St. Paul I - Another Charitable Pontiff

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Paul was the brother of Pope Stephen III, and like him was educated under the tutelage of the popes. Paul served his brother on many diplomatic missions. The two brothers seem to have been quite close, and when Stephen fell ill in 757 Paul devotedly nursed him. Even while Stephen was dying, a party began an intrigue to seat the archdeacon Theophylact on the papal throne. But when Stephen was buried, the great majority chose Paul to succeed his brother. He was consecrated on May 29, 757.

Naturally Paul continued the policy of his brother. He maintained close relations with Pippin and relied on his aid to hold the Papal States against Lombard and Greek. The greatest danger was from the Lombards. Aistulf had died shortly after his final defeat and he was succeeded by Desiderius, duke of Istria. But the new king met a sudden and strange challenge, ex-king Ratchis, who had abdicated in 768 to become a monk, now left his monastery to dispute the iron crown with Desiderius. Desiderius promised peace to the Pope if he would help him, and Stephen had sent an embassy including Paul which had persuaded Ratchis to return to his duties in the cloister.

Desiderius, forgetful of this act of friendliness, had designs on the Papal States. He even made an alliance, strange enough, with the Eastern Empire. Pope Paul pleaded with Pippin for help, but the Frankish king was so involved in wars with the dukes of Aquitaine and Bavaria, that he could help the Pope only by diplomacy. Actually Paul succeeded in holding on to his kingdom without any major war. Toward the end of his pontificate he even asked Pippin to get Desiderius to help him against the Greeks!

The threat from the Greeks was not too serious. The Emperor, with no army to spare for Italy, relied on diplomacy. He tried to pervert Pippin to his iconoclast heresy, but his pleas were resisted by the stout-hearted Frank. The Pope, of course, was not idle. He wrote to Pippin and encouraged him to remain loyal and orthodox. The Pope's care was rewarded. The Frankish bishops assembled in a synod at Gentilly in 767 and reaffirmed their belief in traditional Catholic doctrines, especially in the correct veneration of holy images.

Paul also wrote to Emperors Constantine and Leo to win them back from their heresy, but again in vain.

Paul was a man of noble character, outstanding even among the popes for his charity to the poor. During the night he would often visit prisons and perform acts of mercy. His only defect was, perhaps, a poor choice of officials; but if he discovered any injustice, he hastened to make up for it. He died outside the city on June 28, 767. Paul I is venerated as a saint. His feast is kept on June 28.

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

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