One of the blessings of the saints’ feasts is how they turn our hearts to the faithfulness of God. Today we commemorate St Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 604. Gregory’s great desire in life was to be a monk; to still alone in stillness and contemplate the greatness of God. Instead, he was called from the monastic life to be bishop of Rome. The fruit of St Gregory’s contemplation is visible in his written works, from Bible commentaries to a life of St Benedict. But it is perhaps most visible in . . . ourselves. In 597, St Gregory sent the abbot of his Roman monastery with twelve companions to convert the pagan, barbarian English people. This was the beginning of the conversion of the English people, thanks to the grace of God in the life of a man who would rather have been faithful in some other way.
I, a descendant of those English barbarians, had the opportunity to encounter what may have been St Gregory’s shepherd’s crook (art historians say it isn’t). In thankfulness to God for this man’s faithfulness, I kissed it alongside the monks who live in his old monastery today.
God will be faithful to our own spiritual lives, as he was to Gregory, even if our only challenge is making it to Easter without chocolate.
The question of whether Leo was a bad pope is one of the most frequent questions I get. While the answer is short (‘No’), the question itself is revealing. It tells us a few things about the perspective of people today on the papacy.
This is a question I never asked. Perhaps it’s my upbringing, or the years I spent studying the Middle Ages for fun before coming to Late Antique popes for research, or the respect I actually have for the Church of Rome, but it never crossed my mind that a fifth-century pope would even be a candidate for the ranks of ‘bad popes’.
The first thing this question tells me about how people view popes is that the papacy is very frequently seen through the lens of the Reformation and Renaissance, when Bishops of Rome had enormous temporal power as well as mistresses and children. An age when the Bishop of Rome was as likely to be a sleazy, back-stabbing jerk as any secular prince. An age when the church hierarchy was inescapably corrupt, and the top of the pyramid most corrupt of all. Setting aside the question of the accuracy of this characterisation of Renaissance-Reformation popes, this is the image of the pope that people have.
Thus, they project this ‘badness’ back onto earlier ages, and imagine earlier Bishops of Rome as being as likely to be corrupt and as grasping after temporal power.
Second, sometimes the way people discuss popes reveals that they cannot see being Bishop of Rome as a spiritual vocation that a good man might strive towards. Thus, even if they can disassociate Late Antique popes from Early Modern ones, they still imagine that it’s the sort of job a wordly-type of ambitious man guns for. This is the cynicism of our age.
Being Bishop of Rome certainly had its advantages in Late Antiquity. It also, however, came with extraordinary duties and responsibilities with very little in the way of wealth or secular power. The Bishop of Rome was shepherd of the church in the city of Rome where he had liturgical and preaching duties. He was also Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy where he had canon-legal duties and administrative tasks.
Beyond that, he was, or was at least becoming (sometimes through his own connivance, I admit, but sometimes through the activities of those beyond his Italian sphere of influence), the most powerful ecclesiastical leader in the Latin Church, which is not all that glorious at a time when most of that church is beyond the Bishop of Rome’s effective control and in the slow process of being dismembered from the Roman Empire and reconstituted as Barbarian Kingdoms.
If the Roman Episcopacy were the sort of thing to which worldly, ambitious men were drawn for the reasons cynics imagine men become Pope, it is also worthy of note that the first aristocrat to become Bishop of Rome was Felix III (pope, 483-92). One would expect more aristocratic popes much sooner if the job were all that enticing in the temporal sphere.
As I said, the question is itself illuminating.
To answer it more fully, Pope Leo I ‘the Great’ (pope, 440-61) was not a ‘bad’ pope. He had no mistress. Was not a paedophile. Led no armies into battle. Had no ‘nephews’ promoted to high ecclesiastical or secular office. Did not misappropriate church funds for his own use. Did not elaborately furnish the Lateran Palace for his own use.
He did use church funds to restore churches, both their fabric as well as their liturgical goods, damaged in the Vandal sack of 455, though. He did try to use the expanding authority of the Bishop of Rome to see what he felt was good governance and good doctrine established in the Roman world, from Gaul and Spain to Egypt and Palestine. He did go on a diplomatic mission to stop Attila from sacking Rome.
Whatever you may feel about his place in history in other ways, Leo I was certainly not a ‘bad’ pope.
I’ve decided to run a little series of posts called ‘Pope Questions.’ These are responses to questions that people invariably ask me in conversations about my work. Some of them are meant to clarify issues about who exactly Leo is, others are more specific to my own feelings concerning popes. The answers I’ll give here will not be the ones I gave in the moment — or, if basically the same, not verbatim.
Expect to see the following questions answered:
Is Leo one of the bad popes?
Why study Leo the Great?
What makes Leo Great?
What other popes are ‘the Great’?
Are all popes saints?
Who is the first pope?
It must be difficult for you to study a pope since you are a Protestant.
Who is your favourite pope?
What do you think of the current pope?
Is the Vatican hiding something in the Archive? What would happen if they made it all public?
Is that [Gregory the Great] the Gregory who went to war against Hungary?
Feel free to ask your own questions, of course!
I will not answer whether Leo was a Medici pope — I assume that person misheard the century ‘fifth’ as ‘fifteenth’. Or had Medicis on the brain. Or both. Nor will I answer if the Fall of the Roman Empire was near in time to the Reformation; I fear that person had little knowledge of European history.
Also, expect Montly Popes as of March, but not Weekly Saints. Too hard to keep up the saints.
In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.
This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).
Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.
The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.
This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.
For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.
To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?
Our last Pope of the Month was a while ago, in the person of St Clement of Rome (fl. AD 96). This month, the Pope of the Month returns in the person of St Hippolytus of Rome (c. 165-235). Between Clement and Hippolytus falls a series of other, less famous popes: Avaristus, Alexander I, Sixtus (Xystus) I, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius I, Anicetus, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor I, Zephyrinus, Callistus (see the Pope List at the Catholic Encyclopedia for articles on these guys).
The first interesting thing about Hippolytus is that he was bishop of Rome at the same time as Callistus. And then at the same time as Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. Now, if you know anything about the monarchical episcopacy that will have certainly developed in Rome by some point in the second century, if not by Clement’s day, you may know that one city doesn’t really get two bishops.
This is because St Hippolytus has the grand distinction of being an ‘Anti-Pope’ — a bishop in Rome set up in opposition to the bishop in Rome who was accepted in the canonical lists of popes. He is also one of the only anti-popes of whom I know who is also a canonised saint. Well-done, St Hippolytus!
Hippolytus established himself as Anti-pope for two main reasons. First, he doubted the doctrinal purity of Pope Zephyrinus, whom he accused of modalism (the teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different modes of being for the one God — aka Oneness Pentecostalism, like the band 4 Him and T D Jakes), himself being influenced by the ‘logos’ Christology of St Justin Martyr that saw the Son as a hypostasis of his own, which is the forerunner of Nicene Christology.
However, his break with the episcopacy at Rome did not come until the papacy of Callistus, whom he felt to be too soft ethically; Callistus would allow people who had committed sins such as adultery back into the communion of the Church. Hippolytus was opposed to such laxity. This position is not as foreign as it sounds to our modern ears; it is the sort of stance taken around the same time by Tertullian in North Africa, for example.
Hippolytus was thus elected a rival bishop of Rome by the faction opposed to Callistus’ allegedly lax moral stance.
This, however, is not why he is famous.
Hippolytus is famous amongst Christians today for giving us one of the earliest extant eucharistic liturgies, which you can read online here. It is part of a document called the Apostolic Tradition from c. 215, and what it gives us is liturgical advice from the Roman church as well as recounting other practices common at the time.
To give an idea of how ancient some of the things we do on a Sunday are, here is part of the Apostolic Tradition:
The Lord be with you.
And all reply:
And with your spirit.
The bishop says:
Lift up your hearts.
The people respond:
We have them with the Lord.
The bishop says:
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
The people respond:
It is proper and just.
That could be straight from the Prayer Book or the Missal or the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom! And it is embedded in Hippolytus’ order of service for the eucharist. The rediscovery of this very ancient liturgical text has been instrumental in the reshaping of western liturgies since Vatican II, both Roman Catholic Novus Ordo and Anglican ones such as The Book of Alternative Services or Common Worship. Read the text, and if you are familiar with these modern liturgies, you’ll see what I mean.
Hippolytus gives us prayers for the blessing of gifts, such as cheese and olives, as well as the order for ordaining bishops, presbyters, and deacons, the receiving of catechumens, the order of baptism, the prayers at eventide and a host of other little services and prayers for the daily, weekly, yearly running of the church’s life of prayer and service.
We are fortunate to have such a window as this, a snapshot of the life of worship of the Church of Rome in the early third century. Few other liturgical texts are reliably older than this, although we have some scattered descriptions of Christian worship that pre-date Hippolytus.
In 235, Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-38) was Emperor of Rome. In his persecution of the Christians, he exiled the two rival bishops, Hippolytus and Pontian to Sardinia. There they were martyred. Both bodies were brought back to the City by Fabian and venerated as martyrs. Although his unwavering stance on purity led Hippolytus to break communion with the Roman Church, he died for Christ in the end and was counted as in the peace of Christ’s Church, being commemorated as a martyr for the name of Christ and a saint — a holy man — of the Church.