Entering into the mind of the medieval world is very difficult for moderns. There is a vast mental and psychological distance between the twenty-first century and the middle ages. The latter were drenched in mysticism, whereas the contemporary world has been shaped by rationalism so that mystical concepts and experiences have been stripped away except among a small number of people steeped in the religious thought of our Western ancestors. I was reminded of this in reading a brief history of the Abbey of Conques in the Auvergene region of France, a church that serves pilgrims who are walking on the ancient route from Le Puy to Santiago de Campostella--one of the historic pilgrimage routes of Christians.
The original church, constructed at the end of the ninth century, housed the relics of St. Foy, which inspired great devotion. Though Christianity remained a very strong force more than a thousand years later, today the cult of relics and the pilgrimages associated with them no longer play a significant role in the lives of Christians. It can be argued that the decline of pilgrimages is a loss to Christian spiritual life in an age of unbelief and immorality when people have a profound need for spiritual examples.
Awareness of the Christian martyrs also has diminished considerably even for those whose faith is in the Catholic tradition. It is not clear whether this is because of the widespread de-Christianization in Western Europe or whether it is itself a contributing cause of the de-Christianization. This diminishing awareness is all the more disturbing since there may have been more martyrs in the twentieth century than in any previous century of the Christian epoch. To appreciate this, one has only to bear in mind the vast number of Christians murdered by the Nazis and the Russian, Eastern Bloc, and Chinese Communists. Many years ago I gained insight into this subject when I came to know a Belgian Jesuit who had been a missionary in China when the country was overrun by Mao Tse-tung's Communists. He said that his Chinese assistants were seized by the Communists and that he, Father de Jaeger, was forced to watch while they were buried alive. Countless Christians also were massacred in Uganda, the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, and other African countries. These are only the recent victims of religious persecution. Many priests and nuns were martyred in the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, and other oppressive conflicts of the twentieth century.
The blood of martyrs was spilled in many parts of the world in the last century. Despite this sad history, the faith of people in most parts of Europe was not reinforced as it was in Poland and certain other Eastern countries brutalized by persecution of Christians.
St. Foy in France was martyred in 303 in Emperor Diocletion's persecution of Christians. Four centuries later, Christians were besieged by the conquering Muslims who had spilled into Spain and made a deep penetration of France until halted by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 731. A grille in the church at Conques reportedly was made of the chains placed on Christians who had been prisoners of the Moors.
Another loss in our time is the practice of monasticism on a large scale. Commencing during the early centuries when Christians were persecuted, monasticism continued to flourish in succeeding centuries when the traditional Roman social order had broken down and cities collapsed under barbarian pressure. The monasteries served as spiritual enclaves in a disordered world and also made possible the safeguarding of relics.
Dr. Peter Brown of Princeton University observes that monasticism arose in the fourth century and "brought a new element into the moral and social attitudes of the late...