see Christianity as a new entity, not deserving of the grants made to the Jews. Christianity became an illicit religion, an illegal way of life.

For nearly 300 years the situation between Christianity and the empire was quite similar to the modern idea of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Most of the time, Christians were not sought out, but if they were denounced then judicial action would be taken. Also, there were some intermittent all-out persecutions against all Christians, or against their leaders.

Things changed dramatically in the year 313 A.D. when Constantine conquered Rome. Although there may not have been a formal document, the Edict of Milan, the two Augusti, Constantine for the west and Licinius for the east, did agree that freedom of religion cannot be restricted, and in matters pertaining to the Divine, each man should be allowed to obey the dictates of his conscience.

Consequences followed immediately. Maximinus Daia received a threatening letter, bidding him suspend the anti-Christian persecution without further delay. The proconsul of Africa received another, commanding him to restore the Church’s confiscated property. During the winter of 312-313 it seems that the imperial exchequer contributed to the restoration of Christian buildings, and that the Empress Fausta gave Pope Miltiades the sumptuous palace of the Lateran. 

Now that the Church is recognized, she has the right to be helped to rebuild her ruins; the cult which has been made legal must be able to be practiced. The imperial decisions distinguish between two sorts of Christian buildings: the churches, “places of assembly” and collective properties — probably meaning cemeteries, etc. Everything was to be handed back to the faithful “without compensation, without charge, without delay, without legal proceedings.” The state itself assumed the burden of compensating the parties who had acquired these properties and possessions in good faith.

In theory therefore the decisions of Milan established equality between Christianity and Paganism. Along with many others — the cult of Mithras or Egyptian gods, for example — the religion of Christ became a “lawful religion.” In actual fact, the result was far more considerable. The general current of public opinion, the conforming tendency of the masses, which had previously played against Christian expansion, henceforth worked in its favor. Had not the emperors officially acknowledged the fact that it had been a mistake to try to destroy Christianity? Was it not clear that the God of Christians was far stronger than the old pagan deities? 

The position therefore was not leading towards a regime of “liberty of conscience” where Paganism and Christianity accepted one another’s presence, vying with the other, fairly and squarely, in the conquest of souls, but towards a rapid overthrow of the old pagan forms of worship and the conclusive triumph of the Gospel. The very notion of “liberty of conscience” had no place in the ancient soul. Paganism might take more than two centuries to disappear completely and under Julian the Apostate, was to experience a period of vigorous revival. Nevertheless, in 313, it had received its death-blow.

With Constantine, the Church came out of the shadows. With so many new Christians, the former domestic gatherings became inadequate. In the years following 313 there was a great spate of building. Now, Christianity had not just a Church, but also churches.

There were two more developments of the fourth century which have a bearing on our topic. While Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, Latin was gaining wider usage. Christians of North Africa began using Latin in their worship gatherings and this spread to Europe, probably through St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in the last half of the century. 

The last development that I shall point out was in consequence of the change to Latin. The early terms used for the Christian worship gatherings included: Breaking of Bread, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, the Oblation, the Sacrifice. The word Mass had to wait until Latin was widely used for it is derived from the word Missa, or Dismissal. There were two dismissals which could have contributed to the association of the word with the worship ritual. Catechumens were dismissed with a blessing after the readings and sermon and then the baptized took part in the worship service. After the worship service, the baptized were dismissed with a blessing to go out and bring their Christian lives into the world.

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese and a frequent contributor to The Anchor.

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