Christendom: The Kingdom of God on Earth
While the meaning of Christendom has greatly changed throughout the two millennia of the Church’s existence, Christendom shall endure until the end of the world.
Christendom is very broadly defined as “the part of the world in which Christianity prevails.”1 In a world in which the very foundation of society seems to be crumbling as more and more people reject the morals and values that are its cornerstone, it is easy to see that in this broad definition, Christianity has died. There are no longer Confessional states in which Christianity is the official religion, like many European countries before the Protestant Revolt. Rather than being oriented toward Christianity, modern society often attacks Christian principles and beliefs, antagonizing and even persecuting those who still hold to them. Thus, Christendom by this definition is dead.
However, all is not lost. The Catholic speaker and author, Charles Coulombe, identifies four eras of Christendom.2 The first era, he says, began at Pentecost, when the Church was born. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and early Christians set out to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat 28:19-20a DRB). The Acts of the Apostles chronicles the growth of the earliest days of the Church. Through trials and persecution, the Church continued to grow over the centuries, often meeting with great resistance from non-Christian rulers. This changed, however, when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, thereby granting religious freedom to Christians. In 508, the Frankish king Clovis was baptized, further advancing the spread of Christendom in the West. This was the last piece to ensuring that Christianity would endure in Europe. The first era of Christendom continued through the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades.
During this time, Christendom essentially meant a “Christian commonwealth,” termed the Res publica cristiana. The kings of this Christendom were usually practicing Catholics who often took oaths to uphold the teachings of the Faith. These Catholic rulers used their wealth to build churches and monasteries, and the Church’s holydays were celebrated nationally. While this time period certainly had its faults, it is what we most commonly associate with the term Christendom: the spread and triumph of Christianity, which in turn heavily influenced temporal leaders and governments. This first era of Christendom ended first in the East, with the Ottoman conquests in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the West, the first era of Christendom began to die in the 16th century with the Protestant Revolt, faded through the 18th and 19th century revolutions, and finally ended with World War II.
After the Second World War, the second era of Christendom emerged. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were optimistic about the future of Christendom. As Pope Benedict XVI said:
[I]t was necessary to give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern state that would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence among them and for the freedom to practice their own religion.3
However, this optimistic outlook was not realized. The “tolerant coexistence” in the world for which the Fathers of Vatican II had hoped instead turned into intolerance, oppression, and sometimes even persecution. The Church continued to endure – Christ has promised that she shall until the end of the world – but her members had great challenges to face, from both within and without. During this second era of Christendom, a separation of church and state developed in most countries. Gone were the days of Catholic rulers whose reigns were rooted in Catholic morality and virtue. Staunchly secular governments replaced them, and in their attempt to sever all ties with religion, the morals that previously upheld society quickly disappeared.
In the wake of this all emerged the third era of Christendom. Each era has gotten progressively less concretely obvious, and this is no exception. However, when one knows where to look, the third era of Christendom is just as beautiful – though much less widespread – as the first. Coulombe points to the places throughout the world where the original concept of Christendom, as seen in its very first era, still exists. One example of my own is the town of St. Mary’s in Kansas. Regardless of one’s opinion regarding the Society of St. Pius X which runs the Catholic church in the town, Catholics cannot help but admire St. Mary’s as an enduring example of the original concept of Christendom in the modern world. Most of the residents of St. Mary’s are traditional Catholics, and its rural location seems to set it apart from the rest of the world. There are also countless shrines around the world where hundreds of pilgrims travel each day to pray – another example of enduring Christendom much as it was in the first era. Christendom also exists in the modern world through the many religious orders and Catholic organizations throughout the world that are dedicated to upholding the true teachings of the Church and Magisterium, contained in the Church’s living tradition.
The third era of Christendom is essentially a revitalization of the first era of Christendom, which the New Evangelization aptly embodies. This revitalization is on a much smaller scale than when it existed in the first era: it can be found in very small groups consisting only of a few people, as well as in large groups of pilgrims travelling to a beautiful shrine. It is no longer spread universally throughout the world, but this is where evangelization comes into play, as well as the fourth era of Christendom.
Coulombe quotes Earnest Oldmeadow’s A Layman’s Church Year in describing the fourth era of Christendom: “Even the humblest man or woman or child alive is, so to speak, a tiny province in the dominions of Christ the King: a province either submissive or disobedient, either loyal or rebellious.”4 The fourth era of Christendom is that which resides in the hearts of every person in the state of sanctifying grace. It is that to which we become members by virtue of our Baptisms, and to which we are restored through the Sacrament of Confession. It is that which is nourished by the Holy Eucharist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the eternal Christendom, the heavenly kingdom of Christ that has no end, to which we belong as members of His Holy Catholic Church. This Christendom cannot die, for it is the eternal Kingdom about which Our Lord told Pilate during His Passion (cf. Jn 18:36).
Christ desires that all men come to belong to this Kingdom. Though it will endure until the end of the world, Christendom cannot grow without our help; unless we heed Christ’s command to “teach ye all nations” (Mat 28:19a), it will remain isolated in rare instances, such as those mentioned above. This is why Christ commanded the faithful to baptize as well as teach: without baptism, the Kingdom of Heaven – the fourth era of Christendom – cannot reside in man’s soul. Christendom can never die, but it can dwindle until it is no more than a faint flicker in a world of impenetrable darkness.
Only Christ knows how long we have until His Second Coming, so it is our task to use the time we have wisely. We must work tirelessly to convert those who do not yet know Christ and belong to His Church. Christendom resides in each soul in the state of sanctifying grace. As the fathers of the New Evangelization emphasized, evangelization must first occur among the members of the Church, who must strengthen and, when necessary, renew the life of grace within their souls. Then, vitalized by the sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist, we can go forth and live our lives as authentic witnesses to the Gospel, practicing the works of mercy and leading by example in virtue and morality. In this way, we can contribute to the spread of Christendom and help lead souls to the Kingdom of God.
“Christendom,” at Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com.
Charles A. Coulombe, “What is Christendom?” January 13, 2014, at Catholicism, www.catholicism.org.
Benedict XVI, Address to Members of the Roman Curia (9 January 2006), at Catholic Online, www.catholic.org.
Ernest Oldmeadow, A Layman’s Church Year, 277, quoted in Charles A. Coulombe, “What is Christendom?”