The Church had to adopt clericalism to survive under Feudalism



17th Saturday


Through the 400’s our popes had their backs against the wall. The Lombards and the Huns were Arians, and as such they felt they had a religious duty to torment Christians.

Since the death of Constantine in 337 the line of his second son had tried staying on as the emperors of the west, but in 476 Romulus Augustulus, the last of them, sent off his royal insignia to Constantinople, abandoning Rome to the popes. The popes had lost any real support; but then, a fresh German nation, the Franks, crossed the Rhine; and their ruler, King Chlodwech, married a Catholic girl who 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 inheritance had a title, lands and serfs; while any man without an inheritance was a serf. The priests and bishops, lacking inheritances, were no better than serfs, and they lacked the freedom they needed for pursuing their work.

In 500 someone came up with a plan for protecting the bishops and their priests. It  had them one at a time don fine attire, then come before the assembly of the nobles to make a declaration. He would say, “I have an inheritance. My inheritance is the Lord.”

An oddity of those times was that the early German word they had for an inheritance was clerc. From each of them claiming to have a clerc, they came to be known as “clerics.” In making a place for the clerics in their society the class structure of Feudalism itself was altered to accommodate them. In time, the clerical state came to be recognized as the First Estate.

This establishing of the First Estate forced the clergy to carry themselves with a dignity befitting their high station. As the French say, “Noblesse oblige.”  Clerics came to be known as Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend or Most reverend; and they had to wear robes befitting their station.

As young priests we were told we could no longer carry ourselves as easy going young men. Our words, our demeanor, our dress had call for the respect due the clerical state. By five little words each of us had to proclaim in our Ordination Mass we laid claim to our higher rank in the Feudal System. We each announced, “My inheritance 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.”  

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