The Growth of the Church in Europe, by Father Richard Brennan, LL.D.

Article

“But you are a chosen generation, a purchased people: that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” – 1st Peter 2:9

Rome is the centre of Christianity. Here the infant Church, baptized in the blood of the twin apostles, grew so rapidly that she counted in the third century one hundred and fifty priests besides her Chief Bishop. In the other cities, too, of Italy, Christian congregations sprang up and flourished in such numbers and piety that, among all the other countries of Europe, Italy possesses the enviable happiness and honor of being the first Christian nation in point of time.

In Spain the Church planted by Saint Paul grew and flourished to such an extent that the cities of Toledo, Leon, Tarragona, Cordova, and Elvira were bishoprics as early as the year 250.

The Baptism of ClovisAccording to the traditions of the Churches of Vienne and Aries, in France, the faith was first preached in that country by some disciples of the Apostles themselves. It is beyond doubt, however, that some Christian emigrants from Asia Minor, under the lead of Saints Pothonius and Irenaeus, brought the glad tidings of salvation permanently to France about the year 150. These founded the Church at Lyons, whence they afterwards sent out many zealous missionaries to convert other tribes among the Gauls. The infant Church of France, or Gaul, was threatened with destruction during the great and violent incursions of the Franks; but the Lord protected and saved his vineyard; for the French king, Clovis, immediately after the memorable victory on the plain of Zulpich, became converted to the true faith, and was baptized, together with the chief officers of his court, on Christmas-day, 496.1

The light of our Lord’s Gospel shed its rays as far as England, and tradition makes mention of a Christian king of that country, named Saint Lucius, as early as the year 180. About the middle of the fifth century that country was overrun by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and the feeble Church was in great danger of extinction. Pope Gregory the Great, however, came to its rescue by sending, about the year 596, the Abbot Augustine, together with forty missionaries, to regenerate the people. In less than fifty years after Saint Augustine’s arrival we find many bishoprics, churches, and monasteries in England, who in her turn sent out countless holy missionaries to the other nations of Europe.

Siant PatrickIreland was added to the list of Christian nations by the great Saint Patrick. His efforts were so blessed by Heaven that in a few years the whole people had become most faithful and fervent Catholics; and 60 numerous were the holy, learned, and indefatigable missionaries whom she sent abroad that she received the glorious title of the “Island of Saints.” Amongst the countless missionaries from Ireland was Saint Columkille, who went to Scotland in 565, and at his death, in 597, left the whole country Catholic.

Saint ColumbanIn the same century Saint Aidan carried the treasures of Ireland’s faith and piety into Northumberland, in England. Saint Columban, like Abraham of old, left his native Ireland during the seventh century, and traversed Gaul, Switzerland, and Italy, preaching Christ crucified to the still unconverted inhabitants of those countries. Saint Gall, who accompanied Saint Columban in his missionary travels, was the chief founder of Christianity in Switzerland. All through the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries the sons of Ireland continued to preach Christ crucified throughout most of the unconverted portions of Europe, and to supply abundant proof that the life of Christ had been prolonged in the “Island of Saints.” That land of Saint Patrick, Saint Malachy, and Saint Brendan was indeed a home of faith. In days when paganism and desolation still deigned where Christianity is now triumphant, Ireland had its saints ruling their flocks, its well-ordered hierarchy, its schools of Christian science. Armagh, Lismore, Clonfert, and other seats of learning and piety were known throughout Europe. Teachers from Ireland were held in high honor in the universities of Oxford, Paris, Pavia, and Bologna.

Even in the days of the northern invasions we find the monasteries of Europe, those ramparts behind which religion and civilization took shelter from the furious incursions of northern barbarians, defended in a great measure by those heroic sons of Ireland who had caught the impulse of their apostle’s sanctity and zeal.

A learned and holy writer of the present day thus eloquently describes the spiritual and mystic life of Christ as manifested in Ireland before the days of persecution: “The image of that fair island rises before me, rock-bound and lashed by the mighty waters of the west, green with living verdure, with its blue mountains, its fruitful plains and exhaustless rivers. I seem to see some old picture, such as is hung over the altars in our sanctuaries, and in which the skill of the painter is even less than the sanctity of his idea. It is such as we often see when in the background there is a gentle landscape, bounded by dark, tranquil mountains, shaded by tall and spreading trees, in the midst a calm water and clear bright air; here is a company of saints musing on Holy Writ, and there a multitude of upturned faces drinking in the words of an evangelist; on one side a crowd by a river’s brink receiving the sacrament of regeneration; on the other, the Holy Sacrifice of the altar is lifted up before the Eternal Father; beyond is a mystic ladder reaching up to heaven, on which angels are ascending and descending, and communing with saints in vision; and in the foreground, rising over all, is Jesus on his throne, and on his right hand Mary crowned with light and beauty.”

In Germany, the country along the Rhine was the first to receive the light of the Gospel. As early as the year 150, Christian congregations were in flourishing and well-ordered condition; and when, in the year 336, Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, came during his exile to Triers, he found Catholic bishops in Strasburg, Cologne, Speyer, Worms, and Trier. In South Germany, too, on the banks of the Leek and the Danube, the cross of Christ was firmly planted at a very early period; whilst renowned saints such as Bishop Maximilian of Lorch, Florian of Ems, Dionysius of Augsburg and his niece Saint Afra, Victorinus of Petau, and many others, consecrated and fertilized the soil of Germany with martyr-blood about the year 300.

Switzerland honors as her first apostle Saint Beatus, who died in the year of Christ 112. In very early days this land had episcopal sees in Augusta, afterwards called Basel; Avanche, afterwards called Lausanne; in Constance, Geneva, and Chur.

The invasion of the Huns, Allemanni, and other barbarous tribes had well-nigh destroyed the Church in Germany and Switzerland; but, in order to firmly and permanently restore and re-establish it, the Almighty raised up, during the sixth and seventh centuries, a body of holy, zealous, and able men, such as Fridolin, Columba, Gall, Trutpert, Pirmin, Severin, Rupert, Emeran, Corbinian, and Killian.

Saint BonifaceGermany’s chief apostle, however, was Saint Boniface. He was a man of untiring zeal, high intellect, and childlike simplicity; a very hero in his faith, in his dependence on Providence, and in his charity; yes, a vessel of election like Saint Paul. Born in England about the year 680, he received at his baptism the name of Winifred, and entered, at an early age, the order of the Benedictines. Hearing in his soul a voice from heaven saying, “Carry the light of my Gospel to the people who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; I will there show thee how thou must labor and suffer for me,” Winnifred promptly responded to this interior voice of God. Fortified with the blessing of his abbot and the prayers of his fellow-religious, he entered on his missionary labors, first in Friesland and afterwards in Thuringia and among the Hessians. Here he hewed down the sacred oak-tree to which the inhabitants used to pay divine honors, and with the timber built a chapel in honor of Saint Peter. Paganism in this district fell with its sacred oak, to rise no more. Our saint afterwards labored in Bavaria, in the Rhine countries, and even in France itself, where, by the permission and authority of the pope, he anointed Pepin king of France in 752. When far advanced in years, the ardent wish of his early youth returned to him; namely, the desire to become a missionary in Friesland. He traveled towards the north, baptized many in the true faith, and for his zeal received the crown of martyrdom at Dorkum, on the 5th of June, 753.

This apostle of Germany made three wearisome journeys to Rome in order to obtain the sanction and blessing of the Vicar of Christ upon his labors, as well as to keep the Church of Germany in close union with the centre of Christian faith and unity. He received from the Pope the beautiful and significant name of Boniface, or doer of good; and also the dignity of archbishop of Mayence and papal legate for all Germany. Many dioceses and monasteries are indebted to him for their creation or restoration. His good work was continued by his faithful disciples, to the great blessing of Germany.

At the death of Saint Boniface, the Saxons in Westphalia, Eastphalia, and Engern were the only large German tribe still in idolatry. But these also became subject to the yoke of Christ about the year 800; and the work begun by the sword of Charlemagne was completed by the untiring zeal, holy example, and profound knowledge of humble and self-sacrificing bishops and priests.

Our blessed Lord and Saviour wished also to take up his mystic abode among the people of the North; that is, among the Scandinavians in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. To effect his loving designs, he chose as apostle for these people the holy monk Ansgar, afterwards archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, who from this place traveled forth among the Swedes and Danes, preaching the Gospel and establishing the Church on a firm basis, by erecting dioceses and founding several seats of piety and learning.

The cross of our Saviour was carried in triumph into the countries of Sclavia; that is, among the peoples of Bohemia, Poland, and Russia. The chief apostles among the Sclavonic races were the Greek monks Methodius and Cyrillus, who lived about 870. The dioceses of Posen, founded in 968, of Prague, in 973, and of Gnesen, in 997, were the centres whence irradiated the glorious light of the Gospel into all the surrounding districts.

Among the Magyars in Hungary we meet in the year 950, as first bishop, the monk Hierotheus. Two holy bishops, Piligrim of Passau and Adalbert of Prague, together with the king Saint Stephen, completed, about the year 1000, the conversion of this warlike people; and the archbishopric of Grau became at this time the centre of Christianity in Hungary.

The last people in Europe to open their eyes to the light of the true faith were the Prussians. About the year 1000, the saintly Adalbert, bishop of Prague, and the holy Benedictine monk Bruno made an unsuccessful effort to convert Prussia, and both fell martyrs to their indomitable zeal. It was not until after the adjoining countries of Pomerania and Livonia had become Christian, about the year 1150, and when the monk Christian, of the monastery of Oliva, after having labored as bishop of the Prussians with extraordinary zeal and perseverance for their conversion, called to his aid, in the year 1226, the knights of the German order, under the lead of grandmaster Herman of Salza, that the religion of Christ struck a firm root in that country.

Saint Francis of AssisiBut after the short duration of less than three hundred years, the Catholic religion was overturned and discarded by these people; and from this land, which was the last to admit Christianity to its embrace, broke forth the disastrous storm of the so-called reformation, which in the sixteenth century carried away a large portion of Europe from the Catholic Church. In order to arrest the pernicious progress of this so-called reformation, but more especially in order to strengthen and vivify the faith and Christian virtue among the people who remained steadfast to the faith, God called into existence the system of home-missions. For what did it avail to have preached the religion of Christ, or to have established his Church, if the spirit which quickens – namely, faith, hope, and charity – should gradually become dead, and if Christian life should degenerate into a mere external and profitless profession of religion? As a strong defense against such an evil, Christ raised up learned and holy bishops, and zealous, edifying priests to be their assistants in securing the salvation of souls. Nevertheless there have been occasions when this aridity of Christian life among men seemed to threaten the life of the Church itself in a most formidable manner. Then, indeed, were extraordinary men and means required, and Christ never failed to raise them up at the proper moment to protect his Church. Such, for instance, were the great penitential preachers, whose burning eloquence often aroused whole nations to a sense of their duty to God and to the practice of his saving truths and precepts, and infused a renewed Christian life into their hitherto deadened souls. Among these may be mentioned Saint Bernard, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Dominic, Saint Vincent Ferrer, Saint Charles Borromeo, Saint Francis of Sales, and many others. In more recent ages four great religious orders have flourished in a special manner, through whose exertions, in the conducting of popular home-missions in the parishes, many most salutary and profitable blessings and graces have been bestowed upon the faithful. These are the Society of the Jesuits, the Capuchin fathers, the Mission Priests of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the Redemptorists.

MLA Citation

  • Father Richard Brennan, LL.D. “The Growth of the Church in Europe”. Christ in His Church: A Catholic Church History, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 31 May 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>

  1. Previous to this date, all the efforts made by Queen Clotilda to convert the king to the true faith had proved fruitless. In the midst of the battle of Zulpich, fought against the Allemanni tribes in 496, Clovis, finding the fortunes of war going against him, and his troops beginning to yield, fell on his knees in the battle-field and petitioned “Clotilda’s God” for assistance. Victory came to him unexpectedly. Full of gratitude, he put himself under a course of religious instruction, and counselled all his soldiers to turn towards that one true God who had led them on to victory. Accordingly, on Christmas-day of the same year, the king, together with three thousand of his subjects, received baptism at the hands of the saintly bishop Remigius, who immediately after the ceremony spoke to the king the following significant words: “Bow down thy head, proud Sicamber; burn what thou hast hitherto adored, and adore in future what thou hast hitherto burned.” For, until that time, King Clovis, who was descended from the family of the Sicambri, had been an idol-worshipper and an enemy of the one true God.