Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
Siricius died in the autumn of 398 and elected to succeed him was Anastasius, a pious and wise prelate whose term in the sacred office was only to endure three years. Innocent followed him and with vigor and firmness this pontiff was to rule until 417. In the first year of his reign the martyrdom of a Christian was enacted for the last time in the Roman amphitheater. Christians though they now professed to be, the Roman populace still relished and patronized the savage spectacle of gladiators killing one another in vicious combat. In protest against such displays of savagery, so incompatible with Christian thought, a monk named Telemachus hurled himself into the arena one day and separated the combatants. The anger of the blood-hungry mob was aroused and he was stoned to death but his heroic act was not in vain and his bruised corpse proved to be the poignant sermon which finally ended all such barbaric practices.
Innocent's reign witnessed the invasion and sacking of Rome (410) by the Goths who however showed unexpected respect both to the ecclesiastics and the places of worship. The strength of the greatest temporal power the world had ever known was now plainly on the ebb. The Church had built its organization on the structure of the Empire and it might have been expected that as this foundation weakened so too would the ecclesiastical fabric. But events proved otherwise. The Barbarians might defeat and
overrun the Empire but the Church, with its inexhaustible patience, was to absorb the Barbarians. More than ever the name Catholic was to be proved and justified.
The authority of Innocent was exercised over both Eastern and Western Churches but of course, like his predecessors, there were not lacking dissenters to draw his attention, his judgment, and his ire. This latter emotion he did not hesitate to manifest against the Empress Eudoxia who with a presumption fostered by an intriguing prelate, Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, had ordered the deposition of the saintly Bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom. Zosimus, the next Pope, lived but a year after his installation. During this time he was mainly occupied in dealing with Pelagianism, a heresy which denied the doctrinal belief of original sin. After his death there was an irregular election which resulted in the assumption of the papal title by the Archdeacon Eulalius. However at the correctly conducted election an aged Roman priest, Boniface, a man of great charity and learning who was sincerely reluctant to accept the high office, was proclaimed to be the rightful Pope and this just decision was finally supported by the Emperor whose soldiery ejected Eulalius and his supporters from the Basilica where they had been obstinately installed for nearly four months. Boniface was never to display the weaknesses that would have been understandable in a man of his advanced years. He showed himself to be a firm disciplinarian, regulating and defining the powers of the hierarchy, and strengthening in general the primacy of the Holy See.
His successor, in 422, was a really great Pope, the gentle and dignified Celestine, a staunch friend and supporter of that greatest Doctor of the western Church, St. Augustine, who was living at this time and was to die in the same year as the Pope. The kindness of Celestine's character is
shown in his letters to the Bishop of Vienne and Narbonne when he admonished them that absolution should not be denied truly repentant sinners who were on their deathbed. His wisdom is shown when he urges that laymen are not to be consecrated bishops, and that the system of a bishop being chosen merely by popular acclaim should be discontinued. Great wisdom this pontiff must have possessed and exercised to govern at such a time when there was so much distress both within and without the Church. The Barbarians were successfully invading the Empire and a strong array of heresies were gnawing at orthodoxy. Yet Celestine's reign is somehow characterized by an air of orderly administration and of happily wielded and accepted authority culminating in the triumph of his legates over the pretensions of the heretical Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus. And not least among his meritorious deeds was his despatch of St. Patrick to convert the peoples of Ireland, the planting of a seed that was to flower with such magnificent and immortal results.
After the death of this great man in 432, Sixtus III was elected and consecrated to the Holy See on July 31st of the same year. He presided capably for eight years and during this time a signal honor was bestowed upon his clergy when from their ranks a deacon was selected by the Emperor to be his envoy in the settlement of a dispute between the military commander and the civil magistrate of Gaul. The Emperor's act was not misguided for in addition to the judicial and conciliatory talents that the chosen ecclesiastic displayed on this occasion he was a scholar possessed of all the virtues that are necessary for unselfish and sagacious leadership. His name was Leo and he was destined to achieve the papal station in 440. Like Damasus his achievements were to extend to all fields and to all places and like that able pontiff he ascended to
the Sacred Office to be confronted with the gravest problems, both spiritual and temporal.
The Empire was now in the tempestuous throes of its uneasy decline and whilst wars and campaigns were being waged the essence of Christian philosophy could very easily have been lost. Schisms and heresies, some new, some old, were flourishing with alarming vigor. The perilous conditions demanded that a competent pilot should be at the pontifical helm and Leo proved magnificently equal to the occasion. He disciplined erring priests and unruly bishops with stern but just measures. He met rulers with a diplomacy that had no taint of sycophancy. He carried on a prodigious correspondence in letters that were masterpieces of lucid philosophy. And when the Huns were marching on to Rome it was he who went and, with an eloquence that succeeded where the might of the Legions had failed, persuaded their leader, Attila, to halt the ominous progress.
Three years later when the Barbarian hordes again approached the Eternal City it was the pontiff who once more emerged as the calm and resolute hero of the disaster. Anticipation of frightful rapine had brought chaos and confusion to the city long before the invaders attacked, and the excited populace, surrendering to the hysteria of terror, murdered the Emperor Maximus. When all authority of the temporal power had vanished Leo took control and it was he who heroically went out of the city and confronted Genseric, King of the Vandals. But this time the Barbarians, with their rich spoil directly ahead, were not to be thwarted. They did loot and sack Rome but even in this savage disorder Leo received from Genseric the merciful concession that those inhabitants of this city who showed no resistance would not be harmed, nor would the Churches be pillaged or fired.
Inspiring examples of Leo's piety and scholarship are extant in the form of ninety-six of his sermons and 143 of his famous letters. He died on the 10th Nov. 461, and his remains were suitably interred under the portica of St. Peter's. One of his trusted aides, Hilary, now became the Supreme Pastor and in a term that was not to last to a full seven years ecclesiastical discipline and definition occupied a great deal of his energies, particularly in Spain and Gaul when the hierarchy was being strengthened as the civil power became the more disorganized. This pope was also endowed with a trait common to most Romans of rank, a keen appreciation of architectural beauties, and under his patronage the city became the richer by the addition of several new churches and oratories, also libraries, baths, and other public buildings.
After Hilary came Simplicius who was to witness the dramatic events that actually marked the ending of the Western Roman Empire. In 476 Odoacer, a Barbarian leader, dispossessed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus and was proclaimed King of Italy. Although Arian by persuasion, this newly created monarch showed no disposition to persecute the Church. On the contrary he displayed respect to the papacy and whilst he was the nominal ruler of Italy the power of the Church in temporal matters was growing. Meanwhile the powerful Sees of Constantinople and Antioch had been won by the Monophysite schismatics and when they secured the protection and patronage of an usurper of the Eastern purple, Basiliscus, their power and numbers mounted with a rapidity alarming to the pope, who fought them vigorously and with some measure of success. For when the rightful Emperor, Zeno, was restored to the throne of Byzantium he sent to Rome a Catholic confession of faith and a vow to support orthodoxy. This solemn promise however was not fulfilled and
the bitter struggle continued on into the reign of the next pope, Felix III who upon learning that Zeno was negotiating and indeed showing favor to the schismatics wrote: "Supreme power has been entrusted to you over world concerns, but it is your duty to leave ecclesiastical matters in the hands of those whom God has appointed to control them. You must leave the Church free to follow her own laws." After a pontificate of nearly nine years Felix died to be followed by Gelasius who, strongly continuing the same policy, wrote to the Emperor: "There are two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled: the sacred authority of the priests is so much weightier, as they must render before the tribunal of God an account even for the Kings of man." The Bishop of Rome was now powerful enough to define and emphasize the limits of lay power to the highest representative of that authority.
His profound scholarship did not prevent Gelasius from displaying acumen in practical affairs. Revenues were regulated and properly divided and he became renowned as a builder of asylums and as a patron of the poor. Monks were his favourite companions and his private life was one of austerity, penance, and prayer. He was vigilant to abuses perpetrated by ecclesiastics, and canon law gained from his decrees. In 496 he was succeeded by Anastasius II who in his short term of two years chose to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards Constantinople. But this was an age in which orthodox theologians, jealous of tradition and apprehensive of the future, viewed with alarm and suspicion the relaxations of tolerance. His compromise in recognizing the validity of the Byzantine Patriarch's sacramental acts made for his own unpopularity and caused considerable dissension amongst the Roman Clergy.
After his death there was disorder. A Sardinian priest, Symmachus, was validly called to the sacred office but
there was also an illegal election, conducted by a minority group of the clergy who were, perhaps sincerely or perhaps because of bribes, of the Byzantine party. These individuals, with the sympathies of some of the Roman Senate, proclaimed the Archpresbyter Laurentius to be Pope. What might have become a scandalous deadlock was then solved by the arbitration of the Gothic King Theodoric who declared in favor of Symmachus. The anti-pope submitted to this logical decision but his supporters, although temporarily acquiescent, remained unconvinced and in a series of rebellious agitations, such as reviving the old discussion of the Easter date, continued to harass the true pontiff. In 501 their charges and complaints were formally placed before Theodoric who summoned the pope to answer them. But his services in giving an opinion in the validity of the papal elections were not to mean that he had a right to judge the actions of the successful candidate. Quite properly Symmachus refused to agree to such an indignity, but suggested that a synod be assembled to investigate the accusations of his enemies. A synod was called and the result was victory for Symmachus; for the Fathers agreed that no earthly power had the right to pass judgment on the action of the real Vicar of Christ. The verdict was proclaimed amidst a series of stormy sessions and turbulent incidents for the incorrigible Byzantines still tried every method, including a savage but unsuccessful attack upon the life of Symmachus, to achieve their ends. Right had triumphed; and buoyed to a fresher strength perhaps by his victory, the Pope ploughed through his dangers and vexations and now found the time and means ably to pursue the duties of his office. Missions were despatched, churches founded, charities disbursed, and disputes adjudicated.