That he was a Greek, the son of Abram, is all that is known of the early
life of St. Zosimus. His pontificate, however, though short, is important
for a climax in the fight against Pelagianism.
Pelagius (man of the sea) was the nickname by which Morgan, a tall
Britisher, was popularly known. This monk had come to Rome some time around
400, and had established a reputation as a spiritual adviser. After a while
he moved on to Palestine, and soon his doctrine had the empire in an
uproar. Briefly, Pelagianism denied original sin and the necessity of
divine grace to perform meritorious acts, indeed even to win heaven itself.
A Roman lawyer named Caelestius and a clever thinker, Julian of Eclanum,
proved zealous propagators of the Britisher's heresy. But of course this
heresy, so fundamentally opposed to basic Christian truths, aroused great
opposition. St. Augustine, especially, attacked it with all his learning
and genius. Pope Innocent had received decrees from councils in Jerusalem
and Africa condemning Pelagianism and had himself approved the decrees.
After Innocent died, Caelestius went to Rome to make a personal appeal
against the decisions of the local councils. A fast talker, he loudly
proclaimed that he believed whatever the Pope believed. And while
Caelestius was edifying all at Rome by his pious demeanor, Pelagius sent a
cleverly worded confession of faith to the Pope. No wonder Zosimus was
taken in! He wrote to the African bishops that they had acted hastily in
condemning Pelagius and Caelestius, since it was not sure that these
gentlemen had taught the doctrine for which they have been blamed. But by
an interchange of letters the African bishops were able to unmask the real
attitude of Pelagius and Caelestius. Once Pope Zosimus was convinced that
the pair actually taught heretical doctrine, he spoke out strongly in a
famous Epistola tractoria or encyclical letter which clearly and forcefully
condemned Pelagius and Pelagianism. Of this epistle, worthy to be ranked
with the great modern encyclicals, Prosper of Aquitaine said that it put
the sword of Peter into the hands of every bishop. St. Augustine was
delighted with it and when Julian of Eclanum clamored for a council, the
great doctor coolly replied that competent authority had judged the case.
St. Zosimus decreed that clerics should not drink in taverns. He died
December 27, 418, and was buried in the cemetery Church of St. Lawrence
in Agro Verano.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.