Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
But the brightness of success is rarely unaccompanied by the shadows of jealousy. Swords may have been sheathed but pens were at work, producing a steady stream of ridicule and falsehood that in turn was kindling the rancor of resentment amongst that considerable part of the population who in earlier days had regarded the Christians as too insignificant a minority to excite any feeling save indifference or occasional pity. But indifference could not survive in the face of the mounting and obvious strength of the Church and as the end of the third century neared most Romans held one of two opinions; if not Christian, then anti-Christian. Such was the condition of affairs when in 296 the Roman Marcellinus became Pope, eleven years after the able Diocletian had reached the Imperial station which he was to occupy with undeniable brilliance until his abdication in 305. At the beginning of his reign Diocletian did not show any signs of bitterness towards the Christians. Combining exceptional talents of martial skill and civil administration, so rarely found united in one
human brain, he set out to reorganize the government of the Empire, partitioning the vast territories into two portions, East and West, each to be governed separately by an Emperor who in turn was to be assisted by a sub-ruler. The East he chose for his own jurisdiction and for his chief lieutenant, with the august title of Caesar, he selected Galerius, an energetic product of the Legions, a barbarian who proved to be a true personification of the pagan standards he so assiduously followed. The hatred and contempt that this man held for the Christians, his utter incomprehension and warrior's disgust at their precepts of kindness and forgiveness, finally resulted in Diocletian's promulgating an edict against them.
Bitter and savage were the cruelties that followed for such was the discipline maintained by this ruler that any order issued by him was executed to the minutest detail, to the fullest extent of human endeavour. But human endeavour has its very definite limits, the skies of his domains were clouded by the smoke of burning churches, the streets of his cities were stained with the blood of new martyrs, the consciences of his magistrates were made heavy with unjust sentences, but never could the Christian spirit be obliterated. Pope Marcellinus perished during these outrages and the story of his death is as lost as his sacred books which were destroyed in the pagan fires.
Four years elapsed before another Bishop of Rome could be elected. This time it was Marcellus, who immediately and with courageous defiance set out to provide new places of worship for the churchless faithful. He died only one year after he had taken office (309) and was succeeded by Eusebius whose death in exile occurred after a term of equal brevity. The reign of the next pontiff, Melchiades, of African birth, was dramatically made bright with triumph; for even the savage Galerius when on his deathbed,
like so many other implacable enemies of the Church at the same solemn moment, was to beg for Christian prayers and forgiveness. Maximin, who succeeded him as Emperor of the East, did not allow this unexpected mood to soften his judgment which was vehemently anti-Christian. This tyrant in turn stoked the fires of the persecution to a renewed intensity which, however, was not to endure for long. The tide was soon to turn. But let us return to Diocletian.
Within a year of the publication of his infamous edict he, prompted by a philosophy none of which, alas, he showed in his treatment of the Christians, had astonished his subjects by divesting himself of his exalted rank and had retired to forget the turbulence of an Empire in the peace of a country garden. He who had controlled the destinies of millions of men was content to turn his energies to the nurturing of a few cabbages. After successfully regulating great territories he was satisfied to anticipate death, and to pass on his power and policies to his successors. But rarely do the plans of a despot run smoothly after he has quitted the scene. Divided rule was not for the Empire and Diocletian's successors were quick to learn that purple is a color that loses much of its glory when worn by more than one. Contemporary rulers soon became rival rulers and as ambitions clashed wars and confusions were born and from these struggles eventually came the incident which was to mark the turning for the Christians.
In the Autumn of 312 the new Emperor of the West, Constantine, a young leader who had inherited the virtue of a tolerant nature from a wise father marched his army across the Alps and was about to storm the gates of Rome. On the day before battle, alone with solemn thoughts that must haunt even the most confident of commanders at such a time, he says that he saw a vision. Brightly etched against
the evening sky there shone a Cross and beneath it to dazzle his astonished eyes was the shimmering legend In hoc signo vinces.
"By this sign thou shalt conquer." These were startling words and were to inspire a startling decision: for to most Romans the Cross was still the repugnant symbol of a dishonorable death. Nevertheless Constantine had commanded that the fateful words were to be the motto of his troops. The next day he won his battle and with a memory unlike most Princes his gratitude was always to remain. A few months after this particular victory, along with his colleague of the West, Licinius, he not only announced freedom of worship for all but also promised restitution of properties to a dispossessed Christian clergy.
Joyfully Pope Melchiades bent to his altar as the Edict of Milan was issued. After three centuries a Christian was no longer to be considered a criminal because of his faith. Roman law had changed and in the reign of the thirty-second pope a new era had begun.
The very year of the Edict of Milan saw the first Council of the Church to be convened with the full sanction of the secular authorities. But the occasion was not one for celebration: for no sooner had the sword of the persecutor been stayed than ominous and formidable dissensions within their own ranks began to threaten Christian unity. Melchiades was forced to convene a meeting of bishops. On arriving in Rome the clerics were saluted as persons of rank and honor and their pride and happiness can well be imagined, these veterans, all of whom had suffered and administered under the shadows of oppression. Even the building that was the scene of their meeting, and where they pronounced judgment against the Donatist heresy, was in itself a splendid sign of the Imperial magnanimity for it was a gift from Fausta, the wife of Constantine, to
[paragraph continues] Melchiades who made it the papal residence. And as such the Lateran Palace remained until its destruction by fire ten centuries later.
Melchiades died in 314 and was followed by Sylvester who was troubled by the grave schism of Arius and who was also to witness, in 321, a brief renewal of persecution under the direction of Licinius. This erstwhile ally of Constantine became his bitter enemy and opposed all his policies including the tolerance guaranteed the Christians by the Edict of Milan. The struggle between the two Emperors was ended by the violent death of Licinius which left Constantine the undisputed and sole ruler of the Empire. His own generation was to add to his name the title Great and that memory of successive generations which is called posterity has endorsed the bestowalso commonly offered by sycophantic subjects to a ruler and so quickly forgottenas well deserved. Like all of human mould he had his weaknesses, his vanities, his cruelties, but there can be no denial of his magnitude as an administrator. Nothing less than heroic were his efforts to reorganize the Empire. And not the smallest of his achievements was the prodigious task involved in the transference of the Imperial Headquarters to the strategically situated city of Byzantium, afterwards, in his honor, called Constantinople. This shifting of the temporal power was to prove of immense consequence to the Papacy for notoriously the protection of a ruler is seldom without its drawbacks to the Church. The intrigue so inevitable to courts thrives on proximity and the long miles separating Rome and Constantinople were to prove healthy indeed for the Papacy.
A strange fact of Constantine's life is that despite his championship of, and his obvious faith in, Christianity he was not to receive actual baptism until shortly before his death in 337. And so strong had become the Arian heresy
by this time that it was the Arian bishop, Eusebius, who officiated at the important function. Arianism had begun with the teachings of Arius, a priest of Alexandria, who attacked the doctrine of the Trinity and declared the Son to be subordinate to the Father. The eloquence of this misguided theologian rapidly won many supporters including the powerful Bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius, who became his ardent patron. By 325 the theological dispute was waxing with such fury that the puzzled Emperor, although not yet a baptized Christian, saw fit to take action as a protector of the faith. He called together the Council of Nicaea. Three hundred and fourteen distinguished Fathers of the Church met amidst elaborate ceremonies of Imperial hospitality. Pope Sylvester did not attend because of the infirmities of his advanced age but he sent as his Legate, Osius, the Bishop of Cordova, and Vitus and Vincent, two priests of Rome.
"I consider dissension in the Church more dreadful and more painful than any war," Constantine told the assembled Churchmen as he exhorted them to unity. The Council sat from May to August and the important outcome was the formation of what has been known since as the Nicene Creed: "We believe in only one God, the Father, Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in only one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the sole-begotten of the Father, that is to say of the Father's substance, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down, became incarnate, became man, suffered, was raised again on the third day, ascended back to heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit. As for those who say 'There was a time when He did not exist; Before He was begotten
[paragraph continues] He did not exist; He was made from nothing as from another substance or essence; The Son of God is a created being, changeable, capable of alteration,' to such as these the Catholic Church says Anathema."
In addition to this avowal some twenty canons of Discipline were promulgated; including a decree that said no cleric should have living in his residence any woman who was not a relative. As yet celibacy for the clergy was not a law of the Church although it was a traditional custom dating from Apostolic times when St. Paul had said, "He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. . . ." At the end of the third century the tradition thus prompted by the great Apostle had become an actual rule in Spain. But when Osius, the Legate, sought to make it a universal law at the Council he received vigorous opposition, mainly from one Bishop Paphnutius whose spirited protest marked the commencement of that difference of opinion and practice on the same subject which still exists between the Eastern and Western Churches. Paphnutius pleaded sympathy for those priests who had been married before ordination, declaring that they should not be separated from their wives. The majority of his listeners agreed and Osius was defeated.
Eleven years after the great Council Pope Sylvester died and he was succeeded by Mark, an able prelate, whose pontificate however did not extend a full year. Julius, a valiant preserver of orthodoxy, was then elected to the sacred office. This good man's calm judgment, his able custodianship of dogma, was to stand like a beacon over a stormy sea for in truth the bark of St. Peter was at this time in danger of being swamped by the treacherous seas of schism. To aid him was the brilliant hero bishop of
[paragraph continues] Alexandria, Athanasius, who was well equipped both with faith and scholarship to carry on the desperate struggle with the dissenters.
It was an age of schism. Misguided theologians, sincere in their beliefs but noisy in their errors, were offering many new interpretations of the faith. And there were not lacking bishops to support them: for in the ranks of the latter there was now a troublesome new class, opportunists who did not hesitate to use ecclesiastical office in the pursuance of doubtful schemes. At this time, before actual consecration, the selection of a bishop was still determined by the inhabitants of a vacant See. In theory this might seem to be an admirable practice but in truth it was dangerous; for now that the Church had the approval of the majority there were the inevitable aspirants, in many cases successful, to the episcopal office whose sole vocation was a hungry desire for temporal power. Rascals of this calibre whose artful conniving had won for them the confidence of a community did not hesitate to adopt innovations in dogma whenever it suited their convenience. So when the Emperor, because of an unhappy ignorance, showed favor to Arianism such consciences quickly and conveniently followed that path. But though the Arians held Constantinople, Rome remained firm and uncompromising. In matters of discipline the pontiffs might accommodate but when it came to dogma they were adamant, not deigning to answer argument with counter argument but content to guard their heritage of traditional faith and quick to pronounce against any who would seek to change that trust.
After the death of Constantine the rule of his domains had descended to his sons, one of whom, Constans, was loyal to Pope Julius. But when, in 350, this prince perished in battle the Empire was subjected to the dominance of his
brother Constantius who favoured the Arians and frowned at Rome. Julius courageously defied this tyrant's will until his death two years later. He was succeeded by Liberius who continued the admirable tradition of courage and orthodoxy until he was arrested and brought before the Emperor who banished him to exile and appointed the Arian bishop Felix to usurp the Roman See.
"The laws of the Church are more important than residence in Rome," was the pontiff's answer to this sentence. He remained in exile two years and the circumstances of his return are clouded with historical dispute for many authorities have agreed that the harassed man, in the plight of his exile and in the weariness of his advanced age, did eventually sign his name to a document insufficiently explicit against Arian doctrine. Whether he did or not may be the subject of argument but what remains clear is that there is no evidence of any kind to prove he ever taught, or approved the teaching of, any part of the Arian philosophy which differed from the Catholic faith. On his return to Rome the Imperial arrogance dictated that he should share the Papal office with the illegally appointed Felix. This absurd and presumptuous decision was suitably received by the Roman populace who, when it was announced in the Circus, loudly chanted with vigorous logic, "One God, one Christ, one Bishop."
The successor of Liberius was Damasus who, immediately after his election in 366, had in his turn to deal with a schismatic usurper, the deacon Ursinus. This time, however, the pretender received no Imperial support. On the contrary, after inciting his misguided adherents to noisy disorders, he was ordered from Rome by an Emperor of different views, Valentinian I, who also decreed that henceforth his magistrates were not to exercise any authority over ecclesiastical or religious matters. Vastly different had
been the attitude of Valentinian's immediate predecessor, Julian, who in a reign of only two years had earned for himself the ignominious appellation of Apostate. In vain this obstinate prince had tried to revive Paganism but Christianity had proved too strongly rooted in the public conscience to be crushed, or even stemmed. By giving a semblance of Church organization to Pagan practices he had endeavoured to win allegiance to the ancient cults but no matter what measures he took, sweetened though they were by bribes and fortified with threats, he met with scant success. His death actually found the Christians enjoying more unity than when he had commenced his rule and as the profane fires of the sacrificial altars he had inaugurated flickered miserably into oblivion the Cross was once again carried before the Legions. Imperial animosity towards Christianity proved fortunate in one way for orthodoxy. Schismatic bishops were no longer able, by court intrigue, to cause harm or win favor.
The pontificate of Damasus is studded with achievement. In his person were combined the talents of theologian and administrator, and in the warmth of his zeal and the fertility of his wisdom the power of the papacy became nurtured to a larger and well consolidated strength. In all fields his energy was manifested. Ardent missionaries journeyed to distant places. Eloquent legates harangued Councils and Synods. Churches were restored and built. And masons and architects, spurred by the papal patronage, labored diligently to preserve the catacombs. It was with his encouragement that St. Jerome, for a while his secretary, revised the earlier Latin version of the Bible. Schismatics were outmaneuvered and heresies were stemmed. It was only natural that the author of so many vigorous policies should become a target for the plots of those whom he had frustrated. And indeed some of his enemies succeeded
in bringing charges even of adultery against his name. The Emperor listened to this calumny as did also a synod of forty-four bishops with the result that not only was the scandal rejected but the accusers suffered excommunication for their lies. Two years before Damasus died and in the sixteenth year of his jurisdiction splendid triumph came to him in the form of the famous Imperial Edict De fide Catholica, issued by Theodosius, which declared the official religion of the Roman State to be "that doctrine which St. Peter had preached and of which Damasus was supreme head."
Siricius came next and his reign, lasting fourteen years, was a successful and peaceful continuation of Damasus policies, unmarred by any great crisis or disaster, but witnessing the unprecedented spectacle of an erring Emperor bowing before the anger of a prelate. The principals of this significant drama were the Emperor Theodosius and the patrician-born Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan. Theodosius, for the most part an amiable and astute prince, had proved second only to Constantine in the furtherance and protection of the Church but unfortunately his record became blotted with a bloody and unjust crime. At the town of Thessalonica several of his officers had been brutally murdered and in the exasperation of his grief the Emperor, not waiting for the tedious workings of justice to punish the actual miscreants, had impatiently caused the entire city to be put to the sword. After fury had subsided there came the agonies of remorse to disturb the unhappy ruler, who was possessed of some degree of conscience, if not of discipline. He admitted his sorrow, his guilt, his unhappiness, but such protestations were not enough to appease the wrath of the redoubtable Ambrose who halted the Imperial passage to his cathedral, refusing admittance to the sacred premises, unless Theodosius made a public
confession of his sins. This, before the awed gaze of his court, the contrite Emperor agreed to do and so as the end of the fourth century neared we find the kneeling figure of a Caesar, stripped of the emblems of his exalted rank, petitioning for clemency, humbly accepting the stinging words of accusation, rebuke and sentence, and submitting unconditionally to the authority of one of his own subjects.