Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Fifth Century
The Century of Pope Leo the Great

The invasion of the barbarians which, a century and ' a half after the death of Constantine, caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, 476, had already begun. Uncivilized tribes of Goths, Huns, and Vandals overran Gaul, Spain, and Italy. The Church, through the energy and piety of her bishops, missionaries, and monks, established social and political order, and saved Europe from lapsing into barbarism.

Pope Leo I became, in the hands of God, an instrument to protect and honor the Church during the decay of the Roman Empire. When Attila, King of the Goths, after laying waste a great part of Italy, was about to attack the City of Rome, Pope Leo went forth as the temporal representative of the people as well as the spiritual and temporal representative of Christ, to meet and check the ruthless invader. By the dignity of his presence, but more especially by the wisdom and power of his words, the Pope touched the heart of Attila, who at once retraced his steps and left Italy. In like manner Leo I saved Rome from Genseric the Vandal.

Conversion of Ireland
It is not known when Christianity was first introduced into Ireland. Palladius is called the first bishop sent to the Irish, but "it was not to Palladius," says Jocelyn, "but to Patrick, that the Lord vouchsafed the conversion of Ireland." While still a boy, St. Patrick was carried off by Irish pirates from his home either in Brittany or in Scotland. He escaped after some years and went to Gaul to St. Martin of Tours, his uncle. Afterwards he accompanied the great St. Germanus to Britain, on a mission against the Pelagians.

Ever since his captivity, St. Patrick had yearned to preach the faith to the Irish. At last his prayer was heard, and Pope Celestine sent him to preach in Ireland about 432. His efforts were so blessed that in a few years the whole people had become most faithful and fervent Catholics; and so numerous were the holy, learned, and indefatigable missionaries whom she sent abroad that Ireland received the glorious title of "The Island of Saints."

Among the missionaries were:

  • St. Columbkille, the Apostle of Scotland;
  • St. Aidan, who brought the faith into Northumberland;
  • St. Columban, who traversed Gaul, Switzerland, and Italy;
  • St. Gall, the founder of Christianity in Switzerland.

Conversion of the Franks
The German tribes that inhabited the country lying along the Rhine were known by the name of Franks. Clovis became king of the Salic Franks in 481. Some of this tribe had been converted during the wars with the Romans; the majority, however, were still pagans. In the year 496 Clovis, who was married to Clotilda, a Christian princess of Burgundy, was hard pressed by the Alemanni in the battle of Tolbiac. He appealed to the God of Clotilda, promising to become a Christian if victory should attend h'is arms. The Alemanni were defeated, and Clovis, faithful to his promise, received baptism at the hands of St. Remigius on Christmas Day, 496. His example was followed by many thousands of the army, and later by the majority of his subjects.

Heresies of the Fifth Century

The Heresy of Nestorius
One hundred years after Arius, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, attacked the Catholic doctrine concerning the unity of the person of Christ. He taught that there are two persons in Christ, and that the Blessed Virgin is not the Mother of God, but only of Christ's human person. St. Cyril, of Alexandria, defended the glories of Our Lady, but Nestorius held to his error. A general council was called at Ephesus, 431, and the heresy of Nestorius was formally condemned. The joy of the people of Ephesus, when they heard that the title "Mother of God "was acknowledged by the Church, was unbounded.

Heresy of Eutyches
Eutyches, an aged priest, who lived in a monastery near Constantinople, while opposing Nestorianism, fell into an opposite error and taught that Jesus Christ has only one nature, a mixture of the divine and human. Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, held a synod, 448, which excommunicated Eutyches and condemned his heresy. Against this error and those who, under the name of Monophysites, maintained and defended it, St. Leo the Great fought with the zeal and ability of an apostle. The heresy was condemned in the year 451 by the General Council at Chalcedon. As several Eastern Emperors continued to favor Eutychianism, the heresy, under different forms, spread rapidly, and was again condemned at the General Council at Constantinople, 553, after which it gradually died out.

Heresy of Pelagius
Pelagius was a native of Britain, but went to Rome at the end of the fourth century and commenced to teach false doctrines. He denied original sin and the necessity of grace, maintaining that man without the aid of grace can fulfill the commandments of God. When Rome was sacked by the Goths, 410, Pelagius went to Carthage, where St. Augustine soon pointed out the errors of the pernicious doctrine. By deceiving his judges, Pelagius had himself acquitted of the charge of heresy. St. Augustine brought the question before two synods, which condemned the teaching. The decrees of these synods were sent to Rome, and when the Pope confirmed them, St. Augustine said, "Rome has spoken, the cause is ended." The formal condemnation was at the Council of Ephesus.