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Catholic Heroes . . . Pope St. Gregory III

December 8, 2015 saints No Comments


The Lord promised us that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church. Each heresy that gained ground in the Church has done so because at least one bishop has supported it. However, our Lord has also provided the Church staunch — and sometimes unlikely — defenders of the Truth. Such was the case when iconoclasm was promoted by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who persecuted so many in the eighth century.
During that time, St. John Damascene wrote simple but compelling theses on the veneration of sacred images. About the same time, a simple Syrian priest became Pope and also fearlessly defended the veneration of sacred images: Pope St. Gregory III.
Very little is known about the priest from Syria who suddenly became the people’s choice to become the Vicar of Christ after Pope Gregory II died. Walking in the funeral procession, the man who was soon to be Pope mourned the loss of the head of the Church.
Who was this priest who would soon become Pope? About all that is recorded is that he came from Syria and that his father’s name was John. Apparently his given name was Gregory. As he marched through the streets of Rome in the funeral procession, he must have been recognized as a learned man, a holy priest, and a gifted speaker.
The people began to proclaim that this Christian Syrian should succeed Pope Gregory II as the Vicar of Christ — and so he did. Before Gregory the Syrian would accept the office of Pope, however, he asked the Byzantine Exarch in Ravenna to approve the appointment — the last Pope to request such confirmation.
After receiving the ratification, he was officially installed on February 11, 731— one year after St. John Damascene wrote his treatise on the veneration of sacred images. Because the Byzantine Emperor Leo III continued to foster the iconoclast controversy, Pope Gregory III wrote to him immediately upon assuming his office to implore him to moderate his position.
Already enraged by St. John Damascene’s writings, the emperor had the Pope’s messenger arrested. Pope Gregory countered this action by calling a synod in 731 which condemned the iconoclast heresy.
Just as Emperor Leo sought to silence St. John Damascene, he also sought to remove the Pope from the battle over sacred images. The emperor planned to kidnap the Pope and bring him to Constantinople. To do so, he gathered together his navy and sent them on their way to Italy.
However, God’s way is not man’s way. In the normally clear and calm waters of the northern Adriatic Sea, the fleet was shipwrecked. Unable to win the controversy with reason, the Emperor Leo once again sought to do by force and once again failed.
In retaliation for this failure, the emperor then decided to seize the papal lands by capturing the island of Sicily and the district of Calabria. His attempt to gain control of the land of Illyricum failed when the Duke of Naples refused to cooperate with the emperor and, instead, supported the position of the Pope.
Ultimately, the emperor did gain some lands, but the Pope won the eternal victory by protecting the heritage of Christianity in the veneration of sacred images. He did this by restoring the paintings and images in churches around Rome, renewing the beauty of both the structures and the interior artwork of the Church’s buildings. He also installed more images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.
In addition, Pope Gregory had an iconostasis built in the heart of St. Peter’s. This wall of icons and religious paintings separated the nave from the sanctuary there. Part of this wall included six onyx and marble columns that had been sent to the Pope as a gift from the Exarch Eutychius of Ravenna.
The Pope also had a new oratory built for the veneration of the relics of many saints. Thus, one of the great works of his papacy was to restore and preserve the many artistic treasures of the Church as well as the remains of her holy men and women.
Pope Gregory III also supported monasticism by founding the monastery of St. Chrysogonus. (This monastery is probably not the same one which has been such a popular tourist attraction in Rome in modern times.)
Like Pope Francis, Pope Gregory III of the eighth century had a love of the poor. He not only rebuilt the hospice of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, but endowed the cost of the upkeep for perpetuity. This hospice was to serve the poor and homeless of Rome.
During his ten-year papacy, the conflict with the Byzantine emperor abated. To a lesser degree, the ongoing attacks of the Lombards from southern Germany also eased for a short time. This lull in hostilities enabled the Pope to focus on the dispute between the patriarchs of Grado and Aquileia which arose when the patriarch of Aquileia moved to Grado in the mid-sixth century. The dispute had been settled in the 731 synod in favor of Grado; but Calixtus, the patriarch of Aquileia, tried to gain control of the Island of Barbana which belonged to Grado. Pope Gregory III called Calixtus to Rome and ordered him to leave the island to Grado.
Pope Gregory III also spent some time developing the hierarchy in England and Germany. He appointed several bishops in the English territories. In Germany he cooperated with the great evangelical works of St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans.
St. Boniface was known for both his orthodoxy and his loyalty to the Pope. Pope Gregory III — seeing the great results of Boniface’s work — installed him as the archbishop of Germany in 732. In 737 he promoted him to papal legate for Germany. When Boniface came to Rome, the Pope entrusted him with three letters to take back with him.
The first letter ordered the Church officials in Germany to help Boniface as much as possible in his efforts to convert the Germans. The second letter he addressed to the nobles, telling them to obey Boniface in Church matters. The third letter he sent to the bishops in Alamannia and Bavaria confirming Boniface’s position as the Pope’s vicar with the authority to hold semiannual councils for the administration and governing of the Church in Germany.
Toward the end of his pontificate, the Lombards under their King Liutprand defeated the Dukes of Spoleto and Benevento, and once again invaded northern Italy as far south as Ravenna. Although the Pope called on Charles Martel for aid, Martel did not come to his assistance. Before any resolution could be reached, the Pope died on November 28, 741.
His feast is celebrated on December 10.
Dear Pope St. Gregory III, surely from on high you can witness the turmoil of Christ’s Church. Pray for the Church upon Earth, that we may have unity, and that we may have the wisdom to defend the veneration of images. May we be faithful and persevering witnesses to all the Church teaches and not fear the enemies from within and without — knowing that God has already won the war even if the battles continue. Amen.

+ + +

(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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