In this country, when we think of royalty, usually it is in terms of Britain. This is natural, given Britain’s role in our history. Even though the British royal family has had less than a stellar record in recent years—or perhaps because its record has been less than stellar—Americans pay particular attention to goings on at Windsor Castle. Few of them, though, have any idea how old the British monarchy really is. Its beginning commonly is credited to Alfred the Great, who became the first king of united England in 878.
As old as that makes the British monarchy, it is not the oldest in the world. That honor usually is given to the Japanese imperial line, which, though tracing its origin into the mists of fable, most likely originated about 1,500 years ago. As distant as that line’s origin may be, it is still not the most ancient. That honor goes to the only “monarchial” line that stretches all the way back to the time of the Caesars. I refer, of course, to the papacy.
In 1840, in a review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes, British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was not a Catholic, included a famous passage about the longevity of the papacy and of the Church that it serves. It is one of those passages that should be memorized by Catholic school children, much as school children in general once memorized the Gettysburg Address:
The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable.
The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. . .
Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca.
And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.