Tag Archives: St. John I

St. John I, pope and martyr

May 15, 2020

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St. John I was born in Tuscany, Italy. His memorial is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, May 18, but in some localities he is commemorated on May 27. He became an archdeacon and a member of the Roman clergy. He was elected Pope on August 13, 523, despite his advanced age and poor health, and he served as Pope for three years (523-526).

The Arian heresy which claims that Jesus is not divine, that he is less than God but the greatest of all humans, still had many adherents in various places, despite having been condemned two hundred years earlier by the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381).

The king of Italy was Theodoric the Great. His palace was in Ravenna, and very importantly, he was an Arian, he espoused a heretical belief, and an Ostrogoth, a person of Germanic descent. Even though he rejected orthodox Catholic teaching, he allowed Catholics to practice their faith without interference throughout most of his reign which lasted over thirty years.

King Theodoric learned that the Byzantine emperor Justin I who resided in Constantinople had issued an edict against the Arians in the East in 523. Arians in public office were removed, Arian churches were closed or seized and returned to Catholics, and Arians were ordered to renounce their faith. King Theodoric summoned Pope John I to his palace and ordered him to go on a mission along with a delegation of bishops and Roman senators to convince the emperor to relax the measures that he had taken against the Arians. Pope John did not agree with the purpose of the mission. The trip was long. He was in poor health. But he submitted.

Upon his arrival in Constantinople in late 525, Pope John was enthusiastically welcomed by Emperor Justin and throngs of people. The Pope presided at Hagia Sophia according to the Latin Rite on Easter Sunday. Moreover, he was given the highest throne in the church and granted the privilege of placing the Easter crown on the emperor’s head, both honors normally reserved to the patriarch. The Pope needed Justin to make concessions so he would not appear as a traitor and to prevent reprisals against Catholics in Italy. Pope John I was able to persuade the emperor to reinstate Arian public officials and return Arian churches that had been confiscated, but Justin held firm on his insistence that Arians renounce their heretical beliefs.

When Pope John I returned to Italy, King Theodoric was outraged that the pontiff had not convinced Justin to tolerate the Arians. Furthermore, he was agitated that Justin had accorded the Pope such respect, and that the two of them worked together so happily and effectively, which he interpreted as disloyalty. The Pope was summoned to Ravenna, charged with treason, and sent to prison. He was physically weak and exhausted from the journey, was denied food and water, and died of starvation and dehydration on May 18, 526. His remains were transferred to Rome and he was immediately regarded as a martyr.

During his three-year reign, Pope John I convoked several councils, including the Council of Orange which defined the Church’s understanding of grace. He also settled the controversy over the date for Easter, promoted Roman chant for the liturgy which laid the foundation for Gregorian chant, and promulgated the instructions that are to be given before baptism. The epitaph on his tomb reads, “A victim for Christ,” Pope John I, a martyr and a saint.

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