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Not long after the Constantine became sole emperor in 324, he removed the imperial capital from Rome to a re-founded Byzantium, now to be called “Constantinople.” Constantine did this partly as a result of his conversion to Christianity, which suggested the desirability of a new Christian capital free from pagan associations, but mainly because the nature of the sprawling roman empire required a center of civilian and military administration further east. The effect was gradually to split the empire, with separate administrations and eventually emperors, and separate religious traditions. From about the 6th century, the five major Christian bishoprics – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – were supreme over all others, and their incumbents were known as “patriarchs,” although the title was not used in Rome; where the bishop was the pope. Since Constantinople was an imperial capital, its patriarch regarded himself equal in status to the pope. Because papal claims to supremacy could not accommodate themselves to this point of view, the holders of the two offices were inevitably hostile to each other, a hostility which ended in a breach between the Western and Eastern Churches in 1054, which has continued, with minor attempts to heal the rift, until modern times.

Siricius (384-399)

We carry the burdens of all those who are heavily laden. For undoubtedly the blessed Apostle Peter carries these things in us and, we are sure, protects us in all things to do with his government, and watches over his heirs.

Siricius Letters 1.13

Throughout his pontificate continued the emphasis of his predecessor upon Roman supremacy. His answers to queries by other bishops on a variety of matters were preemptory and authoritative, and his attitude to heresy was uncompromising. He was also the first Roman bishop to use the title “Pope” in its modern sense, and it may well be that such an overt exe3rcise of primacy contributed to the hostile opinion of Paulinus of Nola that Siricius was both haughty and reserved.

Anastasius I (399 – 401)

Notable for his involvement in a bitter controversy over the translation of certain writings by the 3rd century Alexandrian theologian Origen. One can see factions at work here, because both Jerome and Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, were ruthless in bringing pressure to bear on the pope of anathematize Origen’s works as erroneous and dangerous, and because Anastasius was under the eye of Jerome’s friends and supporters in Rome, he eventually acquiesced in the condemnation, even though he himself had not read a word of the works he was condemning. Jerome was duly gratified and after Anastasius’ death consecrated his memory as a saintly and blessed bishop “of very rich poverty and Apostolic solicitude” who had successfully governed the Roman Church during a time of tempestuous Eastern heresy.

Innocent I (401 – 417)

Reputedly the son of the previous pope, came an immense disaster which challenged the pope’s character and abilities to the full. In 410, Rome was sacked. The instrument was Alaric I, king of the Visigoths; the cause was the empire’s debility at this juncture. The empire had been divided into two, with Honorius, the Western emperor, resident in Ravenna from 404, and the Eastern emperor resident in Constantinople. The talented Western general Stilicho gave Alaric a chance to attack, and in 408 Rome found itself under siege. Alaric reduced the city to the extremities of famine before accepting the offer of a prodigious ransom. Pope Innocent went to Ravenna to persuade Honorius that this ransom would have to be paid if Rome were to survive.

Honorius, however, temporized, and in 409 Alaric again advanced on Rome, seizing the port of Ostia where corn was stored to feed the capital. A second siege began. In August 410 the gates were opened by traitors and Alaric entered the city. For three days it was pillaged. Alaric, a Christian, spared Christian buildings but destroyed those belonging to the pagan population. Innocent, who had been in Ravenna throughout this catastrophe, returned when the Visigoths had left and set about works of public charity.

During his final years a British heresy, Pelagianism, disturbed the Church in Africa and hundreds of letters were sent to the pope from St Augustine and other African bishops, asking him to repudiate Pelagius’ teachings. Innocent claims that all important religious questions must be referred to him as pope were, it seems, beginning to take effect.

Zosimus (417 – 418)

Was drawn into the Pelagian controversy but handled it tactlessly and managed to quarrel with the African bishops.

Boniface I (418 – 422)

Had to contend with an antipope, Eulalius, and for a while had to leave Rome in the face of powerful political hostility. But he too, had friends at court and once he managed to reassert his authority, he grappled with the mess left behind by Zosimus. Like his predecessors, Boniface promoted the claims of the papacy and handed his successor a Church in somewhat better frame of mind to receive a pope’s directives.

Celestine I (422 – 432)

Celestine’s major challenge was yet another heresy – Nestorianism. Nestorius was patriarch of Constantinople (428 – 431) – an office which was recognized in 381 as being second only to the papacy in deciding Christian matters – and initiated a far-ranging quarrel about whether the Virgin Mary could be called Theotokos (“Mother of God”) or not. He wrote to Celestine himself and others sent the pope copies of his sermons, but eventually he was condemned as a heretic by the council of Ephesus in 431, even though Celestine had originally given his approval to Nestorius’ appointment as patriarch. Celestine was equally unfortunate in his dealings with the Church in Africa, which continued to assert its freedom of action.

Sixtus III (432 – 440)

Continued Celestine’s policies and left a permanent memorial of his reign in Rome by building the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose mosaics begin to show the growing influence of the Virgin in Catholic devotion.

Leo I (440 – 461)

Had worked for both Celestine I and Sixtus III and gained useful experience in dealing with heresies whether they were continuing problems from those earlier reigns, revivals from the previous century, or Christological controversies in the present. Indeed, when it came to the latter especially, he brooked no nonsense. One can see this in his dealings with an heretical Eastern monk, Eutyches, who had had only one nature, the human having been absorbed by the divine. The patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, condemned this and immediately Eutyches stirred up trouble and appealed to Rome. A council was summoned to Ephesus in 449 to deal with this problem.

Leo did not condescend to come himself to the council but sent delegates armed with a doctrinal statement (Tome) asserting the orthodox teaching that the incarnate Christ’s two natures were separate. At the same time Leo sent instructions that he did not expect his Tome to be subjected to any inquiry or discussion. “Rome has spoken; the subject is closed” is not one of his sayings, but there is little doubt he would have applauded its sentiment. He had imperial support. Emperor Valentinian III acknowledged the claim to papal supremacy in an edict (445) which enabled Leo to confine to his diocese a troublesome Gallic bishop, Hilary of Arles.

But Leo does not appear to have become arrogant. He took his pastoral duties seriously and was a busy preacher, his 96 extant sermons revealing his eagerness to promote charitable giving to the poor, fasting and avoidance of sun worship on the steps of St Peter’s. He was also personally courageous. In 452, for example, when northern Italy was under attack by Attila the Hun, Leo faced him near Mantua and persuaded him to withdraw his army. Again, in 455 he confronted Gaiseric the Vandal outside the walls of Rome and, by his intervention, mitigated somewhat the sack of the city which followed.

The impression carried away by anyone who reads an account of his pontificate is that of a man who had no doubts that he was exercising the full authority of St Peter as transmitted to the bishops of Rome, and that this authority overrode that of all other patriarchs and bishops. When he died he was buried within the porch of St Peter’s, but in 668 his tomb was removed and a monument erected inside the basilica itself – a great honor, and Leo was the first pontiff to whom it was accorded.

Leo was the first pope to be buried in St Peter’s and his body has been moved four times to different parts of the basilica. On the third removal in 1607, the body was found in almost perfect condition.

There is a 17th century sculpture of Pope Leo I facing Attila the Hun, by Alessandro Algardi at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Attila had a wry sense of humor. Bishop Lupus and Pope Leo I were the two people who had been most persuasive in getting the king to spare the cities of Troyes and Rome. “I can conquer men,” said Attila, “but not the Lion [Leo] and the wolf [Lupus].”


Papal Supremacy

It is certain that the only defense for us and our empire is the favor of the God of heaven; and to deserve it our first care is to support the Christian faith and its venerable religion. So, because of the pre-eminence of the Apostolic See is assured by the merit of the prince of bishops St Peter, by the leading position of the city of Rome, and also by the authority of a sacred synod, let none presume to attempt anything contrary to the authority of that see. For then at last the peace of the churches will be preserved everywhere if the whole body recognizes its ruler.

Leo Letters 11 (quoting the Order of Valentinian III)

Pope Leo’s views on the papacy are important. He was a man grounded in Roman law and sought to clarify the notion of papal succession in terms of the existing roman law of inheritance. Each pope, in law, succeeded St Peter, not the immediately preceding pope, and thus inherited St Peter’s powers. This view had the effect of separating the papal office from the person holding it, so that the prestige and the authority of the papacy would remain untouched (at least legally) by the individual failings or virtues of any particular pope. Hence the pope became executor of the office and is personality was of no account in the execution of papal powers inherited directly from Peter.


Hilarus (461 – 468)

Had worked closely with Leo and modeled himself upon him, not hesitating, for example, to confront the Western emperor Anthemius (467 – 472) when he seemed to be on the point of favoring heretics in the heart of Rome itself. Hilarus also consolidated Rome’s authority over the churches in Gaul and Spain, emphasized Roman supremacy in his letters to the bishops of the East, and fought against heresies abroad as well as at home.

Simplicius (468 – 483)

Saw the last roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, deposed in favor of a German general, Odoacer, a heretic, and the disintegration of the Western empire into separate Romanized but non-Roman principalities. This was a significant moment, for it left the Church as the most likely heir to Roman imperial authority and prestige. In the East, however, Monophysite teaching, so firmly opposed by Leo I, was in the ascendant and Simplicius became increasingly helpless to do anything about it. The Eastern emperor simply ceased to consult or inform him.

Felix III (483 – 492)

Quickly found that Constantinople had little respect for either him or his office, and reacted angrily by excommunicating the patriarch Acacius for appointing a Monophysite to the see of Antioch to replace its orthodox bishop. Acacius ignored the sentence and thus began a split between East and West which lasted for 35 years. Felix, however, maintained a resolute antagonism to Monophysite influence, even in the face of a new emperor’s attempts at rapprochement. His resistance is notable. It marks how far the papacy had come from the days when it either had to lie low or win a lofty accommodation from the imperial secular power.

Gelasius I (492 – 496)

He gave himself up to no vain, idling, and wasteful banquets which bring maladies of soul and body. This pastor was an imitator of the great Good Shepherd, an outstanding bishop of the Apostolic See, who lived the divine precepts and taught them.

Dionysius Exiguus Decretals of the Roman Pontiffs

The second pope of African descent, the schism between east and West continued and deepened. While Odoacer the German was replaced by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, thus distancing the remnants of the Western empire even further from the East, Gelasius stubbornly refused to compromise with Constantinople, warning his legate there about the sly tricks and obstinate heresy of the “Greeks.” Unfortunately, perhaps, Gelasius managed to form an excellent relationship with Theodoric who, in spite of being (or maybe because he was) a heretic, allowed Gelasius a free hand in regulating the Church. But even in Rome not everyone agreed with the pope’s unbending stance.

Gelasius was a prolific writer of letters as well as theological treatises. He developed a theory that there were two powers in the world, one Episcopal and one royal. The latter was held in particular by the emperor, the former, superior to it, by the pope.

Anastasius II (496 – 498)

Initiated a conciliatory approach to the Eastern emperor. “We do not want the disagreement among the churches to continue any longer,” he wrote and followed his letter with an embassy. At the same time, Theodoric suggested to the emperor that he recognize his (Theodoric’s) claim to the kingship of Italy. A quid pro quo was offered; the emperor would recognize Theodoric on the understanding that the pope would adopt a softer line on Monophysitism: one notes the assumption that Anastasius would fall into line. But almost at once Anastasius was in trouble. Rome had split into hard-liners and compromisers, and the pope’s somewhat inept forays into diplomacy produced internal schism. It is not, therefore, surprising that when the pope suddenly died at the height of the crisis, his enemies attributed his death to the wrath of God.

Symmachus (498 – 514)

Opposed by the antipope Lawrence amid violent scenes which brought Theodoric into the process. He declared for Symmachus who was then accused by Lawrence’s supporters of celebrating Easter on the wrong day, being unchaste and misusing Church property. Summoned by Theodoric to explain himself, Symmachus foolishly fled to Rome and locked himself in St Peter’s. Needless to say, this caused another split among the clergy and it was not until 502 that Symmachus was vindicated. But Theodoric was displeased by this verdict and for a while Lawrence and Symmachus coexisted in Rome, ruling by virtue of the violence of their respective adherents. Then in 506 Theodoric changed his mind and transferred his support wholly to Symmachus. Lawrence fled to a farm owned by his principal patron, and not long after died. The bitterness of these early years soured the rest of Symmachus’ pontificate.

Hormisdas (514 – 523)

Able to act as peacemaker not only between the factions in Rome but also between Rome and Constantinople. In his reign the long quarrel started under Felix III and was brought to an end, helped by the accession of a new Eastern emperor, Justin I (518 – 527), who was no supporter of Monophysitism.

John I (523 – 526)

A former admirer or the antipope Lawrence, was immediately faced by a major political challenge. Justin I had begun to persecute Arians, followers of the 4th century heretic Arius who denied that Jesus was consubstantial with God (i.e. had the same essence or substance as the Father), which would mean, of course, that Jesus was inferior to God. This teaching had proved popular in certain quarters and had spread. King Theodoric himself was an Arian and resented Justin’s attempts to suppress his beliefs. So he ordered the pope to go to Constantinople and negotiate a settlement with the Eastern emperor. John was the first pope to go to the East and was accorded a brilliant welcome. Nevertheless, his mission ended in failure and, on his return to Italy, he had to face Theodoric’s anger. Mercifully for him, perhaps, he died before the king could decide what to do with him.

A 14th century fresco in the Church of Santa Maria in Porto Fuori, Ravenna, depicts John I being judged by King Theodoric. A companion fresco shows the pope in prison. The pictures record a dubious tradition that Theodoric had John arrested and put to death. A miniature of the 15th century shows the pope being executed.

Felix IV (526 – 530)

Seems to have been Theodoric’s preferred choice and continued to enjoy favor at the Gothic court. Felix was the first pope to adapt pagan buildings in the Roman Forum to Christian worship. The Temple of the Sacred City and its adjoining Shrine of Romulus, for example, were turned into a church dedicated to the martyrs Cosma and Damiano.

Felix was the first pope to adapt pagan buildings in the roman Forum to Christian worship. The Temple of the Sacred city and its adjoining Shrine of Romulus, for example, were turned into a church dedicated to the martyrs of Cosma and Damiano.

Boniface II (530 – 532)

The first pope of German descent, had been unconstitutionally nominated by Felix as his successor and was opposed by an antipope Dioscorus who received the votes of a worryingly large number of clergy. He died, however, after 22 days and Boniface made those who had voted for him sign a letter, confessing their mistake. Thereafter, the pope set about reconciliation but almost threw it away by trying to nominate his successor. Faced with potential revolt, he retreated and thus saved himself from Gothic disfavor.

For five months and 15 days after Boniface’s death, the most scandalous election campaign yet waged for the papal office saw intrigue, chicanery and corruption busying themselves about Rome. Large-scale bribing of royal officials and influential senators reached such a pitch that Theodoric’s successor, King Athalaric, passed a law to prevent its reoccurrence.

John II (533 – 535)

A man on good terms with both Athalaric and the new Eastern emperor, Justinian I (527 – 565). The latter published a decree favorable in its tone to the Monophysites, and John, in spite of an appeal from monks in Constantinople, ratified the document in clear contradiction of the line taken earlier on the subject by Pope Homrisdas.

Agapitus I (535 – 536)

A cultured aristocrat, was not so accommodating and turned his face against Justinian’s declared intention of invading Italy and incorporating it once more into the empire. He went to Constantinople to see if the emperor might be persuaded to drop his plan because the Church’s wealth had been squandered during the election battles in 532, he was obliged to pawn sacred vessels to pay for his deputation. This was, as it turned out, a failure. Certainly he managed to convince Justinian that the patriarch of Constantinople, Anthimus, was a heretic, and have him deposed, but the key-point of his mission was refused. Italy, said Justinian, would still be invaded.

Agapitus died in Constantinople, an Empress Theodora, a Monophysite who had favored the deposed patriarch, offered a Roman deacon, Vigilius, the papal throne if he agreed to reinstate her favorite. Rome, however, had meanwhile elected Silverius pope.

Silverius (536 – 537)

Justinian’s military commander, Belisarius, now in Rome, tried to persuade Silverius to resign quietly and when the pope refused, deposed him by force and sent him into exile. An appeal, however, was lodged with Justinian. The emperor ordered that Silverius be returned to Rome and stand trial for allegedly plotting with the Goths against him. Vigilius, now pope, took immediate steps to have him officially abdicate and Silverius, exiled a second time, soon after died from starvation.

Vigilius (537 – 555)

Theodora summoned Vigilius and secretly urged him to promise that if he became pope, he would dismiss the Council [of Chalcedon held in 451], write to Theodosius, Anthimus and Severus [leading Monophysites] and pledge his loyalty to them in his letter. She promised to give him an order for Belisarius to have him ordained pope and present him with 700 gold pieces. Vigilius, therefore, willingly made his promise, for love of the papal office and of gold; and when he had given his word, he set out for Rome where he found that Silverius had already been ordained pope.

Liberatus of Carthage Breviarium 22

With Vigilius there is no disguising the fact that we reach a low-point in papal history. True, our sources are largely hostile to him, but even after one discounts the bias, there is still much to be hostile about. Three things are clear: Vigilius was a creature of Justinian and Theodora; the basic motivation of his career was his desire to become pope and he was complicit to some degree in the downfall of Silverius. Nevertheless, a measure of sympathy may be appropriate. With the military aggrandizement of the imperial court in Constantinople, the determined resistance to it of the gothic court in Italy, and the battle between pro-Gothic and pro-imperial factions in Rome itself, not to mention the wider struggle of orthodox teaching and Monophysite heresy to capture hearts and minds, the papacy must have feared being reduced to the status of a meaty bone torn by two quarreling dogs.

Vigilius had first made the acquaintance of Theodora – who had begun life as an actress and a prostitute, catching Justinian’s eye while he was still heir to the throne and marrying him shortly after he became emperor – when he was sent as a papal representative to Constantinople by Boniface II. During the intrigues which followed the death of Agapitus I, Vigilius eventually emerged as pope on the spears of Belisarius’ army and thus owed much to imperial favor. Unfortunately for him, emperor and empress were on opposite sides of the doctrinal controversy, and while Vigilius wrote to Justinian that he supported wholeheartedly the emperor’s theological stance, privately, through the offices of the former patriarch of Constantinople, he assured Theodora of his goodwill towards and approval of the Monophysite position. It was not a balancing-act he could maintain forever.

In 543, Justinian issued an official repudiation of the writings of three individuals, all of whom supported the orthodox line on the two-fold nature of Christ. This initiated what is known as the “Three Chapters” controversy and proved fatal to Vigilius’ ability to survive without further dishonor. Justinian may have been hoping that his anti-orthodox decree would please (and thus pacify) the large number of Monophysites in the empire, but what it actually did was to deepen further the already profound division between East and West. Vigilius, to do him justice, did try at first to resist the emperor’s demand that he ratify this decree. But Justinian was in no mood for recalcitrance, and had the pope arrested and eventually brought to Constantinople. It took a long time to wear down his resistance, but at length he gave in – although even then he temporized. He would condemn the Three Chapters, he said, but maintain the orthodox position.

The West saw this as a betrayal and such was the furor aroused that Justinian agreed that a Church council should be summoned to resolve it. During the long delay which ensued Justinian impatiently reissued his condemnation of the Three Chapters, only to be met at Vigilius’ outright refusal to support him. This was the beginning of Vigilius’ end. Attacked by soldiers, he fled into exile, and when the council was finally called in Constantinople in 553, he thought it best not to attend in person. The council, in Justinian’s pocket, decreed as the emperor wished. As for the pope, he was brought back to house arrest in the Eastern capital and eventually forced to comply with Justinian’s demands.

He remained in exile for about seven years until, broken and ill, he was told he might return to Rome. He died before he reached it. We are told that he died in Syracuse of an attack of gallstones. The exact date of his death is unknown. It happened either late in 554 or early in 555. His body was taken on to Rome and buried in the Church of San Marcello on the Via Salaria.

Boniface II named Vigilius – then a deacon – as his successor, but it was decided that the papacy could not be treated by its incumbent as though it were a piece of personal property, and the nomination was cancelled.


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