July 31, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Two special popes of the fifth century

John F. Fink(Seventeenth in a series of columns)

When I wrote about Pope Damasus four columns back, I said that he was forceful in promoting the primacy of the See of Rome, referring to it as “the apostolic see.” A couple of his successors in the fifth century were even more forceful.

First there was Pope St. Innocent I, who became pope on Dec. 21, 401, two days after the death of Pope St. Anastasius I, who happened to be his father—the only such case in Catholic history of a son succeeding his father as pope. From letters that still survive, we know that he laid down the law on disciplinary and liturgical matters, insisting on “the Roman custom.”

When two regional councils in Africa condemned Pelagianism and asked Pope Innocent to add his anathema, he did so, and excommunicated Pelagius. But then he went on to praise the African bishops for referring the matter to his judgment (which they really had not intended) because, he asserted, disputes over matters of faith should be submitted to the successor of St. Peter.

(Pelagius taught that humans can attain salvation through the efforts of their natural powers and free will, playing down the role of divine grace.)

Pope Innocent had difficulties with some of the eastern bishops, though. When St. John Chrysostom was exiled from his See of Constantinople, through the efforts of Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria and Empress Eudoxia, Innocent refused to recognize the bishop appointed in his place.

The fifth century also produced Pope St. Leo I, one of two popes to be called “the great,” the other being St. Gregory I (although some people are calling Pope St. John Paul II that). He was pope from 440 to 461. He asserted his authority everywhere in the west, but it was not accepted in the east.

We already met him in this series of columns because he was the pope at the time of the important Council of Chalcedon that I wrote about two columns back.

Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great are also the only two popes to be named doctors of the Church. In Leo’s case it was mainly because of his Tome, the letter he wrote which asserted that Christ had two natures, the divine and human, united in one person. This letter was read at the Council of Chalcedon.

Excerpts from 26 of Pope Leo’s sermons are still included in the Office of Readings that is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, including for major feasts like Christmas and Epiphany. That’s the same number as those of St. Ambrose and second only to St. Augustine’s 82.

Leo the Great is also known for facing down barbarians who were attacking Italy at that time. In 452, he personally met with Attila the Hun and persuaded him to withdraw. In 455, he met with Gaiseric the Vandal and, although he couldn’t prevent the looting of Rome, he did induce Gaiseric not to burn the city and massacre the people. Nevertheless, the decline of imperial Rome dates from the Vandals’ sacking of the city. †

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