Christian Trier in Germany
by Christoph Pitsch
Trier is an ancient German city near the Luxembourg and French borders. At the 2002 inauguration Mass of then-Bishop Marx at Trier,* Bishop Kamphaus of Limburg brought something special with him – ‘the crozier of St. Peter.’ The metropolitan Archbishop of Cologne ceremonially presented this to Bishop Marx “as a visible symbol of the communion of the church of Trier to St. Peter and his successors.“
The Legend of ‘St. Peter’s Crozier’
Of course, Peter lived hundreds of years before croziers became ecclesiastical paraphernalia, but the secret behind this crozier is a fascinating legend about the foundation of the Church in Trier (Roman ‘Treverus’—from which the Christian name ‘Trevor’ comes).
According to this legend, St. Eucharius and St. Valerius, disciples of St. Peter, together with St. Maternus, left Rome to preach the Gospel north of the Alps. (Other legends say they were sent as priest, deacon and subdeacon respectively.)
Upon reaching present-day Alsace-Lorraine, Maternus died from exhaustion. Eucharius and Valerius, discouraged, returned to Rome. There, St. Peter gave them his crosier and sent them to Maternus again, where they resurrected him using St. Peter’s crosier. Then, Eucharius and Valerius proceeded to Trier to found a Christian community and Maternus did the same in Cologne.
The Real History of Trier
How much of this is true? In fact, according to the medieval episcopal lists, Eucharius was the actual first bishop of Trier in the 200s. Valerius is listed as the second. Maternus, who was the first bishop of Cologne (Roman ‘Colonnia’) is mentioned as the third bishop of Trier. But these sources also state that there was Christian life in Trier before these three holy bishops.
Augusta Treverorum (Trier) was founded in 30 BC as an imperial residence of the Roman Emperor and capital of the province of Gallia Belgica. It was the most important city north the Alps; even today Trier is filled with buildings of amazing antiquity – Roman baths, arenas, even wine warehouses that date back to ancient Roman times. (Editor’s Note: One of Germany’s best-kept secrets is the unbelievable scope and breadth of ancient Roman ruins at Trier — unrivaled anywhere in Europe besides Rome itself.)
Trier was also the site of one of the most notorious slaughterings of Christians, when during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian the Trier governor Rictiovarus carried out the atrocities. When soldiers of his own Roman Legion refused to renounce Christ, they were put to death by the sword on the Roman bridge over the Moselle River, which still stands.
Local legends say the Moselle ‘ran red with the blood of the martyrs’ for miles — and that Christians downstream collected the remains and buried them. These remains are today under the churches of St. Paulinus, St. Maximian and St Matthias. (In 1990, excavations for the regional museum uncovered the remains of 1300 at the church of St. Maxmian — now in State hands — alone.)
Early Christian Trier
After the promulgation of the Edict of Milan under emperor Constantine, Christianity was no longer illegal. By then, Constantine’s mother, Helena, had retired to Trier. (Some say she founded a convent there.) Then came the so-called ‘Constantinian Shift,’ when the Empire became Christian.
So, where to build the first Christian basilica on German soil? Literally, on the foundations of the palace of St. Helena.
From this ancient basilica the present double – church complex of the ‘Cathedral’ (in Latin, ‘seat’) of the Bishop of Trier developed. Today, the Roman basilica sits beside a beautiful Gothic church in the shape of a rose, dedicated to Our Lady — the oldest Gothic church in Germany.
The Benedictine Abbey of St Matthias at Trier houses the only remains of an Apostle north of the Alps. The Abbey itself was built on land belonging to a Roman Senator from Trier. In recent decades, a stupendous archaeological find there revealed the bones of hundreds of Christians surrounding a Roman sarcophagus buried deep under the Abbey grounds for many centuries.
St Helena and the Holy Robe
Legend has it that Helena found the Cross and the Robe of Christ during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She was a lady much advanced in years when she visited the Holy Land, and both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were built on Helena’s orders.
Today the Holy Robe (“Heilige Rock’) of Christ is kept in the Cathedral of Trier – one of the most important relics of our Lord. (Editor’s Note: Why do Catholics venerate relics? See here.)
Trier in the Center of the Storm
This was a time of stormy church-political and theological controversies. A man named Arius in Egypt preached that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by – and is therefore distinct from – God the Father. This was the first heresy to rock Christianity, which it did to its very roots.
(Arianism is actually a debate we can see today as well, when people ask ‘Is Jesus Christ ‘God’ or was he simply a social reformer?’)
This controversy assumed even greater dimensions and only finally ended in the First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), from whence we get the Nicene Creed which we recite at every Mass. Two of the leading bishops against Arius were Father Athanasius of Alexandria – one of the four Great Doctors of the church — and Bishop Paulinus. St. Paulinus was at one time the only bishop who would not conform to the rampant Arian heresy that swept through the Church. For his faithful witness, he was exiled from Trier to Turkey, where he died.
What role did Trier play? After the council, in which the teachings of Arius were rejected and the Nicene Creed agreed upon by the bishops, Athanasius fell into disfavor with Emperor Constantine and was banished to Trier, where Paulinus was the bishop.
At the same time, another Church Father participated in the dispute with Arius – the great Ambrose of Milan. He is known as the composer of the Catholic hymn the Te Deum and as the one who baptized St. Augustine. Another legend says that as Augustine was being baptized, he intoned the first line of this hymn and that Ambrose answered. Today the Te Deum is sung at the end of every year in every Catholic church in the world.
Ambrose was born in Trier, the son of a Roman prefect.
The Second Rome
We can see that the Church of Trier played a very important role in defending and preaching the Faith in history – literally a second Rome. The immense ruins of the ancient Roman civilization surround us at Trier, and the literal handing-on of that civilization through the Faith to us in the present day is apparent with every step through the old City.
All these Trier symbols, relics and legends have one thing in common: they demonstrate to the faithful what our origins are. We in Trier were the first Christians on German soil. This is our pride, and our responsibility.
(Editor’s Note: Marx is now cardinal and archbishop of Munich and a member of the group of eight cardinals advising Pope Francis.)
PHOTO CREDITS: All photos by Harry Stevens except lead photo of the Porta Nigra city gate at Trier by Pit Perrot.