Before Pope Stephen IX died,he left strict instructions to his Cardinals not to elect a new Pope until they were all there in one place to convene. While they waited,impatient Roman nobles rushed to elect a Pope of their own,Benedict X. The senior Cardinals fled Rome and then finally got together to elect the Bishop of Florence as the new Pope,who took the name Nicholas II. Backed by the army of Duke Godfrey of Lorraine,Nicholas marched back into Rome and ran the anti-pope Benedict out of town. Once officially installed,Nicholas called a synod to set up new and strict rules for elections. In the previous thousand years Popes were elected in any number of ways,sometimes shady,sometimes not. The new rules only allowed Cardinals to elect the Pope,in secret,and without influence from lay people or nobles or from any various royalty from different places. These rules for the Papal election would go through various streamlining changes,even until now,but they were basically laid down with Nicholas II. While reading up on this I came across the meaning of the word “Cardinal”. It’s derived from a Latin word meaning “hinge”,as in the hinge of the door is very important for it to work,so a Cardinal is a very important part of the Church in order for it to function properly. The red that they wear symbolizes that they will shed their blood to protect the Church if they have to. When settlers first arrived in North America they nicknamed the red birds that they saw after the Catholic Cardinals……(“Catholic Cardinals” sounds like a good name for a Catholic school sports team)
Pope Gregory III made a decision about dates that has impacted nearly every one in the western hemisphere. Gregory basically gave us Halloween. Kinda. Sorta. All Saints’Day is celebrated every year in honor of all of those in the Church that have made it into heaven. It’s a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics and is also known as Feast of the Saints and All Hallows Day. The day before it is All Hallows Eve and over centuries the name of that day was shortened to Halloween. Earlier in history,All Saints’Day was celebrated either in April(in some countries),or on May 13th. When Pope Gregory dedicated a new chapel in St.Peter’s,he moved the day from May to November 1st and honored the day for “….the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”. Elsewhere in the world around this time,a Gaelic pagan festival known as Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. Samhain and All Saints’Day have nothing to do with each other,but due to the time of year and the “dead” theme of both,they naturally started mixing,more so depending on what part of the world you were in. What we know as Halloween today was born in a Christian celebration of those that we know have made it home to Heaven. The other stuff(witches,black cats…whatever)came later from secular sources,much like Christmas with Santa Claus and St.Patrick’s Day with all the weird green beer.
Pope Gregory combated Eastern iconoclasm,which was the total destruction of religious images. In a great act of passive aggression,Gregory accepted a “bribe” of some glorious columns of onyx from an Eastern iconoclast and promptly used them to support several images of Jesus. Gregory also banned the consumption of horse meat(did we really need to tell people NOT to eat it?). Since I really don’t want to end on people eating horse meat,I’ll add that the Syrian born Gregory was the last Pope born outside of Europe until Pope Francis.
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.”
The Pantheon in Rome was built in the year 125 and was a pagan temple built with the intention of worshiping Roman gods like Jupiter and Mars. It’s the oldest building in the world with its original roof still intact and is basically the model for every government building in the United States. It had stood strong for nearly 500 years when the emperor of Constantinople gifted it to the new Pope in the year 609. Boniface IV quickly went to work throwing out the old gods(with the lower case “g”),and making it a place of worship for the one true God(with a capital “G”). Boniface dedicated the building to the Virgin Mary and to early Christian martyrs. He brought in over 30 cart loads of bones dug up from the Christian Catacombs and had them all reburied under the floor. Roman gods were lame anyways,the Romans just stole the Greek gods and renamed them. Lazy,lazy,lazy….
The Pantheon would later also become famous for being the burial place of the artist Raphael nearly a thousand years later. He apparently had a enormous state funeral there when he passed away at the early age of 37. Also happening during the reign of Pope Boniface was the rise of Islam under the prophet Muhammad but we’ve got a while before we get to any Crusade talk(whew). Pope Boniface IV’s feast day is either May 8th or May 25th(depends of who you ask),and his remains were moved three times before finally coming to rest in St.Peter’s in the thirteenth century under Pope Boniface VIII.
Pope Pelagius II was a native of Rome and took over the Papacy during its siege by the dreaded Lombards. The Pope couldn’t fight back against them,and couldn’t talk any of his allies into helping to fight them so Pelagius basically just paid the Lombards to leave. Wow. Simple as that. With that problem solved Pelagius turned to the fine tuning of the rules for the clergy,namely celibacy. Bishops and Priests traditionally followed the celibacy rule but Pope Pelagius wanted to extend it down to singers,acolytes and readers. He was so strict on this that the next Pope,Gregory I,backed off on a lot of these rules,even though he himself was a monk. If a monk thinks you’re too strict…..
Pope Pelagius also built The Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura,(Papal Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls). This was a Church built on the site of the execution of Saint Lawrence,the deacon who was martyred in 258 by being cooked on a gridiron. As he was being roasted alive,Lawrence told the Romans to flip him over,because he was done on this side. Greatest sarcastic last words ever. This Church was more or less destroyed by Allied bombings during World War II. Damned good guys! Oh,I mean…….hooray for the good guys(with poor aim). A plague swept through Rome in the year 590 claiming Pope Pelagius II as one of it’s victims.
Pope Saint Agapetus was elected to the Papacy just days after the death of Pope John II. Agapetus was from a wealthy and prominent Roman family and was one of the most highly educated men to hold the office. One of his first acts as Pontiff was to create a library that featured Latin translations of works from Greek writers like Homer and Aristotle. His time in office was very short and was mostly consumed by keeping Italy from being invaded by Constantinople. Italian Queen Amalasuntha was murdered by her cousin Theodahad,who quickly assumed the throne. This in turn infuriated Eastern emperor Justin I who favored the now deceased Queen. A massive army was dispatched with Rome in their sights. King Theodahad wanted no part of this and begged the Pope to travel east and talk Justin down. Pope Agapetus wanted no part of this either and agreed to try to talk some sense into the angry Emperor. First he needed money for the journey and he actually pawned off some property of St.Peter’s for the ummm….gas money to make the long trip. Unfortunately,this would all turn out to be a waste of time because Justin could not be persuaded.
The trip was a success in a different way though,because while there,the Pope took offense at the leader of the Eastern Church,a heretical Monophysite named Anthimus. A Monophysite was a person who believed Jesus was ONLY of divine nature,which really misses the whole point of the whole deal. The Pope told Justin that if he wouldn’t call off his troops,he could at least throw out the heretic that was running his Churches. Justin instead threatened the Pope with banishment or worse. Pope Agapetus replied “With eager longing have I come to gaze upon the Most Christian Emperor Justinian. In his place I find a Diocletian, whose threats, however, terrify me not”. A Diocletian,by the way,refers to a past Roman Emperor that persecuted Christians. The fearless Pope stared down the barrel of torture and death and didn’t blink and Justin,with his Christianity challenged,was then persuaded that the heretic named Anthimus had to go. For this reason,Agapetus is not only celebrated as a Saint in the Roman Church,he is also recognized as a Saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The two sister Churches may not agree on a lot of things,but they both know a Holy man when they see one. Our Poor Pope,however,had worked himself to the point of extreme exhaustion,and passed away suddenly as Emperor Justin’s troops marched to Rome. Pope Agapetus’ feast day is celebrated on September 20th and he is buried in St.Peter’s basilica.
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.”
St. Sixtus was a kind and thoughtful man from Greece. He was elected in the hopes of restoring peace throughout the fractured Church after many years of in-fighting,which he did successfully during his short term. Roman Emperor Valerian was everything that our Pope was not. A vile,and hateful human being,Valerian waged immediate war against Christianity and ordered that any Bishops,Priests or Deacons caught performing a Mass was to be put to death. On August 6th 258,St. Sixtus was performing a secret Mass in the chapel of the cemetery of Praextextatus when Roman soldiers arrived on the scene. Fearing for the Bishop,the entire congregation tried to shield St.Sixtus and help him escape,but Sixtus wouldn’t leave. He wouldn’t leave his people in the hands of the Romans. He and his six Deacons stood their ground and volunteered themselves so the congregation could escape unharmed. They were all beheaded on the spot. Sixtus’ faith in Christ and his faith in what he was doing nevered wavered and he and his Deacons gladly accepted their martyrdom. He was buried in the Catacomb of Callixtus and the following inscription on his tomb can still be read today.
“At the time when the sword pierced the bowels of the Mother, I, buried here, taught as Pastor the Word of God; when suddenly the soldiers rushed in and dragged me from the chair. The faithful offered their necks to the sword, but as soon as the Pastor saw the ones who wished to rob him of the palm (of martyrdom) he was the first to offer himself and his own head, not tolerating that the (pagan) frenzy should harm the others. Christ, who gives recompense, made manifest the Pastor’s merit, preserving unharmed the flock.”
St. Anterus was elected Bishop of Rome on November 21st 235 and he passed away on January 3rd 236….sooooo he was Pope for a little over a month. In his very brief tenure he tried to compile records of all the Christian martyrs. Traditionally we think of a martyr as somehow who dies for their faith,and while that is true,the actual meaning is someone who has also given over their living life to their faith,so St. Anterus,while not murdered for his faith,gave his life over to Jesus and would be considered a martyr in the true sense of the word. He was the first Pope to be buried in the Papal crypts of the Catacombs of Callixtus(his predecessor’s body had not made it back to Rome yet),and his tomb was discovered in 1854. His feast day is celebrated on the day of his death,January 3rd.
Roman born Bishop Urban’s time in office was initially a peaceful one,but it would not last. Following the murder of Roman Emperor Elagabalus,the next Emperor was Alexander Severus,and he was fairly open minded to Christianity(his mom liked Christians…..awwww).The Catholic Church saw much growth during this time of relative freedom and Urban was a strong leader that converted hundreds of Romans. During his papacy,Urban issued a Papal decree concerning donations of the faithful during Mass,stating that donations “only be used for ecclesiastical purposes,for the common good of the Christian community,and for the poor”.
The Emperor didn’t mind the Christians,but they still had to fear the suspicious locals and evil politicians. A governor named Almachius arrested Urban and several of his priests and proceeded to beat and torture them demanding the treasury of the Church. Urban replied “I see now that covetousness moves you more to persecute the Christians than does the sacrifice of your Gods”. Almachius dragged Urban before a statue of a Roman idol and told him to engage in a pagan sacrifice. Urban spit at the idol(YES!),made the sign of the cross on his forehead and prayed to the one true God.Suddenly the statue toppled over and killed several pagan priests. Urban was then beheaded,but damn,what an incredible way to go out. I’m sure he held his head high before it was taken off. Urban was buried in the Catacomb of Callixtus and his feast day is held on May 25th.