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Catholic Heroes… Pope St. Symmachus

July 19, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Although Chinese people are not familiar with a popular saying, some attribute it to them: “May you live in interesting times.” Certainly its context seems benevolent on the surface, but it is intended to be more of an unkind expectation. Interesting times are not necessarily peaceful times, such as the reign of Pope Symmachus, which can definitely be classified as an interesting time.
Symmachus was one of those saints whose younger days are obscure, but who became more widely known in his later years. He was born in Sardinia, an idyllic island in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy. Most historians believe his father, Fortunatus, and his mother were pagans, since Symmachus was not baptized until he arrived in Rome. (There is no record of the day of either his birth or his Baptism.)
Once in Rome he dedicated his life completely to the Church and quickly rose through the clerical ranks. Those “interesting times” in which he lived suffered from the conflict in the young Church between the Eastern Church based in Constantinople and the Western Church of Rome. Pope Anastasius II (496-498) was not known for any diplomatic gifts and thus the trouble that brewed during his reign intensified — the Acacian Schism. This schism which lasted from 484-519 — named after Acacius, the patriarch of Constantinople — claimed that Christ and God, the Father, were the same person.
Although this conflict developed in 484, it reached its height under Pope Anastasius II and was not resolved until five years after the death of his Successor, Pope St. Symmachus in 514.
It gained prominence in the late fifth century by the efforts of Festus, a patrician and senator. Influenced by the emperor of Constantinople, Festus tried unsuccessfully to obtain a confirmation of the Acacian tenets from Pope Anastasius II. He redoubled his efforts when the Pope died, by the illicit election of an anti-pope, Laurentius.
This is the main conflict that Symmachus inherited when he was elected Pope on November 22, 498, following the death of Pope Anastasius II. His election, attended by most of the higher clergy, took place in the papal church of St. John Lateran in Rome.
At the same time, Laurentius, archpriest of the small Basilica of St. Prassede, also in Rome, was elected by a group headed by Festus. His election took place just a few hours after the clergy at St. John Lateran elected Symmachus.
The timing is significant since King Theodoric — the state had considerable say in Church matters at that time — ruled that whoever was elected first would be the rightful Pope. Thus he held an investigation and declared Symmachus to be Pope.
A few months later a synod was held in Rome on March 1, 499, attended by 72 bishops and all the clergy in Rome, which included Laurentius. Pope Symmachus appointed Laurentius to the diocese around Naples. Whether he did this out of sympathy or retaliation is still debated. At the same synod, another ruling was adopted: that any cleric trying to gain votes for a papal election during the lifetime of a Pope is deposed and excommunicated.
Nevertheless, Festus was not done with his plotting and would not submit to the installation of Symmachus. He still supported the cause of Laurentius and determined to displace Symmachus. First he brought charges that Pope Symmachus was celebrating Easter according to the old calendar — a crime at the time.
When King Theodoric called the Pope to Ariminum to face this accusation, Pope Symmachus willingly complied with the request. They arranged to meet at Ravenna, but when Symmachus learned that additional charges of embezzlement and fornication were also being brought, he returned to Rome. His opponents insisted that a synod be called to investigate the charges. Because King Theodoric held considerable power, he practically forced Symmachus to call the synod.
Since many believed Symmachus was guilty of unchastity and misuse of Church property when he failed to appear before the king, the influence of Laurentius rose. These events resulted in Laurentius being recalled to Rome and placed at St. John Lateran and Pope Symmachus was sent to St. Peter’s, a diocesan church. King Theodoric also appointed Bishop Peter of Altinum from northern Italy to administer the Church until the case had been resolved.
The first session of the synod held in the spring of 502 accomplished nothing since Pope Symmachus agreed to answer questions only if Bishop Peter was removed as administrator of the Church — he was a known supporter of Laurentius.
The second synod proved no more successful when Laurentius’ supporters physically attacked the Pope and his retinue as they made their way to the synod. The Pope was severely injured and some of his men were killed.
The third attempt held in mid-September 502 was made, but found no resolution. On October 23, 502 the bishops who assembled at this synod voted to leave the judgment to God and that Symmachus would remain as the Pope.
However, the problem was not solved yet. As some bishops returned to their sees, a majority met with the priests of Rome in St. Peter’s for a fifth session on November 6, 502 under the presidency of Symmachus. King Theodoric continued to support Laurentius and so the rivalry continued for four more years — frequently resulting in violence.
In the end, more and more persons of influence came to support Pope Symmachus for the papacy and so the king finally supported him as Pope. With this development, Laurentius eventually retired and moved to a farm belonging to Senator Festus.
While all this intrigue was playing out, Pope Symmachus accomplished other important tasks. The Acacian schism had continued to fester disrupting Church unity. He supported the clergy in the Eastern Church opposed to the heresy and wrote to Emperor Anastasius I. In 507 the emperor wrote back telling the Pope to quit interfering. In response to this, the Pope wrote to the clergy forbidding them to hold communion with the Monophysite “heretics” on October 8, 512.
Pope Symmachus also worked tirelessly to settle boundary disputes and abolish the Manichean influence. He built more churches in Rome and made improvements to the catacombs and erected housing for the poor. Furthermore, he helped support the churches in Africa that were persecuted for resisting the Arian heresy; and when the Vandals attacked northern Italy, he assisted victims of the invasion.
Pope St. Symmachus held the papal office for sixteen years, through his short exile, and died on July 19, 514. He was buried at St. Peter’s in Rome and his feast is celebrated on July 19.
Dear Pope St. Symmachus, during your reign as Pope you faced many heresies and confusion in the Church. Intercede for Holy Mother Church through St. Joseph, and pray that we all may be one under the true teachings handed to us through Christ and his apostles. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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