There has been understandably been much news print and comment about the new Pope, Francis I, just ordained to that position. Especially there has been great time and attention devoted to his leadership goals and style. This first couple of weeks every little nuance has been observed to get a reading on what his goals and methods will be and what kind of leadership traits he will emphasize. This is certainly to be expected as he is the religious leader for over a billion people. Any institution as old as the Church will have witnessed many leaders and many different leadership styles and skills or the lack of them over the years. After all it has been in business for 2000 years. At different times there have been various demands and needs in the leader of the Church. There have been wars, famines, religious conflicts, doctrinal disputes and social injustice and governmental oppressions that have challenged the Church and therefore the needed leadership in the Church has varied greatly over the centuries. Today it seems that making the Church seem relevant in an increasingly secular world is the great challenge of the Church. Sometimes the leadership required was much more profound and fundamental–it was a battle for survival.
From the time of Jesus until the conversion of Constantine, the Popes (more accurately bishops in the early days) had to struggle to spread the Gospel and do so without arousing too much animosity of the Roman authorities. You are familiar with the stories of the early Christians and the lions in the Colosseum and those stories are true. The Church had to attract new devotees and its mission of course was to expand, grow and convert everyone to the Gospel. It was devilish balancing act because it wanted and needed to grow but it realized it couldn’t be seen as a threat to the Empire. Thus the ebb and flow of persecutions in the early centuries. The Empire finally embraced the Gospel with Constantine and the Church fully emerged into the light and indeed the Popes now starting assuming a power beyond the pulpit. Now Kings and Emperors wanted and needed their blessings and ordination to their crowns. By the 9th century AD the Church was firmly established throughout the Western world but the world was still a dangerous place.
During the 7th and 8th century the Muslim world was on the march and making conquests throughout much of the known world. The reach of Islam under the sword had now stretched from the Indus in the East all the way west across all of the Middle East and to the straits of Gibraltar and beyond. You will recall that the Muslims had taken Spain in the 600’s and then moved into southern France in the 700’s and were only stopped finally by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours early in the 8th century. That was only a couple hundred miles from Paris. In the 8th century the Muslims began expanding their hegemony from the shores of North Africa and Spain into the southern reaches of Italy. By mid-century Sicily had fallen to the scimitar and the western coast of the Italian mainland was under assault.
In 846 Rome no longer gleamed with the splendor of the ancient days and the true political power now resided in the Constantinople. But Rome was still a large city and already was filled with millennia of history. The Muslims pressed their attack onto Rome and the outlying regions. They looted and carried off some of the treasure of the Vatican and then moved farther inland to subdue the heartland. But the situation was very fluid as there was resistance up and down the west coast of Italy and the Muslims varied their military objectives and targets of conquests regularly. It was in the midst of the perilous times that a new Pope was elected. It was Leo the Fourth. He immediately began the call for help and aid from allies along the coast not under the dominion of the Muslims and even up the the Carlovingian rulers of the Franks but time and distance prevented effective relief from the quarter. After Leo performed the usual prayers and formalities of office he immediately followed up with restoring the defenses of the once great city. The City walls were repaired and expanded and 15 new battle towers were erected around the City in strategic locations. Two of those were on either side of the Tiber and there was a great iron chain established between to prevent ingress by a hostile fleet.
From Naples and Amalfi among others fleets came to the rescue of Rome and the Pontiff. A battle was joined off the coast but the Muslims were not savvy sailors and got caught in a bad storm and much of their force was destroyed while the Christians remained in the sheltered bays and coves. The war raged on for several more years but under the encouragement and blessing of Leo the Christians did extract the Muslim from the Italian mainland and even the outlying regions over time. The Pope brought in a flood of immigrants from Corsica to to replenish Christians at Ostia Porto, the Roman port at the mouth of the Tiber as a buffer against future attack. The City of Rome and the Church had managed to survive the Goths, the Lombards, Huns and now the Muslims. Leo was the man of his times and his martial leadership skills in addition to his religious guidance were necessary at that moment. It was several more centuries before El Cid finally extirpated the Muslims from Spain. But with the battle of Tours and the wars and battles during Leo the Fourth’s reign Europe was saved from the Islamic yoke.
“The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul…” Proverbs 13. http://www.olcranky.wordpress.com