In 1500 C.E. the Roman Catholic Church was a very powerful institution in the West. Watch this video to learn how the Church maintained its power by teaching that salvation could only be earned by those who received the sacraments and performed good works.
The Catholic Church in 1500 C.E.
Meet Jean. Jean is a French peasant who owns a small plot of land, a cow, and a few chickens. Jean is married and has an 8-year old daughter, Clare, a 6-year old son, Louis, and a newborn, Henri. Jean's mother also lives with him.
Jean wants to go to Heaven. In the year 1500, that means Jean has to go through the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church was a very powerful institution in the West that was involved in every aspect of people's lives from birth to death. The Church had this power primarily because Christians believed it alone held the keys to salvation. The Church taught that only those who did good works and received the sacraments could go to Heaven. Sacraments are the rites that bring people closer to God and give them grace. There are seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, Matrimony, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders.
To see these sacraments in action, let us follow Jean and his family through their lives.
The sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church
Jean's family is celebrating the new year and the turn of the century. Jean and his neighbors are attending church to thank God for their blessings and to pray for forgiveness. You see, Jean constantly worries about his salvation and his children's salvation, too. So every Sunday, Jean dutifully attends church, receives the Eucharist, and gives money to the poor. Jean believes that salvation can only come through the Church, so he always does what the Church tells him to do.
Sacraments of Initiation
The next week, Jean is back at the church to baptize his son, Henri. Baptism is the first of the seven sacraments a Christian needs to be saved. Henri's baptism cleanses him of original sin, and he is now an official member of the Church. Jean's family celebrates, and Jean sleeps well that night comforted by the fact that his son is now on the path to salvation.
In the spring, the villagers anxiously await the bishop's arrival. The bishop is the head of the diocese, which is made up of many parishes. Someday, the bishop hopes to become archbishop of Avignon and govern an urban area, but today he is just visiting Jean's village to confer the sacrament of Confirmation onto the youth who have not yet received it. On a beautiful Sunday morning, Jean's other son, Louis, receives the bishop's blessing. As the Holy Spirit descends on Louis, his baptism is perfected, and he is given the grace to live a full Christian life. This is confirmation. Jean stands by as the proud papa and is the first to congratulate his son.
Jean's blessings continue, and a couple months later, his daughter, Clare, receives the sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time in her life. Clare is excited but a little scared too, because she knows that when the priest says of the bread, 'This is my body,' and of the wine, 'This is my blood,' that the bread and the wine will be transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This belief is called transubstantiation. Clare bows her head in prayer, asking God to make her worthy to receive His body and blood before receiving the Eucharist from the priest. Jean proudly stands by as he watches Clare and thanks God and the Church for giving his daughter the sacrament that unites her with Christ and fills her with grace. From now on, Clare will receive the Eucharist at least once a week, which will help her maintain her faith and save her from the fires of Hell.
The Eucharist involves receiving the body and blood of Christ
Sacraments of Healing
For the rest of the year, Jean makes sure his family attends church every Sunday and every Holy Day, too. At least once a month, Jean goes to confession to ask for forgiveness of his sins. His priest encourages the villagers to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation frequently, and since Jean wants to go to Heaven someday, he confesses his sins to the priest who grants him absolution, or forgiveness. After receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, Jean is filled with grace and believes he is in a better position to resist the evil temptations that will surely come around.
Unfortunately, Jean's good fortune runs out at the end of the year. On a cold, wet December morning, his mother falls ill and will not wake to see another sunrise. Sensing this, Jean's priest blesses the ailing woman by bestowing the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Jean's mother receives the Eucharist one final time, and after making her last confession, the priest absolves her of all her sins. Believing she will soon be in Heaven with her husband, Jean's mother smiles and takes her final breath.
The priest absolves sins during the Anointing of the Sick sacrament
Although Jean's mother had led a righteous life and would surely enter the Kingdom of Heaven someday, Jean fears her soul is trapped in Purgatory. Purgatory is not Heaven or Hell but a state in which the soul must be fully purified before it enters Heaven. But how long would Jean's mother have to spend in Purgatory? Five weeks? Five months? Five years? Maybe five hundred years?! Jean is not sure, and so he prays for her every day, and he asks the saints to pray for her, too.
Sacraments at the Service of Communions
The next year, Jean and his wife celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. Jean loves his wife very much and fondly remembers the day when they were married and received the sacrament of Matrimony. He was poor and had little to offer his new bride, but miraculously, she agreed to marry him. Before their friends and family, they made a vow to each other and to God to remain husband and wife for the rest of their lives. Although they have faced many challenges over the years, their bond is sealed by God and cannot be broken.
As the years pass, Jean remains a faithful parishioner and makes sure all of his children receive all of the sacraments. He tries hard to be a role model by regularly attending church, receiving the Eucharist, and going to confession. He also helps his neighbors and often gives food to Anton, the village beggar. After all, Jean's salvation depends upon these things!
Now an older man, Jean feels blessed yet again on the day his son Henri receives the sacrament of Holy Orders and is ordained a priest. The sacrament changes Henri spiritually; he promises obedience to his bishop and to devote his life to serving God, the Church, and its people. As a Roman Catholic priest, Henri is forbidden to marry, and so he will not have children to carry on the family name, but this does not bother Jean since he already has two grandsons through his other children. Rather, Jean thanks God for a lifetime of happiness and continues to pray that someday all of his good works and obedience to the Church will open Heaven's gates to him.
Jean's story illustrates how important the Catholic Church was to the people of Western Europe around 1500 C.E. At this time, which was prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church dominated the religious life of its people. Since the Church taught that to achieve salvation one had to receive the sacraments and perform good works, this is what people did.
Although the Church said the sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders were not required for salvation, the other five sacraments - Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing the Sick - were all necessary for one to achieve eternal happiness in Heaven. Because the Roman Catholic Church and its leaders controlled the distribution of these sacraments, it was a very powerful institution - one that few dared to challenge, for the time being at least.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify and describe the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church
- Define transubstantiation and Purgatory