Boniface III - A Definition Of Primacy

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Boniface, the son of John Cataadioce, was a Roman who, like his predecessors, served as a papal official. He was, according to Gregory the Great, "of tried faith and character." Gregory sent him as ambassador to Constantinople, where he seems to have done very well.

As ambassador his chief task was the usual one of pleading with the Emperor not to leave his Italian subjects defenseless before the ever-present threat of the Lombard. Boniface had a peculiarly thorny problem, however, in the case of a refugee bishop who had fled from the menace of raiding Slavs and Avars. It seems that John, bishop of Euria in Epirus, had fled along with his clergy to the comparative safety of Cassiope on the island of Corcyra. Not content, however, with securing safety, Bishop John began to usurp episcopal authority in his hospitable refuge. Naturally the local bishop, Alcison, objected to this--to say the least--uncanonical behavior. But somehow the refugee bishop had won the favor of the Emperor Phocas, perhaps because he, too, was a usurper. Bishop Alcison appealed to the Pope, and Gregory the Great instructed his ambassador at Constantinople to settle the difficulty. It is a tribute to his diplomacy that Boniface was able to bring the affair to a satisfactory conclusion and at the same time to secure the esteem of the Emperor Phocas.

The date of Boniface's return from Constantinople is not certain, but the interregnum of almost a year (Sabinian was buried February 22, 606, and Boniface III consecrated February 19, 607) might be explained by the fact that Boniface was elected while still serving as ambassador at Constantinople. The circumstances of this election are not known, but it is also possible that the long delay was due to difficulties over the election, for Boniface was most insistent on free elections. He held a council at Rome which was attended by seventy-two bishops and the Roman clergy, at which Boniface showed a wise preoccupation with freedom of papal and episcopal elections. He forbade anyone to start working on an election of a new pope or bishop until three days after the late incumbent's burial. He went so far as to forbid anyone under pain of excommunication even to speak of a pope's successor during his lifetime.

The trouble over the title of "Universal Bishop" assumed by the patriarch of Constantinople, John the Faster, flared up again, for John's successor, Cyriacus, also insisted on using this title. Boniface thereupon secured from Emperor Phocas a decree acknowledging that "the See of Blessed Peter the Apostle should be the head of all the Churches" and that the title of "Universal Bishop" should be reserved exclusively for the bishop of Rome. This, of course, was no new departure in imperial policy. Long ago the great lawgiver, Justinian, had legally recognized the primacy of the Roman pontiff. But at this time the repetition was considered necessary to curb the titular pretensions of the Patriarch.

Boniface died in 607, the same year in which he was consecrated. He was buried in St. Peter's, November 12.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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