May 18, 2020
Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter
(Optional Memorial of St. John I, pope and martyr)
First Reading: Acts 16:11-15
Responsorial: Psalm 149:1B-2, 3-4, 5-6A & 9B
Alleluia: John 15:26B, 27A
Gospel: John 15:26-16:4A
Today the Church celebrates Pope John I, who served as the successor to St. Peter in the early 6th century. When John was elected to the papacy in 523, he was already an old man, having served for many years as a deacon in Rome. During this time, the Church was riven between orthodox Catholics and followers of the Arian heresy. Arianism is the belief that Jesus Christ was not truly divine. Rather, Arians considered that Jesus was merely a human person who was exalted or adopted by God as an exemplar of humanity for the purposes of bringing about salvation. (Indeed, another name for this heresy is “adoptionism.”)
Arianism originated in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire in the late 3rd century by the teachings of the North African priest Arius. It soon split the Church into warring factions, leading to the Emperor Constantine calling forth the first Council of Nicaea in the year 325. (This led to the famous scene where St. Nicholas punched Arius in the face on the floor of the Council.)
The Council crafted what we now know as the Nicene Creed as an affirmation or “symbol” of the faith. Contra Arius, the Creed affirmed that Jesus Christ is “light from light, true God from true God” meaning that he has a truly divine nature. He is also said to be “begotten not made” to affirm that this divine nature was always in existence, not something created. And, finally, Christ is said to be “consubstantial” with the Father, showing that he is equal in substance to the first person of the Trinity.
Although the Council formally laid to rest the heresy, Arianism continued to haunt the Church for centuries afterwards. (One can say that it finds adherents even to this day.) Interestingly, although Arianism originated in the Eastern Church and was initially stronger there, by the time that Pope John I was elected, it was more powerful in the Roman Church, particularly among the Germanic tribes that had come to dominate the crumbling remnants of the Western Empire.
Theodoric was one such Germanic chieftain King, who although never formally claiming the mantle of Western Emperor, had consolidated rule over the Italian peninsula and the northern Mediterranean rim. Leaders like Theodoric were drawn to Arianism because of its compatibility with a divine right theory of kingship. If Jesus Christ was a mere man who was simply exalted by God for the purpose of fulfilling the divine mandate, it could equally be argued that God was exalting Theodoric to be the supreme leader in that time and place. With such divine sanction, leadership takes on a kind of fuhrerprinzip. One can see how such a theology would be highly congenial to those with dictatorial ambitions.
At this same time, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justin I was emerging as a defender of Christian orthodoxy against the Arian heresy. This was surprising in light of Justin’s grandiose sense of his own divine mandate. Yet Justin worked tirelessly to combat the Arian heresy, decreeing that all Arian clerics be permanently deposed and that any churches owned by them to be given over to the control of orthodox bishops.
Reports of the Arian suppression alarmed King Theodoric. He sent a delegation headed by Pope John to argue for a reversal of the mandate hoping to protect his Arian co-religionists in the East. Theodoric hinted to John that, should he fail in his mission, there would be severe reprisals for orthodox Catholics in Italy.
Pope John was received warmly by Emperor Justin, who prostrated himself before the Pope and even asked that John re-consecrate him to his imperial throne. Despite this, John could not bring himself to weigh on Justin to reverse his decree for he knew it to be in accord with right religion, though he did seek some concessions from Justin that followers of Arianism be treated with mercy. When Pope John returned to Italy, Theodoric accused him of subversion and threw him in prison, where eventually dying of starvation in 526.
Pope John recognized that his first duty was to uphold the truth against distortions like those of the Arians, despite the threats of Theodoric. In the Gospel reading, Christ warns us that: “They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me.” Our Christian faith is not protection from suffering, but the means by which we can show our fidelity to Christ.