Through the 400’s our popes had their backs against the wall. The Lombards and the Huns who were Arians saw tormenting Christians to be their religious duty. Since the death of Constantine in 337 the line of his second son had attempted ruling as emperors of the west, but in 476 the last of the line, Romulus Augustulus, sent his insignia to Constantinople, abandoning Rome to the popes.
Then, when the popes had lost all friendly support, a fresh German nation, the Franks, crossed the Rhine. Their King Chlodwech married a Catholic girl, and she convinced him that by accepting Christianity he could become another Constantine. At Christmas of 496 Chlodwech (also know as Clovis) and his Franks received Baptism from Bishop Remigius of Rheims. It was an immensely joyous occasion, but the alliance with the Franks had Remigius and his priests facing a social problem.
The Franks, as was the case with every feudal nation, had a simple social structure. In Feudalism any man with an inherited title possessed lands and serfs, while any man without an inheritance was a serf. The priests and bishops, lacking inheritances, were no better than serfs, lacking freedom for pursuing their work.
In 500 someone came up with a scheme for protecting the bishops and their priests. The plan had each of them, finely attired, come before the nobles, making a declaration. He said, “I have an inheritance. My inheritance is the Lord.”
An oddity of those times was that in the Latin-German they spoke the word for an inheritance was clerc. And from that the bishops and priests came to be called “clerics.” The class structure of Feudalism itself was altered to accommodate the clergy as a separate estate. In time, the clerical state got itself recognized as the First Estate.
This establishing of the First Estate forced the clergy to take on superior ways. As the French say, “Noblesse oblige.” Clerics came to be known as Reverend, Very Reverend and on up; and they had to wear robes befitting their high station.
(As seminarians and then as young priests we were told we could not just think of ourselves as individuals. We always had to uphold the dignity of our priestly estate. We have not relinquished our Feudal standing. When I was ordained on December 20, 1952 the only words I was given to say in that long ceremony were, “My in heritance is the Lord.”)
While this elevation to clericalism liberated bishops and priests from serfdom, it brought them into conflict with Jesus who said, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant.”
In telling us we had to read “the signs of the times” Jesus was recommending what John XXIII later called Aggiornamento. Whatever you call it, the Church in 500 felt it forced them to accept a type of nobility as its only way of surviving in an age when Feudalism was in control. But now, with country after country adopting Democracy, the Church might need to go with it to survive.