Introduction to early church history of Catholic Church 12

Introduction to early church history 12
 Jean Paul
Monasticism follows on from the early aesthetic movements.  Within these either groups of people or single people had followed an aesthetic life of fasting, prayer and celibacy.

The tradition that this movement started in Egypt is not correct.  Although there were communities in Egypt there were also others in Asia-Minor, Palestine, Syria and others.  It seems that at a critical point the aesthetic movement developed into monasticism at several different sites at approximately the same time.


Anthony of Egypt (251-356) is an important figure in the development of monasticism but he did not found it.  The reason that he is so influential is that the story of his life has been well documented by Athanasius who knew him personally.  These details are from Athanasius’ work and so may be somewhat embroidered.

His parents died in 271.  After their death at Mass he heard the reading of Matthew 19:21 (sell all that you have, give the money to the poor and follow me).  He placed his sister with a group of trusted virgins (implying that groups of this type already existed) and started to live at the edge of the village under the direction of an elderly aesthetic. 

In 285 he moved from the village into the desert - in particular to the deserted tombs, this was a move away from cultivated land and so was far from any human interaction.  He lives there until 305 - people had heard of him and had started to come and see him.  In response he crosses the Nile and moves into a deserted fortress - making it easier for him to avoid human contact.

In 305 he emerges - ‘filled with the Spirit of God’ and he organises a community of hermits with himself as their spiritual guide, leader and master.

310 he retires again to solitude at a place Anastasias refers to as the Inner Mountain - across the desert near to the Red Sea.  More disciples come to him here and he forms another community of hermits.  In these communities each hermit had his own hut - this is quasi-community life.  There is evidence that they frequently visited each other - the writings of the Desert Fathers seem to record a lot of sayings that they made to each other.

Anthony dies in 356.  This is at the apex of the Arian victory - Anthony is regarded as a champion of the Nicene cause, and had preached at the request of Athanasius to show that support.  The life story had a certain propaganda element in it.  Athanasius publishes it in Latin turning his exile in the West and the life was designed to show the hermits supporting the work of the Church.

Anthony’s community also had a form of rule - not so much in the modern sense but more a way of life.


Pachomius came from Upper Egypt.  In 311 he was a conscript in the army - conscripted to support one of the Emperors in the fighting that was going on.  On the journey down the Nile by boat there were frequent overnight breaks in which the conscripts were housed in what were basically prisons.  People would come to the conscripts with food and clothing, these people were Christians.  Pachomius was a pagan and this was his first contact with Christians.

The situation calmed and in 313 he returns home with a conviction to become a Christian.  In 316 he becomes a disciple of an aesthetic (Palemon) again living on the edge of a village, it is not clear if he had been baptised by this date - he had started to prepare for baptism around 313.

After this he attempted to found a monastic community with his brother - this is a move away from the groups of hermits to men living together.  He and his brother did not get on so the attempt failed. 

In 320 he successfully founds a monastery at Tabbenisi (in Upper Egypt close to Thebes it is near the Nile and so is not in a desert).  His image was to live a communal monastic life - also described as the Common Life.  His previous experience of community life had been in the Roman army and so this was the basis he used.

The men lived in a walled enclosure (as Roman Forts had an enclosing wall) this would become the cloister.

He developed a written rule that developed further during his lifetime.  The life included obedience to a superior, much was common: the work, the table, the worship, the house.

As numbers increased he established a new monastery at Pbiw.

His communities maintained strong links with the local church - initially as there were no priests in the community they attended Mass at the local Church.

By the time he died in 346 he was Abbot-General of 9 monasteries for men, 2 monasteries for women.  Around 3000 monks were part of these communities.  Even after his death numbers continue to increase and by the end of the 4th Century around 7000 monks were following his rule in Egypt.

Most of the monks were uneducated Coptic peasants so Pachomius insisted on regular meetings of the superiors, especially as many of the monks were converts, like himself, who were going through the catechumenate at the save time as the novitiate.

Basil the Great

Based in Caesarea in Cappadocia.  He lived as a monk, as most of his family did (his mother and sister were probably first) under the authority of Eusebius of Sebaste.  He was very well educated - not only in Caesarea but also Antioch and Athens.  He was baptised as an adult.

He lived briefly as a monk in Syria and Egypt but returned to live in a monastic community based on his family estate, his classmate Gregory Nazianzen.  He remains there until 364 when Eusibius of Cappadocia asks him for help to defend orthodoxy against Arianism.  In 370 Basil becomes bishop and remains there until he dies in 379.

Importantly Gregory produced a set of monastic rules, they are in the form of questions with answers mainly taken from scripture.  In them he was convinced of the superiority of the common life over the life of a hermit.  He also rejects excessive aestheticism - for him the point of the aesthetic life was to serve God and the greatest form of fasting was obedience (fasting of the will).  The community had an intense liturgical life, although there was also time for personal prayer.  He emphasised charity as very important, and as part of this insisted on manual labour - as any profits made from the labour could be used for charity.

Looking to the West.

St Jerome

Possibly the most irascible of all Church Fathers, he lived 342 to 420, he dies in Bethlehem.

He studied in Illeyria, Tiree and Rome.  He was baptised in Rome and so must have been an adult when it happened.  He was interested in the aesthetic life and familiar with the life of Anthony.

In around 374 he goes East to the Syrian desert where he goes through a type of novitiate.  The name of the novice master is not known but his actions end up with Jerome’s health being destroyed due to excessive fasting - the discomfort this causes probably causes his reputation for being irascible.

Pope Damasus I calls Jerome to Rome where he wants him to produce a Latin version of the scriptures for use in liturgy.  When Damasus dies Jerome is driven from Rome by opponents of the Pope.  Part of the problem was that he had been very successful in encouraging women into monastic life thus lessening the number of women available for arranged marriages - making him unpopular with their families and the potential spouses.

In 386 he moves to Bethlehem - initially he sets up monastic communities with Rufus but the two of them fall out (never to be reconciled) over Origen.

Other developments

Monasticism moves on and develops in the West where there is a merging of the aesthetic and clerical life - leading to communities of priests living the common life.  St Ambrose starts this and St Augustine follows this example.  The clergy are monks with either a priest or bishop as superior.  This is an important development as at this time most clergy (including bishops) were married.  It is the start of a movement towards unmarried clergy.  Martin of Tours sets up a similar community in Gaul.

John Cassian 360-after 430.

He is a native of Sythia (in the region of modern Bulgaria).  He is not Roman - the peoples of this area belong to another race.

He founds 2 monasteries in Marseille in 415. 

He had previously experienced monastic life with Jerome in Bethlehem. In 404 he goes to Constantinople where John Chrysostom ordains him Deacon.

During his life he develops two sets of books the Institutes (a set of rules for monastic life) and the Conferences - which record the conversations of the great leaders of the Egyptian Church, they are somewhat idealistic as they are written 20 years after the event.

It should be remembered that although these people are often referred to as the Desert Fathers the places they lived in could be any sort of unoccupied wasteland.

Liturgy and diversity

The main political centres of the Roman empire become the ecclesiastical centres, their rank relative to each other depended on their social standing (Jerusalem being the exception to this).

These places become liturgical centres people visit them and take away ideas to their own homes for use in their liturgy.  The period of the 4th to the 6th Century saw the development of liturgy - there were some general practices but local variations as well.  This leads to different liturgical rites.

The centres are:
In the East - Alexandria, Antioch, the client kingdom of Eddessa which develops liturgy in Syriac, Jerusalem (not important politically but theologically the place where many of the major events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection happened - it was influential through the pilgrims that travelled there.

Additionally there is Cappadocia-Caesarea, Thrace, Ephesus - after the building of Constantinople the traditions of these areas are imported, as it had no traditions of its own.

In the West - Rome, Milan, Carthage (North Africa), Gaul (little is known about them the centre was Arles), Spain in the cities of Toledo and Seville.

In all of the centres there was a synthesis of traditional elements along side local traditions, but there were also elements borrowed from elsewhere.

There were a number of inherited texts that were widely used for example, Didache, Apostolic Constitution.

The forms of the liturgy gradually evolved - particularly in response to the controversies about Christ.  The freedom to deal with texts and forms of liturgy is gradually limited partly because of the danger of heresy but also because many of the clergy were uneducated.  The liturgy changes following the move from small house churches to grand basilicas, the move from simplicity to splendour, what works in a small environment doesn’t work in a large one.

There is also a growth in daily liturgical prayer - in parallel in the monastic communities and in the Cathedrals and other churches, initially this was the prayer of the Hours the idea of daily Mass came later.  The Calendar of Feasts gradually grows initially Easter, then add Holy Week, Lent, and so on.  Also included on the Calendar are memorials of important saints and martyrs, local churches venerated local saints (this would lead to the idea of veneration of relics).  The Calendar varied from one region to another.

This diversity is gradually restricted and by the end of the 4th Century restrictive legislation is in place with regard to liturgical prayer.  A canon of a Council at Hippo (393) said that only texts approved by a synod of bishops was to be used.  This was repeated at Carthage in 397 and again in 407 (clearly the 397 restriction was being ignored).

The Liturgy was developing but taking different forms in different places, this has continued until today when we see the Roman Rite, Ambrosian Rite, etc.

Important for Western liturgy was the pontificate of Damasus 366-384.  His pontificate started badly as a rival Pope was elected by his enemies but the problem was resolved by the end of the year.  He fostered the change in Roman liturgy from Greek to Latin, as we’ve already seen he had Jerome produce a standard version of the Scriptures for use in liturgy, it was important that the Latin was elegant as it was to be used for public reading.  The Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), initially used by St Ambrose was translated into Latin and used from 375 (there is evidence of the move from Greek to Latin in some surviving documents).

The liturgy continues to develop and under Pope Sibelius a lot of Churches in Rome were built, there was also the organisation of what we know a parish churches.

Innocent I 402-417 tried to force the other churches to follow the Roman Rite but was unsuccessful.

Leo I (the Great) - many of his sermons survive, as well as a Sacramentary - which while attributed to him wasn’t developed by him, it looks to have been based on the ideas in his sermons.  As a sideline he stopped Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome and persuaded him to turn back.

Gelasius I 492-496 reorganised the liturgy and introduced many reforms to stop abuses.

Gregory I (the Great) 590-604.  He is responsible for a new Sacramentary - he changes the Order of Mass.  Most of his reforms were designed to make the Mass shorter - as his poor health meant that he found it difficult to preside over the long liturgies, example are he removed the prayers of the faithful and cut down the old litany to be just the Kyrie.  He also moved the kiss of peace from the Offertory to just before Communion as a preparation for Communion, he also reorganised this part of the Mass.

Migration of Peoples

Towards the end of the 4th Century and into the early 5th Century there was a massive migration of peoples from the Caucuses into Europe.  The map on the handout summaries the overall migration.   Even cities such as Rome and Athens were sacked on a number of occasions.  These peoples are the Barbarians - the Goths, Franks and Vandals amongst others.

In 476 the symbolic end to the Western Roman Empire happens when the Imperial Insignia of the West is sent to the Eastern Emperor by the Goth King.

This will cause problems as these peoples are Arians and there are persecutions of orthodox  believers.

The rapid change in the political and social structure has an impact ecclesiastically and liturgically.

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