Yesterday was the last day in a week of prayer for Christian Unity, a week called by Pope Francis each year so that “all Christians may once again be a single family, according to God’s will, ‘so that they all may be one.’” The word “catholic” means universal, Francis reminds us, and it is our duty and privilege to engage in conversations and communion with people of other Christian faiths.
In reflecting on this article, and in light of our message series on common sense reasons to believe in Jesus and the Catholic Church, I decided to revisit my middle school history and theology classes in hopes of answering one question: how did we get the Roman Catholic Church of today, as I know it and experience it? I had a few vague recollections of a “schism” and learned all about Martin Luther in high school, but my historio-theological knowledge was lacking.
In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. For the Byzantine Empire and it’s emperor, this was a major blow. The Byzantine empire had withstood centuries of attack and instability, while the Roman empire crumbled, so for Leo to crown Charlemagne and ignore Byzantium was a massive slight. This led to a tense relationship for about 250 years, until an official split between Western and Eastern Christianity in 1054.
Eastern Christians of the Byzantine empire severed all ties with the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, becoming the Greek Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, Charlemagne and “western Christians” became the Roman Catholic Church. As the years went by, differences in language, culture, and tradition drew the two Christianities further and further apart. Finally, Pope Leo and Patriarch Michael excommunicated each other and their respective churches. It wasn’t until 1965, that Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople finally removed the excommunications.
Following the Great Schism, the Roman Catholic Church suffered more division at the hands of one very well-known Catholic priest, Martin Luther. A German living in the 1500s, Luther was primarily concerned with the practice of selling indulgences, wherein a wealthy person could spend a certain amount of money to reduce their time spent in Purgatory. The pope at the time, Leo X, and his predecessors had gotten into the habit of selling these indulgences to pay for their palaces and outsized luxuries. The more money one had, the more one could spend on indulgences, and the less time one would spend in Purgatory, by decree of the pope.
This angered Luther, who thought the practice unfair and un-Christlike. His writings and eventual excommunication led to the Protestant Reformation of the Middle Ages.
The Catholic Church has continued to evolve over the centuries, with the formation of the Church of England in 1534 and new Protestant denominations springing up regularly. However, one thread unites all division: it is not God. It is humanity, acting as god, in the place of the God who truly leads us all, and calls us more deeply into a universal identity. Humanity is responsible for much of the pain and suffering from these splits; compassion, compromise, goodwill, and forgiveness are the only ways forward — “that they may be one so the world may believe” (John 17:21). It’s “common sense” to believe in a universal Catholic Church, because that is what God intended and created.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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