Pope John XV was an average Pope,susceptible to bribery and flattery,and generally met with a shoulder shrug from the people of Rome. He settled disputes over Papal authority in France and helped with reforms of various monasteries(ho hum usual Pope stuff).Pope John XV’s main claim to fame is that he is the first Pope to officially canonize a Saint. Usually if a person in the Church was to be declared a Saint,this was reserved for the Bishop of the diocese of where that person lived. Time went on and in order to tighten up this process(and to keep local corruption from creeping in),appeals were made to have the Pope be the final arbiter in the canonization process. Ulrich of Augsburg(890-973)would be the first Saint to be declared under this new rule. Various future Popes would further tighten up the canonization rules throughout the next few hundred years.
Whenever a non-Catholic asks me about what a Saint is,I usually just compare it to the baseball Hall of Fame. This is our Cooperstown. The Church itself isn’t actually creating a Saint,but it’s pointing to this man or woman and declaring to the world that this person has lived a life to emulate,a life centered on Christ. A life that all of us are called to live.
It’s exciting to write about a Pope who had a direct influence on something we do during every single Mass. Pope Sergius introduced the beautiful Agnus Dei to the Mass. This song is sung when the priest breaks the consecrated bread during Mass before giving us our Holy Communion(Lamb of God,you take away the sins of the world…..)This is actually a thumbing of the Holy nose to the eastern Church. In 692 Emperor Justinian called a Quinisext Council in Constantinople to put into place new canon laws. The only hitch was that they neglected to invite Rome. 102 new canon laws were passed without any input from the western Church and Pope Sergius was none too pleased at his authority being undermined. The numerous new laws now forbid many western practices like priestly celibacy and many other things,but the big one that truly offended the Pope was the banning of referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God. The emperor ordered(ORDERED!)the Pope to sign off on these new laws but Sergius declared that he would “rather die than consent to erroneous novelties” and Rome,in relation to Constantinople,would not be “its captive in matters of religion”. Papal fighting words were just thrown down to the emperor and Justinian wasn’t going to take them lightly. Justinian sent his own personal bodyguard(a violent man named Zacharias)to Rome to bring the Pope back to Constantinople by force and make him sign off on these new laws. The Italian militia of Ravenna stepped in to defend the Pope and Zacharias nearly lost his life. The emperor wisely decided to back down(for now),and the already tense relations between the western and eastern Churches was now in the silent treatment stage of the fighting. Pope Sergius decided that if the eastern Church didn’t like us referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God then guess what……..WE’RE GOING TO SING ABOUT IT EVERY SINGLE TIME WE TAKE COMMUNION. Thus,we have the Agnus Dei. I love it.
Syrian born Pope John V only ruled for a year but his contributions to the faith before becoming Pope were immeasurable. In 680 John was the leading Roman delegate at the Third Council of Constantinople. This council was called to finally put to rest the leading heresy of the day,monothelitism. This heresy believed that Jesus had only a Divine will,and not both human and Divine as the Church teaches. It was popular with various emperors and even some clergy of the eastern Church,but Rome had always held the line on the nature of Jesus for nearly two hundred years at this point(and seemingly forever when writing this blog).John and the other Roman delegate’s defense of the nature of Jesus finally helped put to rest this long standing debate and monothelitism was officially declared a heresy recognized by both west and east Churches. This work on behalf of the Catholic faith helped to elect him to the Papacy in 685. John mostly used his short time clearing up debates about the appointing of bishops and restoring older Churches. He was buried in St Peter’s basilica(the old one)and unfortunately his tomb was destroyed by an Arab invasion of Rome in 846.
Monothelitism was the teaching that Jesus had both human and Divine natures but only one Divine will. This is in opposition to the Catholic position that Jesus had both human and Divine wills. Monothelitism had been a thorn in the Church’s side for nearly two hundred years. The last one hundred years had seen it nearly cause a schism between the western and eastern Churches. Enough was enough. Constantinople emperor Constantine IV wanted Christian unity on the issue and wrote a letter to Rome asking for an olive branch. The letter was originally addressed to Pope Donus,] but with mail being what it was thirteen hundred years ago,he was dead by the time it reached him. The new Pope,Agatho,was sympathetic to the emperor and both now worked together to help bridge the two Churches. The Third Council of Constantinople was called and after months of debates and meetings,Monothelitism was finally officially condemned as heresy and all of its followers were condemned as well…….including earlier Pope Honorius. Although he never proclaimed it,he never objected to it,so this got him thrown under the heretical bus with the others. The Council had healed the schism and also confirmed that Rome would officially be home to the one true faith. This was incredible news and I’m sure Pope Agatho would’ve been overjoyed but he was dead by the time word got to him. Again with the slow mail service!!! Anyways,for his work in bringing the two Churches together,Pope Agatho is venerated as a Saint in both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths. His feast day is celebrated on January 10th.
It had been pretty rough going for the last several Popes. Monothelitism was the major conflict between the western and eastern Churches. This was the belief that Jesus only had a Divine nature and this was in opposition to the belief in Rome that Jesus had both a human and a Divine nature. Emperor Constans II of Constantinople favored monothelitism and made frequent attempts to bend Rome to his way of thinking,including the exile and murder of Pope Martin I. Pope Vitalian tread lightly with the emperor but always held firm to the truth. He even hosted Constans in Rome and watched as the emperor helped himself to several statues and other valuable artifacts making a complete nuisance of himself. Contans moved on to other parts of Italy and sometime during his non-goodwill tour,he was murdered in his bathtub. Oh well. That’s a shame. Without the immediate threat of Contans or monothelitism to worry about,Pope Vitalian had a fairly routine Papacy. He is most famous for being the first Pope to introduce organ music into the Mass. Whether or not this is accurate is up for debate as the organ wasn’t in widespread use in Church until around the 12th century. At the very least Pope Vitalian may have introduced it in just a few Churches to test the liturgical waters. Post Reformation,music in Church has been a bone of contention between the different Protestant denominations but the Catholic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has this to say,”In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”
Defiant Pope Saint Martin I was our last Pope to be martyred for the Church. Monothelitism(spell checked)was the current issue threatening the unity of the Western and Eastern Churches. Monothelitism was the belief that Jesus had both human and Divine natures,but only one Divine will,as opposed to the Catholic belief that Jesus had both human and Divine wills. It was all the rage in Constantinople,with the various emperors and Church patriarchs constantly petitioning the Pope for acceptance or at least a compromise to their beliefs. This issue had been going back and forth for nearly 50 years and the Church simply was not going to give an inch no matter how much the emperors of Constantinople wanted them to. Martin was elected just as a Council was forming to formally condemn monothelitism as a heresy and condemn it he did. First off,he did not wait for the emperor to confirm him as the new Pope(which was the practice back then,sometimes taking up to a year for a confirmation),so that was strike one for Martin. Strikes two,three,four…..all the strikes came against him when he officially declared the heresy,then declared that emperor Constans was a heretic and officially demanded that the heretic emperor and his heretic church fall in line with Rome. Like yesterday. The emperor was less than enthused. He first tried to have the Pope killed,but once the assassin came to town and saw how popular the Pope was,and how right he was,he changed sides and ran off to fight Muslims. So much for that plot. The emperor then had the Pope arrested and dragged back to Constantinople to be put on trial for treason. Martin was found guilty,publicly beaten,and then exiled for life to the island of Crimea where he was tortured and slowly starved to death. He never once wavered. He never once backed off his position on the nature and will of Jesus. He is in a way,a living embodiment of all that is great about the Catholic Church. She does not waver. She as a Church,is not,as Ronald Knox says,”…..free to catch the wind of the moment and sink their nets where the fishing seems best.”
Angry Pope Theodore I was the next in the line for Popes having to constantly battle the eastern Church over the nature of Jesus. Monothelitism is the belief that Jesus only had one will,a Divine one,as opposed to our Catholic belief that Jesus had both a human and Divine will. This back and forth between the western and eastern Churches over this had been going on for….(forever it seems since this is all I’ve written about on this blog for weeks now). Pope Theodore refused to recognize the new patriarch of Constantinople,Paul,because the previous guy(Pyrrhus)still believed in the Jesus of only one nature when he passed away,which Paul never corrected. Pope Theodore was still irritated because Pyrrhus had once come to Rome and denounced Monothelitism to the Pope’s face,then after leaving town flip-flopped back. This made the Pope so freaking mad that he supposedly wrote out the excommunication of Pyrrhus using consecrated wine on the tomb of St Peter as his desk. Supposedly(I doubt it was this dramatic but it’s still a cool image). On and on went the battle of wills between the two Churches over the nature of our Lord. The emperor of Constantinople was so sick of hearing about it that he jailed a Papal ambassador when the sensitive subject came up. Pope Theodore was sick of all of this too and called for the Lateran Council of 649 to condemn the issue and hopefully put it to rest once and for all. Unfortunately he passed away before the Council could meet and it would be the next Pope(Saint Martin I),who would bear the full brunt of this strife between the two Churches. This wouldn’t be settled for another 40 years after Theodore(six more weeks for me),so maybe by then I’ll learn to spell “Monothelitism” without the spellcheck correcting me.
Pope Severinus was elected within three days of the death of Pope Honorius,but was not installed as Pope for nearly two years after that. During this time,a newly elected Pope had to get confirmation from the emperor of Constantinople. The current emperor was on the Monothelitism bandwagon believing that Jesus had two natures(human and divine),but one will(Divine). This is in direct opposition to the Church’s belief that Jesus has both human and Divine natures and two distinct wills. Severinus refused to even consider this belief so a battle of wills then began between the two cities. The emperor sent his agents to apply pressure on Rome,first by inciting a mob of Roman soldiers to storm the Vatican and steal their pay(which had been late in coming),then another group came in,ran the soldiers off,and stole all the loot they wanted(with a share for the emperor,of course). All the while Severinus and his clergy had barricaded themselves in the Lateran palace,refusing to compromise(or even come outside to meet the various angry mobs). Finally,after all of this childishness from Constantinople,and with the emperor dying,time was running out for him to get his way. Not much could get done without an official Pope and delegates for Severinus had convinced the emperor that he would at least consider the nature of Christ if he was approved as Pope(they were of course lying,or at least fudging the truth. Severinus would not be budged). This convinced the emperor(who was tired of talking about all of this). He confirmed Severinus as our 71st Pope. Severius officially reigned for all of two months before passing away due to natural causes,which looks bad on paper……but the guy put in the time,holding the line on the one Truth of which our Church was built. He was outstanding.
Oh this Pope…..this Pope caused all kinds of trouble. The patriarch of Constantinople supported the idea of Monothelitism,which suggested that Christ had both a human and Divine nature but only one will,a Divine one. The Catholic Church had always declared that this was heresy,because we believe that Christ had both a human and Divine nature and both human and Divine wills. The patriarch of Constantinople had hoped that the Church could compromise on this and it would help bring Monothelites into the Church. He wrote Pope Honorius about this and the Pope took a “yeah whatever” approach to it……here’s where the trouble began. His general lax attitude wasn’t an issue until his successor Pope Severius(and the next several Popes)took a hard line,or rather the Church’s line,and refused to accept this heretical idea about the nature of Christ. In fact,forty years after his death,a council declared ANATHEMA(!!)to Pope Honorius. Anathema basically means “damned”. The council damned Honorius and all of the other clergy who supported the Monothelites. This Pope’s actions also gave ammo to critics of the idea of Papal Infallibility. This means the Pope is infallible when it comes to the teachings of the Church. Pope Honorius squeaked by this because he never actually taught Monothelitism or tried to change doctrine,he was just lazy about calling it out for being a heresy. The next several Popes,up to the fearless Pope Saint Martin I,will more than make up for this dip in the character of our Holy Father.
Pope Sabinian’s short Papacy had the bad luck of following Pope Gregory the Great’s. In fact,Sabinian’s legacy is directly tied to his predecessor. The Lombards had an on again/off again relationship with Rome in that they liked to show up every few years and try to starve the Romans out of their gates. They were a very “siege-y” bunch of people. When this happened under Pope Gregory(The Great. Don’t forget),he opened up the Vatican granaries and let the people have whatever they needed to keep their families fed. He did this for free. Pope Gregory was a charitable kind of guy. Probably why he’s referred to as “The Great”, but I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that or not. Now when the Lombards showed up under Pope Sabinian,he did the same thing Gregory did. Only this time he charged the people for the grain and not only that,he charged them extra. Yeah,that pretty much did it for him with the Roman people. A legacy as a profiteering cheapskate is always going to be a hard thing to shake off. When Pope Sabinian passed away suddenly,his funeral procession had to take alternate routes to St Peter’s to avoid angry mobs of apparently hungry Romans. His Papacy wasn’t a total loss though,he filled Church positions with lay people as opposed to Gregory filling them with his monk friends……so that’s….something.