With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Holy Father Liberius, Pope Of Rome

Today, on the twenty-seventh of August, the Ruthenians commemorate the memory of Holy Father Liberius, Pope of Rome. Holy Father Liberius? Yes. In a rather strange twist of fate, the first Pope not placed on the Western martyrology is remembered by the East.

While it would be difficult to determine all the reasons for this development, a few important facts can be brought out to help understand how this came about.

Pope Liberius lived in an exciting but tumultuous age. During the time of Constantine, not only had Rome’s official persecution of Christians ended, Christians begun to have an open influence in the affairs of state. What should have been a time of joy became a time of sorrow when it became obvious that there was discord in the Church. In Egypt, Arius contended against Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria on the nature of the Trinity: are the Father and the Son to be seen as equals (the position of Alexander), or is the Son inferior to the Father (the position of Arius). Constantine, directed by Ossius of Cordova (whose feast is also today), tried to restore Christian unity by convening the council of Nicea in 325. At the council, Arius’ position was condemned, and the vast majority of the bishops accepted the Nicene Creed, written by Ossius, as representing the common Christian tradition. Arius and his followers continued to spread their teachings, and Constantine did not establish Christian unity.

Liberius would become Pope in 352, and the conflict between the Nicenes and the Arians continued. Emperor Constantine was dead, and the empire was led by the Arian-sympathizing emperor, Constantius II. The emperor wanted to unite Christianity under an Arian creed, and forced bishops to sign Arian confessions. Pope Liberius, completely orthodox in his beliefs, rejected the emperor, and was sent into exile in 355. Two years later, he was called back. Some writers suggested he fell into the Arian heresy and completely succumbed to the will of the emperor. Others suggested that he had agreed to an ambiguous statement which did not have to be interpreted heretically. Others saw neither of these, and believed he came back to Rome, victorious over the cruel mechanizations of the emperor. While Constantius still lived, it is clear Pope Liberius tried to continue in an orthodox, if somewhat quiet, manner. Once Constantius died in 361, Liberius made it very clear where his sympathies lie. In an act of mercy, he was willing to welcome communion with any of the bishops who, against their will, had signed their names to any of Constantius’ decrees. All they had to do was simply to repudiate any and all heretical decrees they had agreed to.

In the West, not only was there a theological battle being waged against the Arians, there was an internal debate going on the relationship between Christian ethics and ecclesiastical leadership. Under the influence of the legalistic Novatians, some Western Christians thought lapsed Christians could not receive absolution for their error, and even if they were repentant, they could not be welcomed back into the Christian fold. Likewise, under the influence of the Donatists, others questioned whether or not a bishop who erred in the faith or morals could continue their sacramental leadership in the Church. When a leader opposed either of these groups their character was immediately brought into question. Pope Liberius became easy prey – stories were spread about his fall from the orthodox faith. Even those who did not hold to either the Novatian or Donatist position were influenced by these rumors. Liberius was believed by many as being a weak leader who had, out of pressure, momentarily fallen into heresy. Can such a Pope be recognized as a holy father of the Church? Clearly, with his marred reputation, the answer was no.

Things were quite a bit different in the East. Not only was the influence of Novatian and Donatist thought negligible at best, but the fact that many of the Eastern bishops were the ones who lapsed from the faith and were later readmitted to communion with Rome by Liberius’ policies gave them a more benevolent view of the Pope. There was, simply put, a greater fluidity of thought in the East. The East was quicker to fall into the Arian heresy, but the East also provided the theological support which brought about its defeat. The East, without the moralistic legalism of the West, was more open to mercy. Had not St Athanasius himself admitted, like Liberius, that a creed signed under compulsion was not to be held against those Christians who signed it, if in their heart, they denied it? Had not Liberius, throughout his life, throughout his exile, made it clear where he stood? How, then, could his sanctity and leadership be denied, when his voice was one of the voices of orthodoxy in his time?

Thus the Latins and Greeks developed differing attitudes towards Liberius. The Latins, who had more literature that condemned him, in the end, did not list him in their official martyrologies. The Greeks, who probably did not know of this discrepancy with the Latins, placed Liberius, with many other of the bishops who had been forgiven momentary lapses in faith, in their lists of Saints, and continue to commemorate him as one of the many holy Popes of Rome.



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