St. Gelasius I - A Humble Pontiff

"More a servant than a sovereign"-thus Dionysius Exiguus describes St. Gelasius I.

Yet he spoke so beautifully of the majesty of Peter's see that his words have been quoted down the ages. As late as the First Vatican Council, Pope Gelasius was quoted as an authority on papal infallibility.

Gelasius was an African either by birth or descent. A member of the Roman clergy, he worked in close cooperation with St. Felix II, and when he became pope he continued the policy of his predecessor. Gelasius found the Church of Constantinople still in schism. Although the patriarch Euphemius had returned to orthodoxy, he refused to strike the name of Acacius from the diptychs. The diptychs were tablets used in the churches of those days on which were written the names of living and dead dignitaries. Since they were visible signs of the communion of saints, the names of all in heresy or schism or under excommunication were excluded from these diptychs. A number of bishops appealed to Gelasius to relent and readmit Constantinople to communion, but the Pope explained that it was a question not of personality but of principle, that to allow the name of Acacius to remain on the diptychs would be to repudiate his predecessor's actions against the Monophysite compromisers. Gelasius also defended the rights of the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch against the encroachments of Constantinople.

Although the Pope had his troubles with Emperor Anastasius over the Henoticon, he got along well with the Arian Theodoric. His difficulty at home arose, not from the government, but from a group of superstitious Romans. A plague had afflicted the city and these superstitious citizens, led by the Senator Andromachus, revived the Lupercalia to bring back good luck to the city. The Lupercalia were originally a pagan rite celebrated in mid-February, but it became a good luck superstition. Youths clad in skins ran around the city with whips to chase away bad luck. They struck any woman they met a blow which was supposed to confer fertility. That such rank superstition should be revived was a challenge to the Pope and vigorously he met it. Gelasius forbade all Catholics to have anything to do with the affair, and wrote against it so vigorously that he soon ended the mischievous nonsense.

Gelasius, like his predecessor, spoke firmly to the Emperor on the need of independence for the Church. No history of political theory is complete without a discussion of this pope's masterly exposition of the role of Church and State in a famous letter to Emperor Anastasius. Gelasius defends the position of the Church as a perfect society, and at the same time recognizes the legitimate functions of both Church and State.

Although a great writer, Gelasius made his strongest impression as a man of holiness. Prayerful and austere, he loved the companionship of monks. He was outstanding for his sense of justice and above all for his charity to the poor. "Great even among the saints," Gelasius died November 21, 496.

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


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