The previous Pope,John I,had been arrested and starved to death by the vicious Goth King Theodoric,and there was a two month gap before the clergy elected Pope Felix IV,(or Felix III if you count an Anti-Pope…..which we won’t). I say elected,but actually King Theodoric “encouraged” the clergy to elect Felix,who the King just happened to have liked. Pope Felix always made sure to stay on the good side of the moody Theodoric(and his successor King Athalaric)and he used his favorable position to secure monetary benefits and new properties for Churches. One of these Churches was the Church of Cosmas and Damian,in which Pope Felix commissioned two mosaic portraits of himself to be displayed inside(classy move). These portraits may be the first portraits of a Pope created while that particular Pope was still alive. Felix was also known to have contributed great writings on free will and God’s grace. When he felt his time was nearly up,he tried to appoint his own replacement,which was a major violation of the rules of electing a new Pope,which nearly caused a huge mess in the process. We’ll talk about that when we get to Pope Boniface II next week.
The Churches of east and west were reunited under Pope Hormisdas and all was right in the Christian world. Nope. Hold on. Justin,the eastern Emperor of Constantinople,was all in on his support for reunification and that meant striking out at all heretics that posed a danger to his beloved Church. To him that meant Arian Christians. Arians believed Jesus is not one with God,but created by God,basically a demigod,a separate being. Their beliefs undermine all that the Church is built on. Justin took their houses,took their Churches,and forced them to convert to Catholicism. This was a big problem because the Goth King Theodoric of Italy happened to be Arian and was very concerned with the goings on in Constantinople. Theodoric sent Pope John I to Constantinople to straighten out Justin,or else Theodoric might start his own persecutions,this time of Catholics in Italy. The Pope was warmly received in Constantinople with parties and parades and gifts,and he in turn succeeded in talking Justin down from going after Arians too harshly. Justin had one thing he wouldn’t back down on and that was that those who converted from Arianism to Catholicism were not allowed to convert back. Ok,close enough,crisis solved,(for the most part). Pope John made his way back to Rome,and on the way stopped back in Ravenna to tell the King of his success. Big mistake. King Theodoric heard of how crazy Constantinople was over the Pope,and the King got it in his head that the Pope and Justin were now best of friends and were now plotting against him and all Arians! The paranoid King arrested the elderly Pope John and threw him into a prison cell where the Pope was neglected and eventually starved to death.His body was eventually brought back to Rome and buried in St.Peter’s.
The age of the Martyrs of the early Church was long over,but the Pope was still vulnerable to the whims of vengeful Kings and Godless Emperors. This specter of danger from world leaders,and the world in general,would hang over the Popes as late as the 20th century. This specter of danger hangs over the heads of all Christians in all parts of the world at all times. As G.K.Chesterton says “Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”
Named in honor of an exiled Persian noble,the Italian widower Hormisdas was one of the few Popes elected that had once been married with children. In fact,his son Silverius went on to become the Pope himself in the year 536. The Church at the time of Hormisdas was being pulled at both ends. The thirty year long schism with the Eastern Church was still raging,and the previous Pope’s election had divided Rome. Bloody fights between the laity and an Anti-Pope tainted much of the reign of Pope Symmachus. Hormisdas turned out to be the peacemaker that Rome desperately needed. Once elected,he made gestures of peace towards those who had supported the Anti-Pope and he returned them to their previous positions. Next,he went to work to bring the Eastern Church of Constantinople back into the see of the Apostle Peter. New Emperor of Constantinople Justin(the name Justin lacks the oomph of a Commodus or Pertinax or Zeno…..but anyways)condemned the heresies that had disrupted the Eastern Church and he became a valuable ally to Pope Hormisdas in bringing the split between the Churches to an end. On March 28 519,a huge crowd of people in the Cathedral of Constantinople watched a ceremony in which the eastern and western Churches made peace. In the words of Pope Hormisdas “I declare that the see of apostle Peter and the see of this imperial city are one.”
His time as Pope was relatively short,but he made it count. His work setting right the heresies of the Eastern Church(our sister Church)and bringing her back into the fold of Rome is still felt to this day. There are some things we still fight about though,after all,we are siblings.
The sudden death of Pope Anastasius II had the clergy and laity scrambling to elect a new Pope. Both Pope Symmachus and archpriest Laurentius were elected within hours of each other. Supporters of both thought that each man was officially “elected”. Strong Words were said,accusations were….accused,fists were thrown,and now we’ve got a minor riot in the streets. Christians gone mad! King Theodoric of Italy had to step in and make a decision. He declared that Symmachus had been elected first and that everybody needed to just simmer down. Pope Symmachus then made it a rule that only the clergy,(and later,only the Cardinals),and not the laity,could elect the Bishop of Rome. Anyone that campaigned for the position during a sitting Pope’s Papacy would be disposed. The ways of electing a Pope would change but this basic rule of not campaigning for the job has stayed in place for 1500 years.
Not content to observe the ruling of the King,sore loser Laurentius and his sore loser supporters started spreading a smear campaign that Pope Symmachus was misusing Church funds,engaging in immoral behavior and even accused him of celebrating Easter on the wrong date. Words were said….fists were thrown….well,you know the rest. Once again,King Theodoric is called. In a fit of spite,Pope Symmachus basically locked himself in St.Peter’s and refused to dignify the false allegations. Due to these actions,the King assumes his guilt and rules that Laurentius is now the Pope. Refusing to acknowledge the King’s ruling,Pope Symmachus still performs his Papal duties under house arrest(while Anti-Pope Laurentius rules from the Lateran Palace). Over the next four years Rome has a dueling Pope situation(cue the Holy banjos). During this time,a synod of Bishops supporting Symmachus had gathered enough evidence against Laurentius and presented it to the King. Once again,King Theodoric is called(again!),and now he rules in favor of Pope Symmachus and tells Anti-Pope Laurentius to act like a tree and get out of here…….(thank you Biff Tannen)
Divine retribution! That was the cry of the Romans when Pope Anastasius II died two years into his Papacy. Whew,that is one unpopular Pontiff. Pope Anastasius II tried to reconcile with the Eastern Bishops that had been estranged from Rome for nearly thirty years. The Eastern Church had made a power grab for the leadership of all Christianity and had allied itself with various heretics to gain support for this move. Pope Anastasius wanted to bring unity back to the Church,but he wanted to do it without addressing the heresies or the actions of the past three decades. It was a “whatever,believe what you want,just come back to us” kind of gesture. When Anastasius welcomed Deacon Photinus(a huge supporter of the schism and known herectic)to Rome and gave him Holy Communion,this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,and several Roman priests and Bishops then started publicly shunning the Pope. Branded as a traitor to the Church,Anastasius died suddenly before he could undo the damage that he had done. Pope Anastasius is one of only two of the first fifty Popes not to be canonized as a Saint. Our Pope also has the unfortunate honor of being mentioned in the epic 14th century poem Dante’s Inferno. Dante has our poor Pope in the sixth circle of Hell(which is the circle for heresy),”Anastasio papa guardo, lo qual trasse Fotin de la via dritta” (“I guard Pope Anastasius, he whom Photinus drew from the straight path”). This alone probably damned him in history more than anything else.