Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pope Saint John I ~ A political martyr of the 6th century AD

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May 18 is the feast of Pope Saint John I, martyr.

Pope St. John I was the first pontiff to visit the eastern imperial capital of Constantinople and he did so at the behest of Theodoric, the Arian Gothic king of Italy. Theodoric enjoined Pope John to act as an advocate for the Arians at the court of the Roman emperor, Justin I, threatening to begin a persecution of orthodox Catholics in Italy should the Holy Father refuse to accept this mission. Of course, Pope John could not defend Arianism, save to ask Justin to act with more leniency toward the Arians within the Eastern Roman Empire.

On his way to Constantinople, two extraordinary things happened, according to Pope Saint Gregory the Great who recorded them in his famous Dialogues:
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In the time of the Goths, when the most blessed man John, Bishop of this church of Rome, traveled to the Emperor Justinian the elder, he came into the country of Corinth, where he lacked an horse to ride upon: which a certain noble man understanding, lent him that horse which, because he was gentle, his wife used for her own saddle, with order that when he came where he could provide himself of another, his wife's horse should be sent back again. And so the Bishop rode upon him, until he came to a certain place where he got another, and then he returned that which he had borrowed. But afterward, when his wife came to take his back, as before she used, by no means could she do it, because the horse, having carried so great a Bishop, would not suffer a woman to come any more upon his back, and therefore he began with monstrous snorting, neighing, and continual stirring, as it were in scorn, to shew that he could not bear any woman, upon whom the Pope himself had ridden: which thing her husband wisely considering, straightways sent him again to the holy man, beseeching him to accept of that horse, which by riding he had dedicated to his own service. Of the same man, another miracle is also reported by our ancestors: to wit, that in Constantinople, when he came to the gate called Aurea, where he was met with great numbers of people, in the presence of them all, he restored sight to a blind man that did instantly crave it: for laying his hand upon him, he banished away that darkness which possessed his eyes. [Taken from The Dialogues of Gregory the Great]
While he was in Constantinople, Pope John was exalted and honored by Justin I, as well his nephew, Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus, who would later become the Emperor Justinian. For his part, the Pope placed the imperial diadem on Justin's head and praised the emperor for his role in ending the Acacian Schism which had separated the eastern and western Church for 35 years. He also officiated at Easter in Hagia Sophia (the second one--not the present building) in Constantinople in the Latin Rite.

When Theodoric heard how the Holy Father had been honored in Constantinople and how he had, in turn, honored the emperor, he was greatly displeased. He endeavored to seize Pope John and his retinue on their return trip. According to the Liber Pontificalis:
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At that time the venerable pope John and the senators returned with glory, having obtained all their requests of Justin Augustus, but King Theodoric, the heretic, received them, that is Pope John and the senators, with craft and hatred and would even have slain them with the sword but he feared the indignation of Justin Augustus. However, he confined them all cruelly in prison, so that the blessed pope John, worn by illness, gave up the ghost and died in prison. He died at Ravenna gloriously. May 18, in the prison of King Theodoric. On the 98th day after Bishop John had died in prison, by the will of omnipotent God, King Theodoric suddenly was struck down by divine power and perished. [Taken from The Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis)]
Having died unjustly at the hands of a heretic king, Pope John is considered a martyr. His story is especially poignant for our times when the Papacy is equally beset by political forces (and some would say by powerful heretics as well) who attempt to use the Holy Father as a pawn to further their own ends.

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