The Lost World of Christendom

Long before “Liberty, equality, fraternity” became the cry of revolution in 18th century France, a Catholic monarchy reigned over this “most Christian country.” For over a millennia, Catholic France was the beating heart of Christendom.

Christendom — once something that meant more than a geographical description of Christianity’s presence around the world. It was a place where temporal rulers, like the monarchs of France, submitted first and foremost to the divine law of the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, and his vicar on earth, the Supreme Pontiff.

This is the world that was destroyed by the French Revolution of 1789. So destructive was the anti-Catholic spirit of the revolution that it managed to rewrite history for succeeding generations. Particularly, students in the United States are largely taught that France’s revolution mirrored the success of the American Revolution and was a force of democracy and progress.

Yet while names like Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre, Danton, and events like the storming of the Bastille, the Reign of Terror — let alone the public execution of the last Catholic monarch of France — are commonplace in textbooks, little of France as “the most Christian country” in Christendom is remembered or studied.

Yet it was in France, after its unification by the first Catholic king, Clovis, that was responsible for the rebuilding of western culture after the devastation of the barbarian assaults on Rome and elsewhere. It was France that produced brave saints and martyrs eager to defend Christendom with the truth of the Gospel.

These feats, however, have been deemed embarrassments to our modern, enlightened eyes. The crusades are events of shame. The Knights Templar was a conniving order appropriate for conspiracy theories. The building of the Gothic cathedrals were overblown exercises in wasteful spending for an ignorant flock. “Christendom,” it was believed, was rightly relegated to the forgotten pages of history.

The actual historical record, brimming with colorful characters and eye-popping events, tells us something far different: the faith mattered so much peasant and lord alike were willing to sacrifice their lives for not only its preservation, but its success. And the physical place on earth that was the soul of the faithful was the heavenly kingdom of Jerusalem, the place where Christ the King walked. The place where Christendom’s most holiest sites were erected, the places that preserved the great relics commemorating the salvific act Christ gave of Himself for the many.

And it was in France yet again where the desire to protect Jerusalem was spawned, in the Champagne and Burgundy provinces of modern-day western France. Here, this very area produced a remarkable series of interrelated people and events over centuries that reshaped the face of Christendom during the Middle Ages when its existence — and the future of the faith — were constantly under assault.

For it was here in Champagne and Burgundy where the call to protect Jerusalem was first summoned by a French pope, Urban II.

It was from here the knights who formed the Order of the Templars were born.

It was here where St. Bernard of Clairvaux and his Cistercians quietly influenced Christendom with their spirituality and asceticism.

It was here where the glorious Gothic cathedrals first rose to awesome heights.

It was here where creative poets like Chretien de Troyes inspired courts and knights with stirring tales of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail.

That all of these events — each rooted in their own way in the worship of the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity — culminated in 1355 when Geoffroi de Charny and Jeanne de Vergy exhibited a most unique relic, what we know as the Shroud of Turin, is again not a mere coincidence: this first known unveiling of the Shroud happened to occur only 20 kilometers south of the capital of Champagne.

But all of this has been lost to history and memory. Modern Catholics can no longer afford to ignore our own rich faith history. Transmission of the faith as a birthright can no longer be taken for granted. Like in the Middle Ages, existence of a future, thriving church is yet again under assault. A new quest, a new crusade is before us: to reach back into the the past, to reacquaint ourselves with our Catholic ancestors, and reclaim ownership of our own narrative as believing Catholics. Our own understanding of the Grail legends, for example, are owed more to Hollywood and pop culture than the actual, very Christian path in which they emerged in history.

It is indeed a hazy past, but like passing the fur coats into Narnia, a lost world remains waiting to be rediscovered.

What separated the medieval mind from the modern mind was a cosmic, almost mystical awareness of life’s transience, its inevitable transition into the invisible realm: death waited with finality, with the just judge waiting. The Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) recognized the cyclical evolution of humanity’s cosmic journey, its desire for wanderlust, for questing: “Man’s last leave-taking is the leaving of God for God.”

This all might seem antiquated and archaic to the modern, democratic and secular worldview. But even nonbelievers are fascinated by the object that also captivated the medieval imagination: the Shroud of Turin, the visual statement of what Christ endured in His Passion, as a tangible testament to His Resurrection, and as an allusion to the solemnity of the bread and wine transformed into His Body and Blood.

In this way, whatever its actual origin, the Shroud is authentic. We know that what we see today encased in Guarini’s chapel in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin is what pilgrims traveling to the province of Champagne in the 1350s also saw; that what was so powerfully shown in this object — the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ — represented the reason for the crusades, the existence of monastic and military orders, the purpose of the cathedrals, and the embodiment of the Grail stories.

In this object is contained the glory of Christendom. It was a kingdom built not for the earthly glory of man, but for the eternal greater glory of God.

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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