St. Symmachas - A Builder In Rome

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The death of Anastasius left Rome tense with bitterness and suspicion as two factions struggled for control. The first and larger was the group which, out of misunderstanding, had grumbled at the late Pope's peace policy. The other faction was the pro-Byzantine party led by Senator Festus. This intriguer was anxious to make Rome conform to the imperial wish concerning Zeno's Henoticon. The clergy gathered at the Lateran on November 22, 498, and elected Symmachus. Later that same day, the pro- Byzantine minority went to St. Mary Major and elected an antipope, Lawrence. Off to Ravenna went embassies from pope and antipope to Theodoric. Theodoric wisely decided to recognize Symmachus because he had been elected first and by a majority. Lawrence bowed and was made bishop of Nocera.

Symmachus, a Sardinian who had been baptized at Rome and had been a deacon there, took steps to prevent a recurrence of the trouble. He held a synod on March 1, 499, which passed stringent decrees against electioneering for the papacy. The next year he welcomed Theodoric to Rome. The great Ostrogoth received a splendid reception, and in turn promised to respect the privileges of the Romans.

The pro-Byzantine party raised its head again in 501. Led by Festus, they accused the Pope of all kinds of crimes from celebrating Easter on the wrong date to immoral conduct. When Theodoric sent for Symmachus, the Pope boldly refused to be judged by a secular ruler. Theodoric then requested a synod to settle the matter, and sent, as Visitor to Rome, Bishop Peter of Altinum.

The Pope agreed to the synod but refused to accept the Visitor. When, with his approval, the synod met, Symmachus demanded his complete reinstatement before answering any charge. Though the synod agreed to this, Theodoric did not. The Pope then gave in, and set out for the synod, but was attacked by partisans of the proByzantine faction and driven back to St. Peter's. This outrage ended his complaisance, and he refused to have anything more to do with the synod. Embarrassed, the synod broke up declaring that it had no competence to judge a pope, and that Symmachus should be regarded as free from all crime.

Theodoric, however, refused to accept this, and the pro-Byzantine faction brought back Antipope Lawrence and installed him in the Lateran. For four years this schism dragged on, to the distress of the faithful. The patient Pope was gradually winning back the adherents of Lawrence when Theodoric changed his mind, and by withdrawing his support from the schismatics, put an end to the matter.

In spite of all this trouble, Symmachus kept an eye on the East and rebuked Emperor Anastasius for his support of the Monophysite heresy. As firmly as Gelasius, the Pope maintained the independence of his spiritual power. He found time to do a good deal of building in Rome, including three refuges for the poor. He also sent alms to the persecuted Catholics of Africa. St. Symmachus died July 19, 514. Venerated as a saint, his feast is kept on that day.

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

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