St. Zosimus - The Fight Against Pelagianism

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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.

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