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St. Nicholas I - Another Great Pontiff

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There have been many great popes, but to three only has posterity awarded the title of the Great: St. Leo I, St. Gregory I, and St. Nicholas I. Nicholas, a man of handsome appearance, was noted for two virtues, charity and justice. He took loving care of his poor, and for the oppressed or wronged he was a mighty protector. Add great strength of soul and dynamic energy, and it is easy to see why this man made so strong an impression on his age. Nicholas was a Roman, the son of an official in the papal service. Educated at the Lateran, he joined the clergy, was highly favored by Popes St. Leo IV and Benedict II, and after Benedict's death was easily elected his successor.

His passion for justice led him to oppose Lothair, king of Lorraine, when that unworthy monarch wished to exchange his wife for his mistress. Lothair had the subservient Frankish bishops at his beck, but when the injured wife appealed to the Pope, it was a different story. Nicholas not only quashed the unjust verdicts but deposed the influential archbishops of Cologne and Trier. Angrily they appealed to Emperor Louis II. Louis marched on Rome to teach the Pope a new canon law by force of arms. He blockaded Nicholas and had the indomitable Pope reduced almost to starvation, when a fever brought the Emperor to think better of his brutal conduct. The Franks marched away, Lothair remained married, the archbishops remained deposed. It was a striking stand for the independence of the spiritual and the maintenance of moral standards. As for an injured wife, so did the Pope act for a deposed bishop. Rothad of Soissons, deposed by the famous Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, appealed to Nicholas. The Pope, after studying the case, ordered Rothad reinstated. As for a bishop, so did the Pope act for oppressed people.

Archbishop John of Ravenna had caused great complaints by his oppression. Nicholas, after several unsuccessful attempts to get justice, went personally to Ravenna and saw to it that property was restored to rightful owners. The Bulgarians at this time were becoming Christians. In contact with both the Eastern and the Western rite, they hesitated between the two. Nicholas sent them legates and wrote a regular treatise to answer their questions. Constantinople resented the efforts of the Pope to attach the Bulgarians to the Western Patriarchate. But it was an internal conflict which caused a schism to break out. St. Ignatius, the patriarch, was deposed. Photius, the most brilliant Greek of the age, replaced him. According to Dvornik, whose studies have undermined the traditional view of this Photian business, St. Ignatius actually resigned and Photius was legitimate patriarch. When Photius and Emperor Michael III appealed to the Pope, Nicholas sent legates to a synod held at Constantinople to judge the affair. But even though the legates favored Photius, Nicholas still refused to recognize him. It seems that bitter opponents of Photius had fled to Rome to give the Pope their side of the picture. Then Photius lost his temper. He held a synod in 867 which denounced certain Western practices and declared Nicholas deposed. But it was Photius who was deposed. His protector Michael III was overthrown by Basil the Macedonian. Basil promptly replaced Photius with St. Ignatius. Nicholas encouraged St. Ansgar and his successor Rembert in their activity among the Scandinavians. He also tried hard to bring peace to Europe, but to keep the descendants of Charlemagne from fighting was too much even for Nicholas. Nicholas the Great died November 13, 867. His feast is kept on that day.

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

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