Thanks be to God for… Russia: a historical meditation

The Feast of Saint Peter Chrysologus

Russia has been in the news a lot lately, more so than in any time in the last two decades, and it caused me to think about the checkered history of that vast land.  It occurred to me at some point that Catholic Europe as we knew it in the second millennium, the great saints of western Europe Thomas Aquinas, Dominic, and Francis of Assisi and the nations and cultures of France, Germany, Italy, England, and Spain likely never would have come into being without Russia.

To understand this it is necessary to compare the situation of Europe in the first millennium after Christ versus what it experienced in the second.  At the time of the Incarnation and the beginning of the age of the Catholic Church the Roman Empire had just completed conquering the entire Mediterranean basin, a feat which has never been equaled before or since, and stretched from the British Isles to the Syrian desert.  However the lands in the north beyond the Rhine and the Danube were largely an undiscovered country.  In the third century of the Incarnation however the empire encountered the Goths, the first of the barbarian tribes that either were migrating or being pushed across the vast steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas from Asia into Europe.  This was the beginning of eight centuries of continuous migration and invasion that would sap the strength of the Roman Empire and eventually destroy it.

Into this came the Catholic Church with its message of salvation attempting to build a new civilization on the ruins of the classical world.  In those first centuries after the fall of Rome she was continually harried on all sides however.  The Huns, the Slavs, the Avars, the Lombards all came in on the heels of the Goths and Vandals along the highways of the steppes north of the Black Sea and continued to hammer Catholic civilization.  There was very little political stability in these centuries with the borders of the post Roman barbarian kingdoms shifting constantly like amoebas and the entirety of Christian civilization was consistently under threat from the marauding tribes of Asia in the east and the newly expanding empire of Islam to the south that had shattered the old Mediterranean unity and the Vikings coming in from the north.

Around the year 1000 things began to change.  The strength of Islam waned due to internal conflict, the Vikings slowly were converted from paganism into full membership in the Catholic Church and new state was being formed north of the Black Sea that would forever close the door on the highway from Asia into Europe.  When Prince Vladimir accepted baptism and brought the new state of Kievan Rus with him that road was shut off.  New and organized and united political entities were formed that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and put up a permanent roadblock to any migration from Asia into Europe.  The only power to breach this roadblock was the Mongols in the 13th century but they did not destroy Russia, they only occupied it and eventually withered away.

Once this new space opened up a new situation came into being in Europe.  There was internecine and fratricidal warfare to be sure but there was no longer the constant threat of massive, culture destroying invasion from the east.  The Church recovered her footing and launched the Crusades to save Constantinople from the Turkish threat and to recapture the Holy Land for a time.  The nation of France came into being and rule from Paris became a fact of life for ever greater parts of what had been Roman Gaul.  The kingdoms of Castille and Aragon accelerated the work of the reconquista and began to drive Islam out of western Europe and form the modern nation of Spain.  There was a flowering of scholastic theology in Italy and a greater devotion to the religious life, and the first beginnings of the Rennaissance.  The High Middle Ages were in full swing and the foundations of the modern world, with all of its glories and defects, were being laid.  All thanks to the formation of a unified political entity that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas and cut off the highway of invasion from Asia.  Thanks be to God for Russia.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!

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