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.