“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
496 AD The Baptism of Clovis Gives Birth to France
The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 marked a time of great confusion. Chiefs and kinglets established territories all over the former empire. At this time, the Church also suffered from barbarians who had converted to Arianism and were spreading its false teachings.
The cult of Arianism didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. They believed Him to be a prophet but not the Second Person in the Trinity, the Son of God. They would say: “there was a time when he was not.” In other words, that He was not eternal but created by God.
The council of Nicea condemned the Arian heresy but the barbarian Arians spread the cult while fleeing the Empire. Ulfilas is the barbarian credited with its successful spread among the Germanic warriors. Arianism “was short on theology, but its rituals appealed to the barbarian taste for midnight rites in the woods with lots of singing. Its ethics emphasized courage and other warrior traits….it was imbued with hostility toward Roman culture and the Catholic Church.” The rulers of Spain, Italy and many other former Roman provinces were Arian. They “looked down on Catholicism as the inferior religion.”
The exception to Arianism’s popularity was the Franks. Along the banks of the Rhine and in northern Gaul, they remained pagan. In the southern part of Gaul, the Gallo-Romans had strong ties to the Roman culture. The Church was very influential in the region providing spiritual and material assistance.
By the 470s, the Merovingian family dominated Gaul. Fifteen year-old Clovis became king of the Salian Franks in 482. “In Frankish, the name of this energetic warrior was Chlodovech – source of the name Ludovicus, or Louis, thus making Clovis the first of many great French kings of that name.” His methods and personality were ruthless but it seems that, although pagan, he had a soft spot for the Church.
The Bishop of Reims, St. Remigius, wrote Clovis a fascinating letter upon his accession. He offered the king advice, urging him to “be prudent, chaste, moderate, honor bishops and do not disdain their advice.” He admonished him to care for the widows and orphans and to seek the counsel of experienced men. The Bishop’s letter was subtle, intending to pique the interest of Clovis and being careful not to antagonize him.
Clovis’ power grew as he continued to conquer most of Gaul. As his conquests increased, he decided it was time to take Paris.
Unbeknownst to him, St. Genevieve, who had repelled the Huns, was still a very influential force in Paris. Known for her holiness and miracles, she vowed that barbarians would never enter her city. With her help, Clovis was unable to capture Paris but she prayed continuously for his conversion.
At the same time, Clovis married Clotilda, daughter of the King of Burgundy. A pious, virtuous Christian, “she was one of the considerable number of Christian women who willingly married barbarians in the hope of converting them.” Despite the fact that he remained pagan, they were a loving and devoted couple. Her Christian faith impressed him and so did her spiritual advisor, St. Remegius, the bishop who had sent him the letter.
Clovis remained pagan until he found himself in a difficult battle. He was inspired to “pray to ‘Clotilda’s God’ for victory.” He cried out to Jesus: “Thou Who art, according to Clotilda, the Son of the living God, help me in my distress! If Thou dost give me victory, I will believe in Thee and I will be baptized.” Like Constantine before him at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Clovis was the victor.
He began receiving religious instruction from St. Remegius but worried how his conversion would be received by his closest associates. To his great surprise, they unanimously agreed to be baptized as well.
Clovis’ baptism was the beginning of Catholic France. At the ceremony, he was “overawed” by “the splendor of the vestments, the brilliantly lit Church, and the litanies and hymns.” In his awe, he asked, “Is this it, the kingdom of Heaven you promised me?” Remegius replied that it wasn’t “but it is the beginning of the road that leads there.”
On that day, along with Clovis’ baptism, his family members were baptized too. After them followed three thousand Franks who became Christian as well.
The Sacrament of Confirmation was administered at the same time as the Sacrament of Baptism. Because of the huge crowd in the cathedral, the cleric carrying the chrism oil used in the rite of Confirmation wasn’t able to reach St. Remegius. The saintly bishop looked up to see a dove carrying a phial of oil in its beak. The bird descended at the proper place, making it possible for the king to be anointed. The remaining oil from the phial was used in coronation ceremonies until revolutionaries smashed the phial during the French Revolution.
Now that he was baptized, St. Genevieve welcomed the royal family to Paris. She became a loyal supporter, advisor and friend until her death. Clovis called for the Council of Orleans, a meeting of the bishops of Gaul. The conversion of the Franks followed soon after; however, their immoral, brutal behaviour didn’t change overnight. But the Church remained patient.
After Clovis’ death, St. Clotilda lived in a convent, heartbroken at the fratricidal fighting of her sons and the death of her grandsons. Her consolation was meeting, or at least hearing about, Radegund, the devout Christian German princess who had agreed to marry her violent son, King Clotaire.
The conversion and reign of Clovis shows the grace of God at work in the most unlikely events. Clovis beseeched the Lord in a desperate moment and the Lord handed him a victory. The Chrism oil delivered by a dove is miraculous. The surprising conversion of Clovis’ closest advisors and then the baptism of the general population showed the movement of the Holy Spirit and the mercy of God.
The beauty of the Liturgy as a transformative power is proven yet again in Clovis’ astonishment at his baptism. Liturgy, when not stripped of its beautiful elements, transforms us from our everyday lives to the extraordinary experience of worshiping the Lord and shows us a foretaste of Heaven.
We also see the immense contribution of holy Christian women to the events of history. St. Genevieve prayed for Clovis’ conversion and then became his friend. Brave Queen Clotilda greatly influenced her husband’s and as a result, the Frankish people’s conversion to Christianity. And Queen Radegund would play an important role in the life of her Christian but violent husband, King Clotaire. These three women were among many women who converted barbarian and pagan men.
Now that the Franks were converted, Christendom was poised to spread in the west. But before that, much more violence would ensue.