Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Founding of the Church in France

Reading N°35 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

More than forty cities of France have claimed the honor of being founded by disciples of Christ or of the Apostles. These claims are of unequal worth. A general Church History cannot be expected to discuss them in detail. The same cannot be said of the Provençal tradition which assigns to Apostolic times the evangelization of Marseilles and the environs of that great city. Because of the celebrity of the disputes which it has raised and because of its own importance, the question of the Apostolic origin of Christianity in Provence requires that we treat it in some detail.

The Martyrology of the Church (December 29) says that the evangelization of Provence by disciples of our Lord was the fountainhead from which "the streams of Christian faith have spread through all Gaul."[1] Is this true? The most unbiased historical researches permit us to answer this question in the affirmative. But, for the sake of clearness and exactness in the conclusions to be drawn from this fact, the historical problem must be divided into three subsidiary questions: that of the Apostolic origin of Christianity in Provence; that of the organization of local churches in Provençal territory; and that of the first apostles of Provence.

Of the Apostolic origin of Christianity in Provence there can scarcely be a doubt. Duchesne writes:
Aside from any positive evidence, there is a likelihood that the region close to the Rhone was evangelized at an early date. Marseilles enjoyed commercial relations that reached the full extent of the Mediterranean. [...] It is natural to suppose that, among so many vessels which, in the earliest times of Christianity, dropped anchor in the harbor of Marseilles, some there were from which preachers of the gospel landed.[2] We may consider it as highly probable that, in those same early times - I would even say in the time of the Apostles - at this great port so frequented by Greeks of Asia Minor and by Syrians, there was a little nucleus of Christians. Thence the Gospel spread to the interior of the country.[3]
The Sarcophagus of Brignoles La Gayole

The inference of the learned critic is fully confirmed by positive archeological evidence. Two monuments that seem to go back to the middle of the second century[4] - an inscription now preserved in the Marseilles museum and a sarcophagus found at La Gayole, within the territory of Aix - show that Christianity was solidly implanted in Provence at that period and may even have had its martyrs there.

The Inscription of Volusianus
The Marseilles inscription (called the Inscription of Volusianus)[5] is, according to Edmond Le Blant, the epitaph of two Christians (Volusianus and Fortunatus), who perished by fire - martyrs perhaps.[6] This inscription, coming from excavations that were made in 1837 in the valley of the Carenage, was classified among the pagan monuments of the Marseilles museum. "There it was," says Ulysse Chevalier, "'that Edmond Le Blant found it in 1849. He drew de Rossi's attention to it, and the latter saw it himself three or four years later, and perceived that it was a most precious Christian monument."[7] The famous Roman archaeologist in one of his subsequent writings has, in fact, declared that he regards Volusianus and Fortunatus as two Marseilles martyrs, who suffered death about the same time as the celebrated martyrs of Lyons, and that their eulogy was carved in stone immediately after their martyrdom - a fact that is almost unique in Christian antiquity.[8] The sarcophagus of La Gayole belongs to the same period.[9] A comparison of these monuments with similar ones of Gaul leads Le Blant to the following conclusion:
While studying our first Christian inscriptions, I have shown that their distribution throughout all Gaul marks the advance of the new faith. [...] This revolution of souls took place on the shores of Provence, in the southern Rhone valley. [...] This fact is attested by our epigraphic monuments.[10]
These conclusions are corroborated by other historic facts. The famous documents quoted or analyzed by Eusebius at the beginning of the fifth book of his Ecclesiastical History bear glorious testimony to the existence and vitality of Christianity in Gaul a century after the death of the Apostles.[11] A text of St. Irenaeus shows that in his time there were churches in Germany, probably in the Roman provinces of that name on the left bank of the Rhine, and among the Celts: in other words, in the Gallic provinces north and west of Lyons.[12] To reach there, if Le Blant's theory is correct, Christianity probably had to be established in the Provençal region; that foundation would therefore go back to a very early date. Our hypothesis finds support in the ancient tradition, frequently cited in history, which always regards the Church of Marseilles as the mother Church of the region.[13]

When we ask when and how the first churches of Gaul were established, the answer is not so clear. We know that in the Apostolic period Marseilles had an important colony of Jews.[14] It must have been among them that the first Christian community was organized. If St. Paul, on his way to Spain, landed at Marseilles, as we may reasonably suppose, his first preaching would have been, according to his practice, among these Jews. These considerations lead us to conclude that this community was the first to be made into a particular Church, with a bishop at its head. But we have no direct documentary evidence to this effect. Duchesne expresses the opinion that all the scattered Christian groups from the Rhine to the Pyrenees must have formed, until about 250, only one community, subject to a single head, the bishop of Lyons.[15] But Harnack attacks this conclusion in a notable dissertation, in which he maintains that the Lyons province, in the third century, counted several organized bishoprics.[16] The French scholar's opinion seems, therefore, in the view of historical criticism, not entirely beyond dispute.

His chief argument is the silence of the episcopal lists of Gaul, none of which, except that of Lyons, goes back to the middle of the second century; but Duchesne himself gives us the elements for focusing this argument. He says:
It is commonly imagined that the churches carefully preserved the lists of their bishops from their very foundation. This is true of certain large churches, like those of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. But many others did not attempt to fix these lists, or they let them be altered. [...] At Carthage we find only three or four bishops previous to the fourth century. [...] In the diptychs, or liturgical lists, arbitrary suppressions or additions were often made.[17]
Besides the silence of the episcopal lists, we should consider the silence of the Fathers of the first centuries, notably of St. Irenaeus. When he appeals to tradition against the heretics, he makes no reference to the tradition of the churches of Marseilles and Arles. It is true that, in the extant writings of the Fathers of the first four centuries, we meet no clear allusion to the early churches of Gaul. But we should note that this silence extends to the Christian communities themselves; and the most exacting critics, despite this silence, have no hesitation in admitting, at least as very probable, the existence of Christian communities at Marseilles and its environs from earliest antiquity. As far as concerns the writings of St. Irenaeus - of which only fragments remain - we can understand that, in his argument from tradition, he would content himself with the authority of St. John, whom he knew so well through the intermediary of his master Polycarp.

We are also told that, in the Apostolic age, it was customary to establish episcopal sees only in the very large centers. But were not the cities of Marseilles and ArIes of the first importance?[18]

St. Gregory of Tours attributes the origin of the churches of Gaul to a mission of seven bishops sent thither in the third century.[19] Duchesne, however, says that Gregory's evidence about the sending of the seven bishops is too weak and its origin too obscure for it to enter into the woof of history.[20]

Lastly, appeal is had to the famous text of Eusebius: "The parishes (paroikion) of Gaul over which Irenaeus has supervision (epescopei)."[21] If the word epescopei suggests the idea of episcopacy, the word paroikion seems to refer to organized Christian groups. In Eusebius, the word paroikia often (notably in this chapter 22, which contains the ambiguous phrase) has the meaning of "diocese."[22]

In short, the documents of archaeology and the information of history contain nothing that contradicts, in a strict and precise way, the tradition of the Apostolic origin of the episcopal sees in Provence.[23] But who were the first to occupy those sees?

On this last question, we have no hesitation in taking our stand on the conclusions of a historian whose erudition and critical acumen no one will question: Ulysse Chevalier:
Who were the first apostles of Marseilles, who was its first bishop? [...] We must first remark that it is a begging of the question to declare that a tradition first appears in the eleventh century - it goes back at least to the tenth century - because earlier documents do not mention it. What documents? we might ask. Provence was ravaged again and again by Saracens and Normans and therefore has a paucity of official documents dating earlier than the ninth century. Not a single one exists among all the instrumenta of the province of Aix. These repeated destructions, whether accidental or intentional, have deprived us of a knowledge of facts which fragmentary chronicles or documents with numerous gaps do not enable us to supply. All we can do is to bemoan the lack.[24]
The Holy Marys, mothers of James and Salome, arriving on
the shores of Provence (Les Saintes maries de la Mer)
Though documents say nothing, regional traditions and local religious practices more than ten centuries old offer their support. The following are the chief data: Fourteen years after our Lord's death, when a religious persecution broke out in Palestine, the following persons boarded a ship without sails: Lazarus, his sisters Mary Magdalen and Martha, their servant Sara, Sidonius, the man who was blind from his birth and who was cured by Christ, the two Marys (the mother of James and Salome), and Maximin, one of the seventy-two disciples. This boat was driven by Providence to the shores of the Camargue. They landed at the mouth of the Rhone, at the spot now occupied by the village of les Saintes-Mariesde-la-Mer. The two Marys and Sara settled there, and Lazarus went to evangelize Marseilles; Maximin went to Aix; Martha to Avignon and Tarascon. The Golden Legend records:
The blessed Marie Magdalene, desirous of sovereign contemplation, sought a right sharp desert, and took a place which was ordained by the angel of God, and abode there by the space of thirty years without knowledge of anybody. In which place she had no comfort of running water nor solace of trees nor of herbs. And that was because our Redeemer did to show it openly, that He had ordained for her refection celestial, and no bodily meats. And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of the angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing.[25]
Scenes from the life of Mary Magdalen
Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Magdalen Chapel, Assisi

How ancient is this tradition? It is not surprising that we find no trace of it in the writers of the first centuries, since they say almost nothing about the Apostolic origins of Christianity in Provence - origins which archaeological monuments and historical inference lead us to hold as demonstrated facts. A church dedicated to St. Martha in the seventh century in the city of Tarascon,[26] the spread of devotion to this saint, which seems to be evidenced by the extensive use of the name "Martha" in the ninth century in the Arles district and the dependencies of the Marseilles bishopric[27] - these are the earliest traces of devotion paid to the holy family of Bethany.

At the same time there appeared in the East traditions that St. Lazarus' tomb was on the island of Cyprus and that of St. Magdalen in the city of Ephesus. But these traditions are not trustworthy;[28] they appear not to go back to the early centuries, for the famous Peregrinatio Silviae (fourth century) makes no mention of them;[29] and they are probably the result of a confusion in names: it may be that the Lazarus and Magdalen of the Gospel were confused with a holy monk named Lazarus, who died in the island of Cyprus in 822, and a Magdalen who was buried at Ephesus in the fifth century.[30]

A third group of traditions appears at Vézelay in Burgundy, where the relics of St. Magdalen became the object of public veneration and of numerous pilgrimages in the eleventh century. Are these traditions and this veneration dependent upon those of Provence, as Bérenger maintains?[31] Or do the Provençal traditions depend upon those of Burgundy, as Duchesne holds?[32] Or do both depend upon Auvergne legends, as Georges de Manteyer[33] and Dom Germain Morin[34] try to prove? With scholars so divided on the question, evidently it is not very clear. We shall merely observe that the Provençal traditions supplanted the others before long. Since the elevellth century it is in Provence that the veneration of St. Lazarus, St. Magdalen, St. Martha, and St. Maximin has continued with undiminished splendor. The "holy places of Provence," as they were called, became places of numerous pilgrimages. They have been visited by many saints and persons of high rank, among whom we mention St. John of Matha, King St. Louis, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Brigid of Sweden, Charles VIII, Louis XII, Anne of Brittany, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV. On one single day there were five kings there;[35] a single century brought eight popes thither.[36] The founder of seminaries in France in the seventeenth century and the restorer of the Dominican Order in the nineteenth century went there to place their new labors under the protection of the great penitent; the renowned preacher of Notre Dame boasted of venerating "in those holy places which might be thought to belong to Heaven rather than to earth, the last footprint, as it were, of Christ's life in our midst."[37]

Such are the facts. After an impartial examination of them we can understand that the editors of the Acta sanctorum, taking the point of view of strict historical criticism, decline to give their sanction to claims which our present knowledge does not allow us to establish with sufficient certainty. But we can also understand how the devout people of Provence, rightly proud of having received the first fruits of the Christian faith on the soil of France, and without ever having had any other patron saints to invoke except these holy friends of the Savior, are unwilling to abandon their veneration, now more than ten centuries old, in the presence of objections of indecisive critical scholarship, and declare they will maintain the old traditions of their district so long as the manifest falsity thereof is not proven.


[1] "Arelate in Gallia, sancti Trophimi, cujus meminit sanctus Paulus ad Timotheum scribens [...] ex cujus praedicationis fonte (ut sanctus Zosimus papa scribit) toia Gallia rivulos fidei recepit." (Martyr. rom., 4 Kal. Jan.)
[2] Duchesne, Fastes épiscopaux de l'ancienne Gaule, I, 75.
[3] Ibidem, p. 103.
[4] Ibidem, p. 76.
[5] A carefully executed copy of this may be seen in Albanes, Armorial et sigilographie des évêques de Marseille, p. 4.
[6] Le Blant, Catalogue des monuments du musée de Marseille, pp. 1 ff.
[7] Gallia christiana novissima, p. vii.
[8] De Rossi, Inscriptiones christianae Urbis Romae, II, x. The German scholar Otto Hirschfeld shares the view of Le Blant and de Rossi on the antiquity and the Christian character of this inscription. (Corpus inscriptionum latinarum, XII, 55.) "The inscription of Volusianus and the sarcophagus of La Gayole possess an antiquity comparable to that of the earliest vestiges of subterranean Rome." (Jullian, Revue catholique de Bordeaux, XIX, 196.) "This opinion," says Chevalier, "is in conformity with that of the severest critics." (Op. cit., p. vii.)
[9] Le Blant, Les Sarcophages chrétiens de la Gaule, p. 158.
[10] Ibidem, p. xviii; cf. Bérenger, Les Traditions provençales, pp. 176-187.
[11] Cf. Duchesne, Les Origines chrétiennes, p. 449.
[12] Haereses, I, x, 2.
[13] "The bishops of Marseilles had kept a certain authority over what was called the Second Narbonnaise, the district between the lower Rhone valley and the lofty Alpine chain. At the end of the fourth century, all the bishops of this region received ordination from the hands of the bishop of Marseilles, who, moreover, considered himself to be the founder of all their sees. This was the old tradition." (Duchesne, Les Fastes épiscopaux, I, 103.)
[14] Bouche, Essai sur l'histoire de Provence, I, 142.
[15] Duchesne, op. cit., I, 36.
[16] Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, II, 264 ff. Duchesne replies to Harnack in the second edition of his Fastes épiscopaux, pp. 43-46.
[17] Duchesne, Les Origines chrétiennes, 2d ed., p. 459. It is true that Duchesne declares that he eliminated all suspect names from the episcopal lists which he uses as a basis for his argument.
[18] Ausonius, in the fourth century, in his enumeration of the great cities of the Empire, places Arles among those in the first rank. Ahead of it, in Gaul, he places only the city of Treves, which was then the imperial residence. Ausonius, Carmina, XIX, 8. Pavia was a much less important city. Yet de Rossi judged that he had found, in an epigraphic monument, proofs of the Apostolic origin of its episcopal see. (See Bullett. di archeol. crist., 1876, p. 77.) De Rossi's conclusions have been contested by Savio, Gli antichi vescovi d'Italia, Turin, 1899.
[19] St. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II, 20 fl. (bk. I, chap. 28). On the other hand, St. Gregory in his De gloria martyrum, chap. 47, says that St. Saturninus was "ab apostolorum discipulis ordinatus," and in chapter 79 of that same work he says that St. Ursinus of Bourges was ordained and sent "a discipulis apostolorum." Should we, in agreement with Duchesne, say that these words "can mean no one but the pope" or are we to see a contradiction between these two passages and the passage in the History of the Franks? (Duchesne, Les Fastes épiscopaux, pp. 20-26.)
[20] Duchesne, Les Origines Chrétiennes, p. 451.
[21] τῶν κατὰ Γαλλίαν δὲ παροικιῶν ἃς Ειρηναίος ὲπεσκόπει; Eusebius, H.E., V, xxiii, 4.
[22] Du Cange, under the word Parochia. Duchesne says: "Here, as often, the phraseology of Eusebius impairs the clearness of his testimony." (Op. cit., p. 450.) In his Fastes épiscopaux (2d ed., p. 43), Duchesne, although acknowledging that the word paroikia has, in the same chapter of Eusebius, the meaning of "diocese," refuses that sense to it in the passage which we are here considering.
[23] Dr. Marx thinks that "it can be affirmed with very great probability that episcopal sees existed as early as the second century in the chief cities of the southern part of Gaul." (Manuel d'hisloire ecclésiastique, 1st epoch, chap. I, sect. 18.)
[24] Chevalier, Gallia christiana novissima, Marseilles, p. viii.
[25] Voragine, The Golden Legend, II, 626.
[26] Manteyer, La Provence du Ier au XIIe siècle, pp. 60-62. There is every reason to suppose this St. Martha to be the St. Martha of the Gospel; but there is no positive indication of identity. The word "Martha" comes from the Aramaic word maran (master), and might mean "mistress." Plutarch (Marius, 17) cites this name as that of a Syrian prophetess who accompanied General Marius. (Cf. Schegg, Evangelium nach Lukas, II, 530.)
[27] Manteyer, op. cit., p. 62. In Avignon also a church is found dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen in the eleventh century. (Ibidem, p. 66.)
[28] Duchesne says: "I do not vouch for the authenticity of this tomb of Lazarus (in the island of Cyprus), nor for the tomb of Magdalen at Ephesus." (Les Pastes épiscopaux, I, 2.)
[29] Bérenger, Les Traditions provençales, p. 54.
[30] This is Bérenger's hypothesis (op. cit., p. 52).
[31] Ibidem, pp. 81-88.
[32] Duchesne, op. cit., I, 328-340.
[33] Manteyer, op. cit.
[34] Morin, Etudes sur saint Lazare et saint Maximin, p. 28.
[35] In 1332: Philip of Valois, king of France; Alphonso IV, king of Aragon; Hugh IV, king of Cyprus; John of Luxemburg, king of Bohemia; Robert, king of Sicily.
[36] John XXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, Clement VII, Benedict XIII. The two last named are considered antipopes.
[37] Lacordaire, Sainte Marie-Madeleine (Œuvres, IX, 351).


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