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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Christopher Bellitto

The pattern of trying to adapt Christianity to local customs while maintaining the integrity of the faith's beliefs and rituals began with Paul's address to the Athenians when he pointed to a statue labeled "the unknown God" and informed the Greeks that they were already worshipping the God he now named as Jesus (Acts 17:22-23). As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it often used Greek ideas and language to describe Jesus, but that approach was forced to change.

The faith turned north to Europe after the 7th and 8th centuries when Islam, in just a century after Mohammad's death in 632, swept rapidly across the Roman Empire's former eastern, southern, and western provinces. With Islam now in control of the Middle East, north Africa, and the Iberian peninsula, Rome looked north for a protector and for new evangelization opportunities. Monks from Ireland, Britain, and Germany played a key role and implemented a strategy of discovering where people's faith already was operating, even if it was still a mix of Roman paganism and Arianism, which was often the case in central and northern Europe.  One example is St. Patrick, a 5th-century Briton who was successful in converting the Irish precisely because he had lived among them as a captive for six years.

Missionaries tended to Christianize pagan sites rather than destroy them.  People already inclined to believe in the healing power of water at a particular site, for instance, would now find a baptistery at a well or bend in the river. Pagan temples were sprinkled with holy water and converted to altars. A local magus would be replaced by a Christian saint known for healing; pagan objects were supplanted by Christian relics,  such as the wood of the cross or a strand of a saint's hair.

In this way, Catholicism spread quickly and fairly successfully across Visigothic Spain, Merovingian and Carolingian Gaul, and Anglo-Saxon England before turning east to Poland, Hungary, and Russia in the closing decades of the first millennium. Moreover, there was a measure of liturgical variation in the Middle Ages that was eventually regulated in 1570, with the Roman Missal issued shortly after the Council of Trent. A precise order for Mass was laid down, but variations were permitted as long as they were at least 200 years old, which was the case with the Ambrosian rite in Milan and Spain's Mozarabic rite, both dating to the middle of the first millennium.

Much of the Church's evangelization and enculturation efforts in the first 1500 years of Catholicism were increasingly driven by an emerging, then strengthening papacy that was concentrating power and authority in Rome, culminating in the creation of a papal monarchy in the Middle Ages. In the Church's first few centuries, the bishop of Rome enjoyed no special jurisdictional status among his many brother bishops across the Mediterranean world, although there was a certain recognition of his unique place as Peter's successor.


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