05 The Baptism of Clovis
Birth of the eldest daughter of the Church
Rheims. Christmas Day A.D. 496. The streets of the ancient city are decked with flower and colour. At the cathedral, long white hangings invite the people inside. There, the fragrance or incense and the hundreds of candles which light the vaulted walls turn a grey and wintry day into what many attendants think to be the full brightness of an August sun. "Is Paradise here already?" exclaims one of them.
In the sanctuary, resplendent in dalmatics of white and gold, deacons surround the venerated Bishop Rem -- the living saint, the man who is said to have raised a dead man to life. From out the cheering crowds, enters the young (30) King of the Frankish warriors, Clovis the Great .
He is leading his officers and men tall, handsome, dusky men, the pride of the barbarian nations. They wear green, fur-trimmed cloaks, tunics of crimson silk, high fawn boots next to their bare skin. Behind them, the Germanic soldiery, their long hair hanging over the shaven napes of their necks, brandishing in their right hands their Frankish battle axes; and behind again, Clovis' Gallic allies in breastplate and helmet.
King Clovis advances to the baptistry, disrobes to enter the font: "Baise la tete, fier Sicambre," explains Bishop Remi. "Adore ce que tu as brute, et brule ce que tu as adore" -- worship what you once burned, and burn that which you once worshipped. Behind their King and leader, in groups of 300, 3,000 Franks receive the Sacrament of Baptism .
And many years later, Frenchmen would relate how at the moment when Saint Remi was about to proceed to the ritual anointing, a dove descended from heaven holding in its beak la sainte ampoule, the phial filled with holy oil which for over 1,300 years would serve to anoint the most Christian Kings of France.
Clovis, the Great was King of the Salian Franks since about A. D. 481, when at the age of 15, he had succeeded his father, a cunning and fierce barbarian chieftain. A splendid warrior himself, he gradually established his rule -- by stealth, diplomacy, and cruel conquest -- the leader of the several nations of Vandals, Visigoths and assorted Alamans who, for over 75 years, had been destroying the Roman Empire. By 480, they had swept aside the last western emperor at Rome, subjugated Christian Africa, subjected Spain and southern France, subdued the Rhineland, and imposed on all their conquered territories the doctrines of the Arian religion which denied the eternity and divinity of Christ.
Within 15 years. Clovis and his Franks had defeated them all and become the masters of the whole northern half of Gaul -- the last to be crushed being the Alamans whom he defeated at the Battle of Tolbiac.
It was in fact at Tolbiac that Clovis was converted to Christianity. At the height of the battle, in the midst of the thunderbolts, and faced with annihilation, he is said to have lifted his eyes to heaven and cried out: "O Jesus Christ! I have called on my own gods and have had no help from them. If I experience your power, I will believe in you and be baptized in your name." At that moment the Alamans turned, took flight, and, their king being slain, surrendered to Clovis, saying "Have mercy! We are yours." Clovis, true to his word, journeyed to Rheims to seek out Bishop Remi.
The baptism of King Clovis marks a decisive moment in history. For France the young King -- Clovis is the first Louis of the French dynasties -- united many and diverse tribes into a single strong state, his Catholicism creating the bond between the Germans and Gallo-Romans. But more, for the Church the conversion of Clovis had boundless consequences. It changed the destiny of the West
Immediately, Christian leaders in Arian territory turned to France: the first of what would eventually become strong, northen Catholic kingdoms, "the eldest daughter of the Church." The focus of Catholic action set on the northern tribes, away from the North African world. In the North was vigor, energy, and resolution: Gesta Dei per Francos.
For centuries to come, until virtually the whole of Western Europe would be baptized, "the works of God" would be performed by the French. And by their king, who proudly bore the title "the Most Christian King." The Empire of Charlemagne, the theology of the high Middle Ages, the glories of Gothic, the preaching of St. Bernard and the example of St. Louis, all these, in a sense, followed Clovis as he emerged from the baptismal waters. So did the Catholic zeal that impelled his successor Francis I to commission the discovery of Canada.