Eucharist this noon included John 1:29-42 as the Gospel lesson, wherein At John the Baptist makes this famous proclamation. I couldn’t help but think of the ninth-century mosaics at Santa Prassede in Rome.
I was explaining to someone my upcoming research project into the sources of the earliest collections of papal letters recently, and this question came up. It’s actually a very good question, because it helps clarify what the person with whom you are speaking actually means by the terms. There is a certain kind of Roman Catholic, for example, who would say that not only are ‘Bishop of Rome’ and ‘Pope’ synonymous, the office of the Bishop of Rome has pretty much always been invested with the same authority and whatnot.
My answer was that, for my research, I use the terms interchangeably. However, it is more that I mean ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’ when I say ‘Pope’ than that I mean ‘Pope’ when I say ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’. That is, I am conscious of a development in the office of the Roman Bishop and his role in ecclesiastical polity that means that ‘Pope’ Siricius (d. 399) and ‘Pope’ Innocent III (d. 1216) and ‘Pope’ Francis do not all have exactly the same job or role in the wider church.
John Moorhead’s 2015 book, The Popes and the Church of Rome in Late Antiquity takes the same tack, although Moorhead eschews the adjective ‘papal’ and noun ‘papacy’, with good reason. I choose not to because they are short words and everyone knows what they mean; instead, I frame my use of pope-related words at the beginning of my work so people know what is going on. Calling Leo ‘Pope’ is perfectly legitimate; therefore, talking of his papacy makes a lot of sense to me — although I can also see Moorhead’s perspective, trying to avoid clouding the issue of how the Roman Bishop’s role developed.
What is a ‘pope’? A ‘pope’ is a papa in Latin — a father. The term is used in the fifth century of bishops beyond the Bishop of Rome, although eventually it becomes restricted to said bishop in its usage. I am fairly certain no one ever legislated the term ‘pope’. It is also used in Eastern churches; hence the current Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. At St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus, it is painted in a fresco on the exterior of the building; the fresco is of the Council of Nicaea, and the poor fifteenth- (sixteenth-?) century artist knew neither Pope Sylvester’s name nor the fact that he wasn’t even there, so simply painted ‘Papa Romis’ over his head.
It is a title of honour, originally used to esteem the person and activity of spiritual direction of the bishop. Therefore, even though Bishops of Rome in the late 300s and 400s were not the same sort of Pope as Innocent III, they are still Popes — and they still claim a primacy of honour. And Pope Leo the Great, in fact, even claims that all clerical ministry descends from Peter, and therefore Rome.
How the pope, in his role of Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan of Suburbicarian Italy, and holder of a primacy of honour, Patriarch of the western church, comes to be invested with universal jurisdiction and appoints all bishops is a different story. But to call someone ‘pope’ need not imply said jurisdiction or vision of the papal role.
The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Trevor Jalland, The Life and Times of Pope St. Leo the Great (as you do), and he mentioned the fact that Rome’s most ancient churches are all western oriented. That is, when you walk in and look towards the altar and apse, you are facing West, not East. At first, I didn’t believe Jalland. I had been told that all traditional churches face East — and, taking stock of a few I know (St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Duomos of Milan and Florence, Westminster Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey, Ayia Sophia in Nicosia), this is broadly true.
Then I thought about it and realised that Jalland was right — St Peter’s, St John’s (Lateran), Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere — these churches, two in place of fourth-century foundations, one fifth-century foundations respectively, all face west. This isn’t the sort of thing one says and is wrong, of course. Still, I was a bit taken aback.
You see, there is a bit of controversy about ‘facing East’ and ‘facing West’, liturgically speaking. Regardless of the compass points at your church, if your priest faces liturgical East during the celebration and consecration of the Eucharist, then you and the cleric are facing the same direction (sometimes called ‘facing away from the congregation’). If your priest faces you, that is facing liturgical West. Until Vatican II, most churches faced East — all in the same direction — and now, outside of the Eastern communions, only a few scattered congregations maintain previous practice in this regard.
Those who uphold facing East tend to quote St Basil of Caesarea (330-379) in their defence:
For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. (On the Holy Spirit 66, quoted [& presumably trans] by Andrew Louth, ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83)
Elsewhere, I have heard the reference to facing East because the rising sun symbolises the resurrection and Christ’s return in glory. Another argument in favour of the practice is the idea that priest and people are praying together, so they face the altar together.
What does the western orientation of ancient roman churches mean, then?
According to Jalland, the priests would still have faced East. Thus, they would have faced the congregation, facing, in contemporary terms, liturgical West.
This changed, he says, when the Via Ostiense and local topography forced them to build San Paolo fuori le Mura facing East. This is the first eastern-orientated church in Rome. The priest continued to face East, but now, so did the people, so they all faced the same direction, the priest with his back to the congregation.
I don’t know how true or accurate this is — Jalland gave no references for how we know which way people faced, and his book is from 1941. I do imagine, based upon what I’ve read in J Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, that facing East, if it is as common in the East as we imagine, would likely have become more and more common after Justinian’s mid-sixth-century Reconquest, when the Roman liturgy took on a variety of Greek influences, often because of a growing Greek population in Rome and Greek clerics (sometimes refugees from eastern problems) in the city.
It is certainly the case that San Teodoro and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, both sixth-century foundations, face East, as does Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, a seventh-century construction.
Anyway, it is interesting to think about how architecture, theology, and liturgical practice can all influence one another.
On Sunday, I took the opportunity to visit the Basilica di San Clemente, just a few minutes’ walk from the Colosseum. It is a gem, well worth visiting; the upper church, the main basilica, dates to ca. 1100 (after the old one got trashed by some Normans* [typical behaviour on their part]). It is built on the basilica plan I discussed here and has some lovely frescoes as well as a sixth-century schola cantorum down the middle, not dissimilar to the fourth-century one at Santa Sabina, and a few sculptures to be admired.
The star of the show, however, is the mosaic. It is one of those gilt masterpieces of Late Antique and Romanesque art, with the Cross as the Tree of Life at the centre, and persons from all walks of life as well as animals living in the branches of the tree. It is flanked by Evangelists and Prophets, surmounted by (essentially) Christ Pantokrator, and stands above lambs whom I assume represent the Apostles. The little book I bought, written by an Irish Dominican (after we suppressed them in the 1600s, the Irish Dominicans moved to San Clemente), says that, given its Late Antique feel, this apsidal mosaic is possibly either a reproduction of the original, fourth-century mosaic or at least the same sort of iconography.**
After viewing this lovely upper church, I bought some postcards and a ticket to visit what lies beneath. Beneath 12th-c San Clemente lies 4th-c San Clemente. After the Norman troubles of 1084, it was filled with rubble to form the foundation of the new church, and you can clearly see that the low, vaulted ceiling is not original, not least because the frescoes all end partway up. The frescoes depict scenes from the life of Saint Clement (saint of the week here) as well as some other folks and Sts Cyril and Methodius (saints of the week here) who brought St Clement’s (alleged) remains home to Rome. These frescoes are Romanesque, not Late Antique, though (although the architecture is fourth-century), dating to the ninth century. The lower church is wider than the upper church.
Below it you will find a Roman house (possible storage facility, in fact) and a Mithraeum. Sadly, I could only view the Mithraeum through bars. Alas. These were filled with rubble to serve as the foundations for the basilica in the fourth century. San Clemente operates on a pattern.
It was a most exciting event to visit a fourth-century basilica, no matter how low-ceilinged and dimly-lit. The earliest I’d yet visited were fifth-century basilicas such as Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. There is an elegance and simplicity to these oldest church buildings in Rome.
A church to Saint Clement is mentioned as early as St Jerome, and it is assumed it is that fourth-century building down below. I highly recommend San Clemente — it even ties (marginally) into my research, as my next post will show!
*In their defence, they were in Rome to support the pope.
**Note that this makes it a Romanesque fresco in Late Antique style, not Byzantine, despite what one of the other tourists was saying while I was there. It is true that art at Rome in the Middle Ages maintains many of the Late Antique features shared with Byzantine art, and that in the Early Middlel Ages Rome was part of Byzantine Italy, but that does not mean we should run around calling these items Byzantine. (End of rant.)
I am in Rome for about a month, starting earlier this week. One my wild research trips. Two days ago, I went into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only Gothic church, run by Dominicans. While there, I saw the tombs of St Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico. Because of my week in Florence, I am already well-acquainted with Beato Angelico, but St Catherine of Siena? Merely a name.
So I downloaded a (somewhat garbled) copy of her ‘Dialogue‘ onto my Nook eReader and have been perusing the works of the Sienese saint. The first section was essentially all about the necessity of persevering at prayer, and how God makes himself known to us through prayer, and that we need to clear our minds to pray.
Tonight at supper, I came across this striking passage:
No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster mother and nurse of charity. (trans. Algar Labouchere Thorold)
I like the image of humility as charity’s foster mother and nurse.
Every once in a while I think about charity, and not just because Leo the Great has a habit of addressing people as tua/uestra caritas, but because charity, as understood properly, is one of the great theological virtues.
We have stained the word with the idea of our cast-offs, our unwanted things for unwanted people. In that famous ‘sermon’ he gave to George W Bush a few years ago, Bono said that what Africa needs from the West is not ‘charity’ but ‘justice’ — a mere tithe of the US Gov’t’s cash would ‘solve’ a lot of problems, says Bono.
But is that justice? I’m not sure. Given that justice has both a restorative and retributive side, I don’t think Africa needs or wants justice. Africa, and everyone we meet, needs charity.
It has been remarked (in the Friendship Book of Francis Gay one year, I believe) that when the translators of the KJV those long years ago needed a word to express the great, boundless, unfathomable, unconditional love of Almighty God, they chose charity, from Latin caritas, the word commonly used in the Latin Bible for agape — as in I Corinthians 13.
Charity, in the Latin Christian tradition, comes to mean that supernatural love that can love the unlovely, moving beyond the bonds of mere affection or the uncontrolled/uncontrollable amor. It is, as C S Lewis observes in The Four Loves, to love the unlovely. To love the unloveable.
It is a great thought. A powerful thought. One often left as mere ‘sentiment’.
Lack of humility, I think.
Certainly this is what holds me back from acting and feeling charitably towards others. Charity and compassion for the poor beggars on the street, charity for tourists in the way everywhere you go, charity for library employees, charity for people whose dogs poop on the sidwalk, charity for late buses/subways/train, charity for other drivers in traffic, charity for loud Americans in Europe, charity for queue-jumpers…
If I didn’t think I was better behaved, or too busy, or better educated, or too important, or in too much of a rush, or any of a hundred other comparatives that put me above others in one way or another, perhaps I would have more charity.
So humility. It is a powerful theme that runs through so many of the Fathers and Mothers and spiritual masters of Christianity. Let’s hunt it down and get ourselves into it, into the foster mother and nurse of charity (and without charity, what am I?).
Besides being author of the famous Tome and orchestrator of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo I is most famous for meeting with Attila the Hun and stopping him from sacking Rome. We first hear of this in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicon for 455:
Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy. . . To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo -trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube. (cf. Medieval Sourcebook)
The Liber Pontificalis makes this encounter with Attila pretty much the most important thing in Leo’s pontificate. And why not?
Well, it certainly wasn’t a big deal to Leo, it seems.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Prosper published the entry for 452 in 455, I would doubt that this ever happened. I would say that Prosper had made it up to glorify his great hero Leo (second only to Augustine for this Augustinian) or that Prosper, way over in Gaul, had been misinformed.
I would say such because the evidence is a bit weak. Leo wrote eight letters in 452 that have come down to us, on 27 January, 22 May, 11 June, and 25 November. He preached an Epiphany sermon (Serm. 37), a Lent sermon (Serm. 45), two Holy Week sermons (Serm. 62 & 63), an Advent sermon (Serm. 19), and a Christmas sermon (Serm. 28). He seems to have been in Rome for much of the year. The trip to meet up with Attila must not have taken up a lot of time.
Leo’s episcopate lasted for nine more years after Attila left Italy. Leo wrote many more letters and preached many more sermons that have come down to us. In none of these does he mention an encounter with Attila.
If Prosper is correct about this encounter, what does that say about Leo?
Something good, I reckon.