Sister Catherine Goddard Clarke, M.I.C.M.
“I could not put it down.” Such enthusiastic responses as this are typical upon reading this powerfully written history of the Church as illustrated in the challenging pontificates of ten of her more illustrious champions of orthodoxy. As one reads through the first forty-two pages, one is virtually taken on a journey through some four hundred years of tempus ecclesiae, from the momentous entrance of Saint Peter into the fearsome capitol of Satan’s doomed empire, to the triumph of the last Christological Council, Chalcedon, held under the pastoral eye of Leo I, the first Pope that Catholic posterity dared to call “the Great.” Sister Catherine vividly brings to life the painful and virile maturation of the Church Militant from its infancy in Jerusalem to its full manhood as expressed by the Toma of Leo solemnly read at Chalcedon in 451. The remainder of information dovetails into the major periods of religious crises and tells of those heroic Popes who steered the Church through these gravest trials. For example, see how the little known Greek Pope Saint Zachary fought the Moslem influence which generated eastern Iconoclasm; see the Gregorys form the temporal city of God into the vibrant and monolithic power that Jesus intended; and see how the two Pius’s re-establish orthodoxy with one sword and humiliate the brazenly open anti-Christian forces with the other — burying them — for a time. This is a book that can restore hope and confidence in the might of the papacy.
O God of earth and altar,
Bow Down and hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our People drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide;
Take not Thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen;
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men;
From sale and profanation
Of honor and the sword;
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall;
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to Thee.
—Gilbert K. Chesterton
Saint Peter Through Saint Leo the Great
Pope Saint Gregory the Great
Pope Saint Martin I
Pope Saint Zachary
Pope Saint Leo III
Pope Saint Gregory VII
Pope Innocent III
Pope Boniface VIII
Pope Pius IX
Pope Saint Pius X
Chapter Three - Pope Saint Martin I
Forty-five years had gone by since the death of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, but the fragrance of his holy presence still lingered in Rome. Bishops and people went on pilgrimage to his tomb, to seek his aid both for their own needs and for the needs of the Church. The bishops begged the dead Pontiff to obtain God’s blessing upon their efforts to continue the work which he himself had begun, for the ways of men and the affairs of state were very much as Pope Saint Gregory had left them.
The terrible Lombards, even in the process of conversion, continued to harass Rome. They were an incessant and harrowing threat to the Popes and the people. The Eastern Roman Emperors continued, for characteristically selfish reasons, their attempts to reclaim in Italy their lost prestige and their steadily diminishing lands. And that which had been the plague of Pope Saint Gregory’s life, the perverse genius of the Patriarchs of Constantinople to foment heresies and keep them alive, continued to be the heartache of every Pope who came after him. The current attack on the Sacred Humanity of Jesus would cost the lives of many faithful Christians, as well as of the valiant and holy Pope Saint Martin I and the courageous and stalwart abbot, Saint Maximus.
The East, forty-five years after the death of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, still seethed with dissension and intrigue. The West presented to the superficial observer an even more hopeless picture, although actually light had at last begun to appear in the midst of the pagan gloom, and the hearts of the Popes and the bishops were lifted again in hope. The conversion of the barbarian nations bade fair, it is true, to be a long, slow, trying process, and the heavenly intercession of Pope Saint Gregory sorely would be needed, but by the pontificate of Pope Saint Martin, in 649, the great apostolic work was well on its way.
The tremendous spiritual force which, under the Popes, was gradually to transform and renew Europe in the Faith of Jesus Christ, came, in the hour of the Church’s greatest need, from the monasteries. The monastic rule which Saint Benedict wrote at Monte Cassino, sometime after the year 530, would, as the centuries passed, prove to be the best suited, the wisest and the most prudent for all men of every land to follow, and the Benedictine monasteries, in later centuries, would become the great centers of holiness and learning. They would give to the Church thousands of canonized saints, and in them the culture and the faith of Christendom would be preserved. But in the sixth and seventh centuries, when the initial work for the conversion of the barbarian nations was begun, the great missionary impetus came, not from the Benedictines, but from the Irish monks.
The Irish nation had been prepared for its future invaluable work in England, Scotland and the continent of Europe by none other than Saint Patrick himself. Saint Patrick had, during his missionary labors in Ireland — from his landing in 432 to his death in 461 — established the Irish Church around the bishops. The residence of the Irish bishop and his clergy looked very much like a monastery, and the life within the large house was regulated very much in the manner of a monastery. It has been said that Saint Patrick, by the grace of God and His Immaculate Mother, turned Ireland overnight into a land of saints. His conversions were so rapid that he was obliged, in order to take care of the needs of the faithful, to consecrate three hundred and fifty bishops and to ordain five thousand priests. And he had the exceeding and holy joy of witnessing the vows of an incalculable number of religious. He himself said that he was not able to count: “the sons of the Irish and the daughters of chieftains who became monks and virgins of Christ.”
Saint Patrick passed on to his successors the monastic spirit of the Church in Ireland. Everywhere, monasteries and convents appeared, almost as if built in a day, and all were presided over by men and women of tremendous spiritual courage and overwhelming love of God. Saint Columbkille, of whom it was said, “He had the face of an angel; he was of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel, . . . loving unto all,” and Saint Brigid, surnamed “the Mary of the Gael,” are, next to Saint Patrick, the patron saints of Ireland.
Saint Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland, in the oak wood where she had lived in tenderest devotion to God and to His poor, and to which the fame of the miraculous cures wrought by her attracted multitudes of the people. She called her convent Kildare, the Cell of the Oak.
Saint Finian, head of the famous school at Clonard, whose students at one time numbered as many as three thousand, first added study and scholarship to the routine of Irish monastic life. Saint Kevin, Saint Brendan, Saint Kieran, Saint Comgall, Saint Carthach, Saint Baoithe, Saint Columbkille, Saint Finbar, and a host of other saints, were all founders of great monastic schools. The monasteries which Saint Comgall founded at Bangor, Saint Brendan the Navigator founded at Clonfert, Saint Finbar founded at Cork, and many others — each of which enrolled thousands of religious — soon became towns. It has been said that the Thebaid of Egypt reappeared in Ireland, and the West had no longer anything to envy in the history of the East.
Ireland came to be known as a land not only of saints, but of scholars as well. For over a hundred years, its monks and nuns prayed and studied, did manual labor, and performed penances that were indeed extraordinary, within the walls of its monasteries. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that as time passed there gradually came to Ireland from all over Europe men of letters, fleeing before the wild excesses, the savage ignorances and the dark superstitions of the barbarian hordes who dominated the once Roman world. These scholarly refugees were warmly welcomed by the Irish in the name of Christ, and they settled down, many of them, for the remainder of their lives in the congenial security of the consecrated work and study of the monasteries.
And so the culture of Christianized Greek and Roman civilization was preserved for over a century in the Irish monasteries. At the end of that time, impelled by a divine impulse, the land of saints and scholars was turned suddenly into a nation of saints and missionaries. Saint Columbkille, with a band of monks, first set out, in 563, for the bleak and lonely island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where he established the cluster of rude huts which he called his monastery and from which his monks went forth to convert the fierce Picts on the mainland of Scotland and eventually to continue the work of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in Britain.
In 590, the year in which Pope Saint Gregory was raised to the Chair of Saint Peter, Ireland “repaid its debt to Gaul for the gift of Patrick.” In that year, the incomparable monk Columbanus, whose heroic life and extraordinary austerities still enthrall the minds and captivate the hearts of holy men, valiant women and little children, set out with twelve companions from Bangor Abbey upon a life of voluntary exile for the sake of Jesus Christ. He arrived, in the course of his wanderings, in Gaul, where he was to labor for many years to restore to the Franks the Faith which, in its first fervor, had produced for the French such saints as Clotilda, the wife of King Clovis, Saint Radegonda, the wife of King Clotaire I, Saint Segebert, the King of the Austrasian Franks, Saint Pepin of Landen and his wife, Saint Itta, and their two daughters, one of whom, Saint Begga, was the mother of Pepin of Heristal, the great-grandfather of Charlemagne, and many others.
The century which passed between the conversion of Clovis and Saint Columbanus’ arrival in Gaul — because of the bloodthirsty, quarreling and sensual kings who succeeded Clovis and their interference in the election of worthy bishops — saw the churches robbed and ruined, the Faith declining, and the life of the clergy degraded. The virtuous bishops who had the courage to rebuke the Merovingian kings for their debauchery, were sent into exile. Little by little, ecclesiastical discipline became relaxed, and Christian morality, when it was no longer preached, was forgotten.
Saint Columbanus, face to face with the terrible situation of the Church in France, wept and prayed and did penance. He traveled up and down the countryside of Gaul for many years, preaching the gospel and leading the priests and people back to the practices of their holy Faith. And finally he came to Burgundy, where he was received by King Gontran, a grandson of King Clovis. Gontran was delighted with the fiery eloquence of Columbanus, and fearing lest he should soon leave him again, he offered the saint anything he should choose so long as he remained in his kingdom.
“I did not leave my own country to seek wealth, but to follow Christ and bear His cross,” the Irish monk made answer.
“There are in my kingdom,” Gontran insisted, “many savage and solitary places where you will be able to find the cross and win Heaven. But on no account must you leave Gaul, nor dream of converting other nations until you have assured the salvation of the Franks and the Burgundians.”
Saint Columbanus yielded, and chose for his dwelling place the ancient Roman castle of Annegray. Here he founded the first of his three monasteries in the Vosges mountains — the other two being the famous Luxeuil and Fontaines — and here he remained with his monks for twenty years. They lived, sometimes for weeks, on the grass of the fields, the bark of trees, and berries which grew in their woods. Once in a while, neighbors brought them provisions, but more often they did not.
Frequently Saint Columbanus separated himself from his companions to go off alone still further into the forest where, a volume of Holy Scripture strapped to his shoulder and leaning upon his long, gnarled stick, he would ponder the question as to whether the ferocity of the beasts of the wood, who could not sin, was not better than the rage of men which destroyed their souls! Disciples gathered about him. The great severity of his Rule attracted the barbarian converts, and his three monasteries soon housed hundreds of monks. The noble Franks and Burgundians, we are told:
“. . . overawed by the sight of these great creations of work and prayer, brought their sons to him, lavished gifts upon him, and often came to ask him to cut their long hair, the sign of nobility and freedom, and admit them into the ranks of his army. . . . The multitude of poor serfs and rich lords became so great that he could organize that perpetual service, called Laus perennis . . . where, night and day, the voices of the monks ‘unwearied as those of angels,’ arose to celebrate the praises of God in an unending song.
“Rich and poor were equally bound to the agricultural labors, which Columbanus himself directed. In the narrative of the wonders which mingle with every page of his life, they are all to be seen employed successively in ploughing and mowing, in reaping and in cutting wood. With the impetuosity natural to him, he made no allowance for any weakness. He required even the sick to thrash the wheat. An article of his Rule ordained the monk to go to rest so fatigued that he should fall asleep on the way, and to get up before he had slept sufficiently. It is at the cost of this excessive and perpetual labor that the half of our country [France] and of ungrateful Europe has been restored to cultivation and life.”
As the years passed, Saint Columbanus’ patron, King Gontran, died, to be succeeded eventually by Thierry, the weak and wicked grandson of Queen Brunhilde. And as is always the lot of the saint, Columbanus finally brought down upon himself the wrath of the Court and the bishops; the Court because of his frank condemnation of their sinful lives, and the bishops because of his stubborn insistence on the Irish observance of the time of Easter, and his constant censure of them for their cowardly toleration of court vices.
In the year 610, he was forced to leave Burgundy. Before he left, he endeavored to present his case to the synod which had met to consider the question of Easter time. “I am not the author of this difference,” he wrote. “I have come into these parts, a poor stranger, for the cause of the Christ Savior, our common God and Lord; I ask of your holinesses but a single grace: that you will permit me to live in silence in the depths of these forests, near the bones of seventeen brethren whom I have already seen die. . . . Ah! let us live with you now in this Gaul, where we now are, since we are destined to live with each other in Heaven, if we are found worthy to enter there. . . . God forbid that we should delight our enemies — namely, the Jew, heretics, and pagans — by strife among Christians. . . . If God guides you to expel me from the desert which I have sought here beyond the seas. . . .”
But expelled he was, and in due time the course of his circuitous journey from Burgundy into Italy was marked with the monasteries which he founded on the way. In 613, he arrived in the Lombard territory of Pope Saint Gregory’s old friend and spiritual daughter, Queen Theodolinda, and with her approval and the approval of the converted King Agilulf, he founded the great Monastery of Bobbio, where he maintained until his death, in 615, the Rule of the Irish monks in all its rigor.
Bobbio became the center of the last battles against Arianism. And from Bobbio, Saint Columbanus wrote his famous letter against the Three Chapters controversy in the East, in which he assured the Pope of the unfailing support of the Irish Church to the Vicar of Christ in Rome, “the head of the Churches of the world.”
“For all we Irish,” he wrote Pope Boniface IV, “living at the uttermost ends of the earth, are the disciples of Saints Peter and Paul, and of all the disciples who wrote the sacred canon under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: receiving nothing outside the evangelical and apostolical doctrine; no heretic, no Jew, no schismatic was ever amongst us; but the Catholic Faith as it was first delivered to us from you, the successors, that is, of the holy Apostles, is retained amongst us unchanged.”
Finally, as was his way, he sought for himself a solitude even more profound than Bobbio’s. He found it in a sort of cavern which he had discovered in the side of a great rock. This he transformed into a chapel, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And here he spent the last days of his life, in prayer and fasting. He returned to Bobbio only for Sundays and holydays.
It is said that after his death the chapel in the rock was long venerated, “and much frequented by afflicted souls . . . those who entered there sad and down cast, left it rejoicing, consoled by the sweet protection of Mary and of Columbanus.”
For almost a hundred years after the death of Saint Columbanus, Irish missionaries traveled up and down the length and breadth of Europe, founding monasteries and schools and converting untold numbers by their impassioned preaching and their ardent love of God and His holy Mother. The terrible penances which they performed struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the barbarians, whose own strong, virile natures were capable of heroic endurance and fierce courage in temporal combat. So extraordinary was the work of the Irish monks, that the years between 600 and 700 A.D. are spoken of as the Golden Age of Ireland.
The Popes, therefore, who followed Saint Gregory the Great on the Chair of Saint Peter, could look out upon the West and be assured that the Faith was taking root in the hearts of the new peoples. And while its lessons would needs be repeated over and over again for many, many years to come, before the unbridled instincts and the habits of centuries of pagan worship would be subdued, at least a great and a holy start had been made.
No such consolation awaited the Popes as they looked toward the Church in the East, however, although from it there would soon rise up the three glorious saints, Maximus, Sophronius and John Damascene, to fight the exceedingly grave and menacing heresies of Monothelitism and Iconoclasm. The Eastern Church was still supine under the influence of the Emperor, and still continued to drift farther and farther away, with each passing year, from the See of Peter.
And then, as if in punishment for its centuries of infidelity, God allowed, six years after the death of Pope Saint Gregory, a scourge to come upon the East in the form of a new religion, which spread itself, by the point of the sword, with diabolical rapidity and frenzy. In no time at all, it had overcome the Eastern world, invading and conquering even the Holy Land (637). It moved, taking all before it, from Egypt (640) and North Africa (695) into Spain (711), to be stopped on the boundaries of the kingdom of the Franks by Charles Martel, the Frankish ruler, in 732.
Mohammedanism, for such it was, came into being through an itinerant Arab merchant named Mohammed, the only son of a Jewess, who, in the year 610, announced that he had had a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that he, Mohammed, was the great prophet foretold by Moses. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet.” Mohammedanism, which for centuries threatened Christianity and which is still very much alive in the East today, is a combination of Parseeism, a pagan religion of Persia which had found its way into Arabia; Judaism, which Mohammed got from his mother; and heretical Christianity, which he picked up from the exiled, heretical Nestorian monks whose monasteries he visited in his commercial wanderings.
The Mohammedan is one so-called “worshipper” who does not believe in the separation of Church and State. To a Mohammedan, the Church is the State, and the State the Church. The self-styled prophet, Mohammed — and his successors, the Caliphs — with devilish energy and indomitable will, made Mohammedanism the religion of the state in every country they conquered. Moslems, Saracens, Moors, Turks, Mussulmans; all are Mohammedan. Islam, meaning “submission to the will of God,” is the generic name for the whole body of Mohammedan peoples, and it is interesting to note that, more than Parseeism or Christianity, Islam imitates Judaism. The Arab tribe to which Mohammed’s father belonged — the priestly tribe of Koreish — claimed to trace its origin to Ismael, the son of the Egyptian Agar and Abraham. It is true that Ismael and his descendants settled in Arabia, and became in time traditional enemies of the sons of Israel.
It is not at all surprising, watching their histories over the centuries, to find the Arabs and the Jews in our day locked again in deadly combat, this time over the possession of the land which the Jews, by clever trickery and violence, seized from the Arabs and call their modern State of Israel. The situation is at once ironical and tragic; ironical because it was by the duplicity and cooperation of the Jews that the Mohammedans succeeded in taking Palestine from the Christians in the seventh century, and tragic because the coveted territory is the sacred Holy Land of the Catholics.
As if the rise of Mohammedanism were not enough to worry the Church, there arose in the East, in 623, an equally vicious and much more subtle evil which took the form of still another attack on the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. This blasphemous assault was begun by the young and proud Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, who was anxious to secure for his equally young and proud Emperor, Heraclius, the political support of the numerous and powerful Monophysites scattered throughout the Empire. For the Monophysites, in the manner of all heretical sects, had split up into a number of religious groups, each group continuing to hold, more or less, to the original heresy of Eutyches, the founder, that Our Blessed Lord had but one nature, the divine, instead of two, the divine and the human.
The Monophysites have given, over the centuries, an amazing performance of sheer obstinacy, for they have persisted in great numbers down to our own day. Those who hold to the old heresy in our time are known as the dissident Coptic, Abyssinian, Syrian Jacobite and Gregorian Armenian churches, along with some Monophysite Christians in Malabar. Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, who toured the United States, in the summer of 1954, is a Monophysite, at least officially.
When Heraclius became Emperor and Sergius Patriarch, both in the same year, in 610, the Persians were threatening to invade the whole of the Eastern Empire. That they were eventually unsuccessful was due, not so much to Heraclius as to Sergius, whose brilliant political insight provided the real power behind the throne. After the Persians were driven back, there remained still to haunt the imagination of Sergius the danger to the unity of the Empire provided by the divided Monophysite peoples, who at any moment were capable of joining with the Persians against the Emperor in some new move. And because he was an unscrupulous Patriarch as well as a dishonest statesman, Sergius began to cast about in his mind for a way in which the Monophysites might be appeased by some sort of doctrinal compromise, and so beguiled into a better disposition toward the Emperor and into an active and patriotic support of his cause.
Now the Church had, up to this time, patiently and painstakingly defined, in four Ecumenical Councils: the absolute Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ; His perfect humanity; His oneness of Person; and His twoness of nature. It remained for Sergius, pondering his political dilemma, to hit upon the last possible question which could be raised with regard to the human powers of Jesus. That question, simply put, was this: Did Our Blessed Lord, true God and true man in one Person, have one will or two wills? Did He possess a human will as well as a divine will?
In this question, Sergius, Archbishop of Constantinople, even though he was consecrated to protect the sacred dogmas of the Church with his life, if necessary, and even though he knew what was the true answer, saw a doctrinal means of winning the political support of the Monophysites. Why not affirm, he asked himself, but one will in Jesus? The Church had defined against the Monophysites and their holding of but one nature in the God-Man, but might not one will, if it were cleverly and quietly put forward, sound like the same thing to them? He went to work upon his scheme at once.
Just as Monophysitism took its name from the Greek monos, meaning single, and physis, meaning nature, so the new heresy came to be known as Monothelitism, from the Greek monos, alone, and thelein, to will. Monothelitism was nothing more than a diluted Monophysitism, for to destroy the human will of Jesus was to do away, once again, with the human nature of Christ. It was to say that the adorable Body which the God-Man took from His virginal Mother was not a perfect human body; nor was the Body which hung bleeding and torn on the Cross for man’s redemption, a real body.
Sergius carefully set the stage for the betrayal of his sacred trust. By all sorts of subtle intrigue and flattering promises, he secured the support of certain weak and ambitious bishops, among them Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria. He made up and passed off as genuine a letter which was purported to have been left by his predecessor, Patriarch Menas, putting forth the doctrine of one will, or one “energy,” in Christ. And when finally all was in readiness, Sergius skillfully persuaded the Emperor to begin negotiations with the Monophysite groups and to assure them that it would be admitted that in Jesus Christ there was only one activity, one will, one energy: the divine.
Sergius himself directed the conferences with the various Monophysite sects, and the doctrinal concessions which he made were so many and so opposed to the spirit of the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon — which, under Pope Saint Leo the Great, had condemned Monophysitism — that the heretics themselves were moved to cry out: “It is not we who are going to the Council of Chalcedon. It is the Council of Chalcedon which is coming to us!”
In all the land, only one voice was raised in protest. But it was a powerful voice. It was the voice of Sophronius, a monk of Jerusalem, well known to the people as a poet, a preacher, and a man of extraordinary holiness. Sophronius protested, in the name of Saint Peter, with every power at his command. He protested with such brilliance, such logic, and he burned with such anger for his outraged Jesus, that Sergius became thoroughly alarmed. To offset his influence, he finally devised a scheme by which he hoped to silence the glorious monk, and at the same time make safe his own position. He composed and sent to the Pope, Honorius, a letter filled with clever lies and insinuations. He sanctimoniously informed the Pontiff, among other things, that the expression “two wills” was proving a great scandal to the faithful, intimating as it did an internal conflict in Christ; the formula taken up by the Monothelites, on the other hand, had set the Empire at peace. He urged the Pope to a policy of silence on the whole matter.
Pope Honorius allowed himself to be persuaded! He wrote to Sophronius and Sergius both, forbidding further discussion and refusing to define the doctrine of two wills in Jesus. Saint Sophronius, who had, in the meanwhile, been made Patriarch of Jerusalem, had also written to Pope Honorius a long and beautiful letter setting forth the true doctrine of the Church. But the Pope remained unchanged. Unaware of the true character of Sergius and of his political plotting, he believed the Patriarch’s story that Sophronius actually taught the presence of two conflicting wills in Christ, and that the controversy was merely a “war of words.” As Honorius had stated in his letter to both Patriarchs, he considered the entire affair “an idle question that we leave to the grammarians who, to attract youth to their schools, sell them formulas of their own invention!”
The Mohammedans swooped down on Palestine in 637, and occupied Jerusalem in 638. They drove Saint Sophronius from his see, and he died, shortly after, borne down with grief, but in great holiness. He left a collection of six hundred texts which he had carefully compiled from the writings of the Fathers of the Church, attesting to the perfect humanity of Jesus and the existence, in Him, of two wills, the divine and the human. These texts were greatly valued by the faithful, and passed around from hand to hand among those who refused to be intimidated by the threatened persecution of the Emperor.
Pope Honorius died in 638, the same year that the Emperor Heraclius published the notorious Ecthesis, a theological edict which boldly forbade the preaching of anything but one single will in Christ. A synod held at Constantinople applauded and approved the Ecthesis. The Church, however, was now fully awake to what was happening, and three Popes in succession condemned the Ecthesis, although their censures went unheeded.
Monothelitism was fully entrenched by the time Sergius died, in 639, and the East once more was bitterly torn by the hatreds and strifes which inevitably accompany heresy.
Heraclius died in 642, confessing at the end that the Ecthesis was not his work but entirely the writing of Sergius. Of the two Emperors who succeeded him, one was murdered and the other banished, and finally there came to the throne the dreaded and terrible Constans II, who, in 648, brought out another edict in favor of Monothelitism, the Type, so called. The Type forbade all dispute about the two wills, under threat of serious punishment.
So matters stood when Martin I was elected Pope on July 5, 649. Born of rich and noble parents at Todi, in the Papal States, Martin I proved himself to be a strong Pope, and of a strong Pope the Church had, at that time, a desperate need. He providentially brought also to his sacred office a first-hand knowledge of the Monothelite heresy, the Monothelite bishops and clergy, and the Monothelite Emperors, for he had been papal nuncio to the court of Constantinople under his predecessor, Pope Theodore I. Pope Martin resolved to fight with every grace which was his from Saint Peter the vicious heresy which ultimately rendered the Incarnation of the Son of God meaningless, and which declared the Divine Baby of Bethlehem in the arms of His Immaculate Mother to be not a real flesh and blood baby, but a phantasm.
He began by refusing to Constans II the courtesy which the Popes had observed toward the Emperors for centuries. He did not await Constans’ confirmation of his election, but had himself consecrated at once. And three months after his elevation, he convoked a council in the Church of Saint John Lateran, where he and the five hundred bishops who were able to attend condemned both the Ecthesis and the Type, and anathematized Sergius and all who had followed him. Hearing this, the Lombard kings declared for the Pope against the Emperor. They pledged him the support of their armies, should he need them, for so savage and fierce had the conflict become that the whole of Christendom knew that the Pope would be in immediate danger once the action of the Council was made known.
Ever since the days of Justinian, the Greek Emperors had retained at Ravenna, in Italy, viceroys known as exarchs, who acted as governors in their name over the Italian lands which Justinian had conquered, the most significant of which was Rome itself. The office of exarch was without executive and military strength, for the most part, as we saw in Pope Saint Gregory’s time, and the victorious advance of the barbarians had rendered it an even more empty title, but the exarchate continued to exist, nevertheless, at least in name, and one exarch had followed another over the passing years.
The exarchate now provided the machinery, all set up and at hand for the Emperor’s use, as soon as the condemnation of the Ecthesis and the Type reached him. He had but to communicate his wishes to the present viceroy in Italy, who, it so happened, was an unscrupulous and ambitious man whose high sounding name of Olympius ill befitted so low a wretch. Constans ordered Olympius to kill the Pope — and to do so without delay. And the evil exarch at once set out to obey.
The task offered difficulties. He found the bishops alert, for one thing. Ceaseless watch was kept for threats against the life of the beloved Pontiff, and he was never permitted to go out unless a number of his clergy were able to accompany him. The bishops seemed never able to honor him enough, and all were eager to serve him.
But Olympius finally conceived a plan; an unbelievable plan. He sent word to the Pope, begging him to grant him the inestimable privilege of receiving from the hand of Christ’s Vicar the Bread of Angels. Would the Holy Father be so extremely good as to give him Communion in the Church of Saint John Lateran? Saint Martin, overjoyed, made haste to reply that nothing would afford him greater happiness than to give their common Lord to his dear son. For it never for a moment occurred, either to the Pope or to the bishops, that a person of Olympius’ prestige could thus “draw the Pontiff into an ambush and dare to commit a sacrilege in the church itself.”
It was customary at that time for the Pope, or the bishops, or the priests, to bring Holy Communion to the faithful wherever in the church they were kneeling. With this in mind, the exarch, with diabolical cunning, made his plans. He would kneel apart, surrounded by his guards, and at the solemn moment when the Pope stooped to put upon his tongue the Sacred Body of his God, pronouncing as he did so the beautiful words of the Church’s prayer, “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep thy soul unto life everlasting,” at that ineffable moment, Olympius’ servant standing by was to plunge into the bent back of Christ’s Vicar the knife which he was to have concealed and ready in his jacket.
Olympius considered and reconsidered every step, and he could find no flaw in his scheme. He assured himself that none but he could so cleverly circumvent the bishops.
At last the day which the Pontiff had so graciously set aside for the exarch arrived. Pope Saint Martin, accompanied by his bishops, left the altar and advanced to where the kneeling Olympius awaited — in the manner of Judas of old — his Lord. The Pope raised the Sacred Host between his consecrated fingers. He bent in prayer above the bowed figure of the exarch. “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep thy soul unto life everlasting,” he said with great tenderness, speaking out of a heart full of love for Christ and joy that this highly-placed and worldly son had sought Jesus with such simplicity.
The awful moment had come. But the assassin stood as if stricken. He made not a move. Olympius’ lips closed sacrilegiously upon the Body of his Lord. Pope Saint Martin and the bishops returned to the altar.
“Why did you not kill him?” the enraged exarch asked his attendant.
“Because,” the wretched man replied, “I was struck blind! As he stooped to you, with the Holy Host in his hand, I could no longer see! I was blinded, I tell you! I began to tremble. I could not control it. And because I could not see him, I thought that the Pope disappeared!”
Olympius strangely did not punish him. Already an unwonted remorse had come over him. By the next day it was too much to bear; he could stand it no longer. He sought out the Pope, and flinging himself on his knees before him, he poured out the whole unconscionable story. He warned Saint Martin that the order had been sent from Constantinople; he begged his forgiveness, and he implored the Pope to take precautions to safeguard his own life. Pope Martin, overcome with emotion, raised him from the ground, embraced him, and forgave him.
Constans II banished Olympius to Sicily, to fight the Mohammedans, and he replaced him with Theodore Calliopas, a man entirely to his liking.
The story of the attempted murder of the Pope soon reached the ears of the Italian people. Saint Martin’s holiness, his heroic courage, his poverty with regard to himself and his vast and unending charity toward the poor, his watchfulness against the aggressors of Italian lands, and, above all, his shining orthodoxy and brilliant defense of the sacred dogmas of the Catholic Faith had already endeared him to the Italians. The wanton and blasphemous attempts on his life aroused the people to fury against the Emperor. They stared at Calliopas, the new exarch, with eyes full of anger and dread. All their instincts were alive with suspicion of him, their anxious hearts full of warning. Least of all were they disposed to trust him in church.
That their fears were all too warranted, it was, alas, soon proved. For Calliopas one day invaded the Pope’s palace, on the excuse that “arms and stones” were being collected there against the best interests of the Emperor, but in reality to reassure himself that he had nothing to fear in the way of a garrison when once his plans were completed. He found Saint Martin ill, and in bed. The ailing Pontiff glimpsed Calliopas just long enough to sense his intentions, and rising, he ordered that his couch be removed to the Basilica. Despite the experience of Olympius, Pope Martin believed that no one, least of all a Christian, could bring himself to violate the asylum of church.
And so Calliopas found him, pale and very ill and lying in front of the great altar, when he and his soldiers broke down the doors of the venerable old church and rushed in, destroying everything in their path. They surrounded the almost dying Pope, and paying no heed to the bishops and priests who cried out against the sacrilege — and who begged to be taken with him — they carried Saint Martin out of the Lateran Basilica, a prisoner.
The next day, they put him secretly on board a boat which was waiting in the Tiber River, bound for Porto and Messina. The voyage, deliberately prolonged, was exhausting and painful. When they reached Messina at last, another vessel stood ready to transport the exalted prisoner to Constantinople. Seeing him come on board, rough sailors, hardened with years of seafaring and lives passed in the water-front cities of the world, found themselves struck strangely gentle, for no matter to what straits his enemies reduced him, the mark of his sacred office was always upon the noble Pope and he suffered as the martyrs suffer, and as Christ the King, enthroned upon a Cross.
Nothing was allowed him, save the tattered clothes he wore and a cup from which to drink. He was given only the coarse food of the sailors, and this, because of his advanced illness, he was unable to eat. For over a year, he was led from one prison to another and treated with the most calculated cruelty. On his arrival in Constantinople, in 654, he was greeted with every manner of indignity possible for the mind of man to devise, and he was, by order of the Emperor, kept lying on a mat on the seashore for a whole day, exposed not only to the scorching rays of the sun, but to something much more grueling for the august person of Christ’s Vicar, sensitive in every fiber of his being for the honor of his Lord. He was purposely exposed to the sacrilegious jibes, ridicule and heckling of the populace. Every nerve in his tortured body, frayed a thousand times, cried out for the dark and silence.
Long after the sun had set on the frightful day, Saint Martin was dragged off again to prison, where he was to remain for another three months. “I have not been allowed to wash, even in cold water, for forty-seven days,” he wrote. “I am wasted away and frozen through, and have had no respite from dysentery. . . . The food that is given me makes me feel sick. I hope that God, Who knows all things, will bring my persecutors to repentance after He will have taken me out of this world.”
Pope Martin, when finally his enemies were convinced that nothing in the way of torture could bring him to deny the doctrine of two wills in Christ, and that no one could stop him from anathematizing on every possible occasion those who preached the heresy of but one will, was condemned, in September, 654, on the testimony of hired witnesses. He was condemned as a usurper of the Holy See, a traitor to the Emperor, an accomplice of the Saracens, and a blasphemer of the Blessed Virgin Mary! Constans II, after watching the indescribable cruelty and insults to which the Pope was subjected in the court of the imperial palace — treatment he knew to be reserved for the most vicious of criminals — banished him to Cherson, and there, overcome by ill treatment, exposed to hunger and cold, Pope Saint Martin I died, on December 15, 654, of starvation. A grateful Christendom would one day venerate him as one of the most sublime martyrs of the Holy Catholic Church. For he, whose chosen and consecrated right it was to sit upon the throne of the Prince of the Apostles, with the whole Catholic world at his sanctified and slippered feet, breathed out his life, the least among the jailed and the outcast, because he would not, by his silence, condone or teach heresy.
Saint Martin was followed in martyrdom by Maximus, the holy abbot of Chrysopolis, who many years before had given up his place at the court of Byzantium, which was his by reason of his noble Greek birth, to become a humble monk, and who had fought Sergius side by side with Saint Sophronius. He had been the great intellectual support of Pope Saint Martin at the famous Council in the Lateran, and for several years after the Council he had remained in Rome, writing and teaching and doing everything in his power to fight Monothelitism. In 655, he was arrested, with two of his disciples, and after various imprisonments he was dragged at last to Constantinople, and there, since he still persisted in his avowal that God, rather than man, must be obeyed, he was, by order of the Emperor, cruelly scourged, his tongue torn out, his right hand cut off, and thus, fearfully wounded and suffering, he was banished to the Crimea, where he died almost immediately after his arrival at the prison. He was just eighty years old when he died, a martyr for his Faith.
Monothelitism was condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which met under the shell-shaped dome of the famous Imperial Chapel, in Constantinople, in the year 681. The Council, using Pope Saint Agatho’s Dogmatic Letter as a basis, defined that, “corresponding to the two natures in Christ, there were also two natural wills and two natural operations, without division, without conversion or change, with nothing like antagonism and nothing like confusion; that the human will did not come into conflict with the divine will, but harmonized with it, and was in all things subject to it; and finally, that the human will was not absorbed, but rather perfected and preserved by the divine.”
The Council, in its anathematizations of Sergius and his followers, was forced to add the name of the one man in the whole world whose holy office gave him the power, if he had but used it, to prevent the long, tragic history of the Monothelite heresy. His was the one voice which could have spared the Church the scandals, the lost souls and the open wounds upon the Mystical Body of Christ. The Sixth Ecumenical Council anathematized, “also Honorius,” the Pope.
Pope Saint Agatho’s successor, Pope Saint Leo II, confirmed the decrees of the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 682, and renewed the anathema passed upon Pope Honorius — not because, he was careful to explain, the Pontiff had taught a false doctrine, for that he did not do, but:
“. . . because he did not illumine this Apostolic Church by the doctrine of Apostolic tradition, but by profound treachery tried to subvert the Immaculate Faith.”
This same Pope, Pope Saint Leo II, in a letter to the bishops of Spain, went out of his way again to make it clear that the anathema was passed upon Pope Honorius also:
“. . . because he did not put out, as it behooved him in his Apostolic authority, the flame of heretical dogma as it was starting to burn, but rather by his negligence kept it burning.”
Thirteen hundred years have gone by since the Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council met in the Imperial Chapel in Constantinople, but the passing ages have but more clearly proclaimed, rather than more dimly obscured, the confession even unto Calvary of Martin, and the betrayal of Honorius. On the sacrificing altars of the Catholic Church, on the twelfth of November of every year until the end of time, the embattled army of Roman Catholic priests will say, in all the lands wherever they may be, the Mass for the feast of Saint Martin, Pope and Martyr, the glorious shepherd who laid down his life to preserve for his sheep the divine and ineffable truth that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, is at once True God and True Man.