Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
Peace enveloped the Holy See with accession of its next
occupant, Hormisdas, in 514. A Roman aristocrat of great personal charm and blessed with the better diplomatic traits he won back many schismatic bishops to the Church without sacrificing the policies of his predecessors. While keeping good terms with King Theodoric he sent embassies to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius who, while friendly, remained obdurately steadfast to the heretical party. But with Anastasius successor, Justin, the pope won success and on the Holy Thursday of the year 519 a reunion, temporary though it proved to be, of the Roman and Greek Churches was celebrated with joy and pomp.
Not so serene was the lot of the next pontiff, John, a Tuscan, upon whom fell the ire of Theodoric. The new peace between Rome and Constantinople had alarmed that hitherto tolerant monarch and he received with anger the information that Justin was forcibly depriving of their civil rights those of his subjects who still remained staunch to their Arian beliefs. Theodoric, an Arian himself, called upon Pope John and told him he expected the same tolerance shown to his fellow believers in the East as he had exhibited to his Catholic subjects in the West. It was a dangerous situation for the Pope and he undertook to solve it by journeying to Constantinople, the first of his rank ever to do so, and conferring with Justin. He received a magnificent welcome and the tumultuous crowds of the Eastern metropolis had the wonder of witnessing their Emperor bow his proud and purple-clad person before the pontiff, humbly beseeching the honor of being crowned by the consecrated hands. The news of this triumphant reception of John by the persecutor of his co-religionists was conveyed back to Italy and only served to infuriate King Theodoric the more. Meanwhile John had conscientiously employed his influence successfully to stay the measures of oppression levelled against the Arians; but it
was too much to expect that he, head of the Catholic Church, would plead that the large numbers of those former Arians, converted it was true by the Emperor's forceful actions, should revert to their former state of heresy.
With the echoes of Imperial homage still fresh in his memory John on his return to Rome was seized by Theodoric's officers and incarcerated. Being old and infirm he was unable to survive such adversity and so he soon perished in imprisonment. Nor was he the sole victim of the royal injustice. Also arrested were two greatly respected men of Rome, the philosopher Boethius and his aged relative, Symmachus. Theodoric who for so long had withstood the temptations of despotism had finally succumbed to those excesses of suspicion and uncertainty which lead to tyranny. Jealously he watched over the machinations of the next papal election and there can be no doubt his powerful influence carried weight in the choice of that gathering. The pontiff announced was Felix IV who was consecrated Bishop of Rome on the 12th July, 526. The royal favor he had enjoyed as a candidate for the papal honors this pope now employed to the benefit of the Church without sacrificing the dignities or the responsibilities of his office.
When Theodoric died his successors, the minor Athalaric and his regent mother, maintained the same amicable relations between Prince and Pontiff and it was undoubtedly because of this friendship that a Royal Edict was issued confirming the rights and privileges of ecclesiastical courts. Under this law such courts were to be the sole judges of clerical conduct, even when an erring churchman violated the ordinary civil or criminal codes. Pope Felix seems to have feared a dominance of the Church by the Byzantine party and in order that such an event should not happen he, when aware death was approaching, conferred his own
pallium on the age-bent shoulders of his friend the Archdeacon Boniface with a proclamation that here was his successor. Threats of excommunication against anyone who would dare to oppose his wishes were delivered with his pronouncement, and after his death in the latter part of 530 Boniface II took office. Here was the first pontiff of Germanic ancestry and his character and record, both as pope and priest, are that of a pious and charitable man. But the unprecedented method of his ascension to the papal rank found no favor with many of the Roman clergy who promptly met and pronounced one of their own number, Dioscorus, to be the real pope. What threatened to be a stubborn deadlock was solved, only twenty-two days later, by the death of the contender Dioscorus whereupon Boniface convened a synod which after deliberating on the validity of his claims delivered an assurance of their immediate and future obedience. Soon after he called together a second synod and proposed, and his proposal was accepted, that a constitution be formed which would give him also the right to select a successor. But the dangerous resolution was not destined for fulfillment. This was an age when the shame of simony was not uncommon and that the elevation to the supreme office of the Church should depend upon, and be subjected to, the weaknesses of any one man was abhorrent to the people. Such a storm of protest greeted the announcement that a third synod was hastily assembled and the constitution which he had so enthusiastically sponsored was burned publicly by the Pope himself. And when he died the man he had named, one Vigilius, was not elected as his successor. Instead, John II, a priest of St. Clement's Basilica, was installed on the 22nd July 533. The first pope to change his name on accession he ruled for only two years but the next two pontiffs were to have reigns of even scantier duration. Agapitus, succeeding
[paragraph continues] John, became the second pope to visit Constantinople and like the first his journey was because of a request from the King of Italy.
Justinian I now wore the Imperial diadem of the East and with the glories of the past to inspire his considerable abilities he had set out to restore the Empire. The defeat of the Persians, the conquest of the Vandals in Africa, the ousting of the Gothic rulers of Italy, the re-arrangement and clarification of Roman Law, and a prodigious patronage of the arts were all part of a vast scheme which occupied his energies and followed his high ambitions for a reign that was to endure more than three decades. When his troops were menacing Italy the Gothic King Theodehad besought the Pope, in the interests of peace, to intercede with him.
The Pope, escorted by five bishops and a suitable retinue, set out for Constantinople where he was received with all the niceties of Imperial courtesy. He made his plea but Justinian was not to be dissuaded from his dreams of a united Empire. However, the failure of this mission did not prevent the pontifical visit from achieving other important results. Owing to the powerful influence of the Empress Theodora, a woman of resolute purposes and dubious antecedents, a heretical bishop, Anthimos, had invalidly assumed the title and privileges of the Byzantine Patriarchate; a position which he occupied with little grace and no popularity. On representations from the disturbed clergy Agapitus ordered Anthimos to quit the patriarchal seat; whereupon the Empress, enraged at this affront to her protégé and to her will, and skillfully uniting the weapons of her position, cunning, and sex, persuaded her husband that Imperial commands and privileges were being rejected and denied by the pope. Thus incited to anger Justinian threatened
[paragraph continues] Agapitus with banishment but the pontiff received his words with sadness and refusal to be awed by them.
"I came," he said, "to gaze upon a Christian Emperor Justinian. In his place I find a Diocletian whose threats, however, terrify me not." Such courage from an aged and unarmed man cooled Justinian's wrath and excited his admiration. He made a thorough investigation of the patriarchal pretender and finally agreed he be deposed. And while his defeated consort brooded sullenly, a dangerous mood for such a determined female, great rejoicing was manifested by the clergy and populace as Agapitus then consecrated to the Byzantine See a rightful occupant. But he did not live to see his triumph acclaimed in Rome. He died on the 22nd of April, 536, and his remains were conveyed back to the Eternal City where they were interred amidst scenes of veneration and sorrow. Elected then was Silverius, the son of Pope Hormisdas (who had been married before accepting the higher orders of the priesthood; a practice still permitted in the Greek Orthodox Church and in some of the Eastern rites in communion with the Holy See. Thus the same strange occurrence, the son of a pope achieving the same high rank as his father, could happen in modern times).
Silverius was elected and installed but the staunch fact was not an obstacle sufficiently important to deter the schemes of the Empress Theodora. Acutely aware that she had been successfully opposed by one pope, she was now inexorably determined to have a creature of her choice occupy the august station. Accompanying Agapitus to Constantinople had been the deacon Vigilius, the same whom Pope Boniface II had proclaimed as his successor. That ill-received announcement had left a dangerous echo in his memory and the Empress found in him a willing and eager participator in her plans. He promised to give recognition
to the heresy she favored, the Monophysite and to restore her ousted favourite to the honors of the Byzantine Patriarchate if she aided him to procure the tenancy of the Holy See. But what of the already elected Pope? The solution was simple and shameful. Justinian's armies had, under the brilliant leadership of Belisarius, successfully driven back the Goths and were now occupying Rome. Theodora's agents, with a display of forged letters, accused Pope Silverius of treasonably communicating with the Goths and by the commands of the Byzantine commander he was divested of the insignia of his exalted rank, thrust into rough garb of a monk, and exiled as a prisoner to an island where he soon perished. After an "election" conducted under the formidable and certainly not disinterested protection of Belisarius, Vigilius was finally enthroned, while at Constantinople Theodora enjoyed the stimulating tonic of triumph.
But her satisfaction was not destined for permanence. Vigilius, on his ascension to the papal rank, absolved himself of his promises to his benefactress and revealed that his policies were to be as orthodox as had been those of his predecessors. His pontificate, so irregularly gained, was never to bring him tranquillity and, in 544, he entered upon a serious disagreement with Justinian. The Emperor, not content with his many other activities, now saw fit to exercise his talents in the field of theology, a formidable pastime for one who so quickly could settle debate or emphasize opinion by a gesture to his soldiery. The bishops and clergy close to his court had readily subscribed to an edict issued by him which condemned the "Three Chapters" and by which he hoped to make peace with the Monophysites. The "Three Chapters" were the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus in favour of Nestorius and against St. Cyril and the
[paragraph continues] Synod of Ephesus; and the letter of Ibas of Edessa to the Persian Bishop Maris. Undoubtedly there was heresy in the "Three Chapters" but endorsement by Vigilius of this condemnation might have seemed to mean his repudiation of the Council of Chalcedonfor Chalcedon had reinstated two of the authors in question when they had repudiated the Nestorian heresy. Besides all this was an encroachment by the Emperor and thus by the secular power on the prerogatives and duties of the Church. Vigilius demurred and hesitated but not so the Emperor. His soldiers seized the Pope and carried him to Constantinople where for seven years he was detained. These seven years are an unhappy story of his vacillations, his oppositions, and sometimes his submissions, to the Emperor who finally released him. But by this time the unfortunate pope was an old and broken man. He died before reaching Rome.
Pelagius, the next pope, suffered the sharpness of unpopularity during the first years of his jurisdiction because of the conciliatory attitude he adopted in negotiating with Justinian. But soon an abundance of good works and his energetic talents in preventing and healing schisms served to dispel antagonism. The savage conflict between the Goths and Justinian's troops had devastated Italy and the neglect of the harvests and the spoliation of towns had reduced the people to the direst depths of poverty. Pelagius, who came of a rich and noble Roman family, not only donated his entire personal fortune but performed other great feats of charity and well-merited was the title he bore when he died in 560: "Father of the poor and of his country."
Five months elapsed before his successor, John III, could be consecrated. It took that timeand by now significantly there is no question about itto receive the Emperor's confirmation and approval. Though this pope's reign lasted
thirteen years little is known of it. Turbulent and war-torn was the period and the part played by the pontiff is best described on an inscription which still existed in the XV Century: "In the midst of straits he knew how to be bountiful, and feared not to be crushed amidst a tumbling world." Nearly a year went by before the Imperial confirmation arrived to sanction the installation of Benedict I and again it is the chaos of war, the ravaging of the Lombards, which obliterates the details of a pontificate that did not last five years. Pelagius II, a Goth, was then elected andtypical of the initiative he was always to displayhe did not wait for Imperial confirmation. The effective blockade of Rome by the Lombards was a reason sufficient in his opinion to dispense with this irksome assumption of a right that the Emperor did not have; and after but a semblance of waiting he was consecrated and installed. The responsibility of temporal affairs as pertaining to the countryside surrounding Rome was now being forced upon the papacy. Appalling conditions bred by the marauding military finally induced Pelagius to appeal not only to Constantinople but to the Franks. To the Bishop of Auxerre he wrote: "We believe that it has been brought about by a special dispensation of Divine Providence, that the Frankish Princes should prefer the orthodox faith, like the Roman Emperors, in order that they may help this city, whence it took its rise. Persuade them with all earnestness to keep from any alliance with our most unspeakable enemies, the Lombards." To Constantinople he sent an able ecclesiastic, the deacon Gregory, who finally persuaded the Emperor, now Maurice, to answer the Pope's pleas with the despatch of a relief expedition. The many tasks involving the defense and well being of temporal Rome were not the only occupations of Pelagius II. He strove to preserve and improve hierarchal harmony and when certain bishops threatened
to recede into one of the innumerable schisms of the period he wrote that they were doing so "for the sake of superfluous question"; a statement which, seen from the perspective of centuries, seems very true indeed.
Pestilence is a familiar aftermath of war and there was no exception to this sad rule when a temporary truce was finally made with the Lombards. As though to complete the depredations of the enemy a terrible plague descended upon Rome and perishing amidst the resultant horrors was the pontiff. The name of his successor is illustrious. Elected at a time when famine stalked the streets of Rome and when deathcarts, rumbling to their dreaded tasks, were the only traffic of those broad avenues. Gregory the Great was destined to become one of the great popes and the Father of the Medieval Church. His ability combined with the fact of his patrician birth had secured for him the post of Prefect of Rome at the age of thirty. This honor he renounced and donating his estates to the monasteries he entered upon the austere life of a simple monk, following the rule of St. Benedict. But his talents were far too well known to permit of his being, as he wished, forgotten by the world. In the grievous times of 579 Pope Pelagius II ordered him from his seclusion, ordained him one of the Seven Deacons of Rome, and despatched him as his Nuncio to the Byzantine Court; a position he occupied with brilliance and, amidst the luxuries and artifices of that exotic assemblage, considerable personal distaste. Much more to his liking was his appointment on his return to Rome, as Abbot of St. Andrew's monastery. Here, under the fostering of his enthusiasm and knowledge, the monks acquired great fame for their piety, learning, and munificent charities. During this time he became imbued with a zeal to go to Britain and there assist in converting the Angles but
when he commenced the missionary journey his path was blocked by the protesting citizens.
Such a man, already so popular, was inevitably marked for the papacy and, after the death of Pelagius II, he was elected as Pope amidst the unanimous acclamation of clergy and people. Dreading to take the high office and loath to leave the peace of the cloisters he wrote to the Emperor a letter of eloquent entreaty, beseeching him to withhold the official confirmation. But this measure failed; and finally he was seized by the people, conveyed to the Basilica of St. Peter's, and consecrated Pope. Once in office he not only rapidly fulfilled but soon exceeded the high expectations of his admirers. Banishing idlers and perquisite-holding laymen from the papal court he formed a highly efficient administrative body of hard working clerics, most of whom were monks. The papal estates, known as "St. Peter's Patrimony" and now constituting an area of some fifteen hundred square miles, were regulated so as to become a highly productive source of charity. To protect the peoples and revenues of these lands he was forced to the wielding of temporal power and the paternal significance of his title became splendidly realized when, unafraid of Imperial displeasure and exasperated with the dilatory methods of the Byzantine authorities, he sued for separate peace or, as the occasion demanded, made bold resistance against the Lombards. This man, who so earnestly had desired the contemplative peace of a monk's life, was, by circumstance and responsibility, thrust to the position of a sovereign prince, to become a ruler of cities and provinces, a master of troops and fleets. "Gregory's exercise of his power was one of the great moments in the world's history" wrote one historian. "All over the Christian world he had taught men to look to the Pope as one who could make peace and ensue it." Nor was he ever to cease being
the exemplary ecclesiastic either in private conduct or in the execution of his office. In an age when titles were a Serious measure of a man's rank and pretensions, he chose for himself, and founded for his successors, the great phrase "servus servorum Dei" ("servant of the servants of God"). The Church of today carries the mark of his genius in her liturgy, music, and discipline. And his story is made all the brighter by reason of the ill-health he suffered throughout his pontificate which ended, to the sorrow of his people, on the 12th of March, 604.