The Liber Pontificalis is the only real biographical information available for the earliest popes of the Roman Catholic Church. This article, part 2 of 2, is the continuation of the biographies of some of the most memorable or influential popes – either because of the events of their reign, or the historical period in which they were pontiff – from the beginning of the 4th Century, through the early 6th Century.
Liber Pontificalis Part 1 ended with the reign of Pope St. Marcellus I, and just before a major transformation in the history of Christianity and Catholicism. These changes were marked by the end of centuries of Christian persecution, and the dawning of the acceptance and free growth of Christianity.
As outlined in the first article on this topic, the Liber Pontificalis are recognized in distinct sections. This is the continuation of the biographies of some of the most memorable or influential popeseither because of their reign, or the historical period during which they were pontifffrom the beginning of the 4th Century, through the early 6th Century.
Miltiades, St. (311 314) The reign of St. Miltiades was significant mainly because of the historical changes in Rome during the time of his reign, rather than notable actions or rulings on his part. Taking the first 300 years of the papacy into consideration, his papacy could not have come at a better time, as the year 311 was the same year the Edict of Toleration was issued, giving Christians much needed relief from the prior persecutions. Further, Emperor Maxentius restored all Christian properties which had been previously seized. Maxentius was defeated by Constantine the Great at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine gave St. Miltiades the Lateran Palace, which was the home for all Popes through the fifteenth century.
Sylvester I, St. (314 335) Similar to the reign of St. Miltiades, the significance of St. Sylvesters reign lies mostly in the historical changes during the time that Constantine the Great ruled Rome, namely the pro-Christian decrees that were key in Christianity becoming state religion. In addition, Constantine convened the first ecumenical council in Nicaea, Bithynia, in 325, which St. Sylvester did not attend. There are differing opinions on the reasons for his absence; some books say that Constantine ‘took over,’ others say that St. Sylvester chose, on his own accord, not to participate. It is also unknown if there was papal approval for the decrees of the Nicaean Council.
There is much legend that has been written about the relationship between St. Sylvester and Constantine, which, unfortunately, is contradictory to history. One legend describes Constantine suffering with leprosy, which was cured by his baptism, performed by St. Sylvester. In repayment, it is said that Constantine donated Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, this gift becoming known as the Donation of Constantine. Historical research, however, directly contradicts this. Constantine waited to be baptized until he was on his deathbed, and while Constantine donated land for the Basilica, the story of the supposed donation of the islands is not rooted in historical fact.
Damasus I, St. (366 384) Damasus served as a deacon under Pope Liberius, and when elected, a large group opposed his reign; the supporters of Ursinus. As a result, Ursinus, the fourth antipope in Catholic history, was consecrated in the Julian Basilica, and Damasus in the Lateran Basilica. Because of the conflict, violence erupted in the streets of Rome, leaving 137 people dead. In an effort to quell the violence, Damasus asked for assistance from the civil authorities; this was the first time in history any pope asked for such assistance. Damasus spent the remainder of his reign attempting to repair his reputation, which was further worsened by libelous attacks on his character by the Ursinians. The rest of his concentration was focused on suppressing new heresies, such as Arianism, Macedonianism, and Donatism. Damasus also made St. Jerome his secretary, and at Damasus request, Jerome began working on the revision of the Latin translations of the Bible, which was later called the Vulgate.
Siricius, St. (384 399) Siricius reign was relatively uneventful, however, his role was pivotal in establishing the Holy See as a jurisdictional authority over Rome and the Catholic Church. He also convened two synods. In the first synod, it was decreed that no bishop could be consecrated without specific permission from the Holy See. In addition, his letter to Himerius, Bishop of Tarragona in 385 is considered to be the first papal decree, and he intervened to help heal a schism in Antioch, known as the Melitian Schism.
Sixtus III, St. (432 440) Sixtus, also known as Zystus, also had an uneventful papal reign, and most of his time was filled with the heretical controversies of the time. He is best known for his decree in which Mary was declared the Mother of God.
Leo I the Great, St. (440 461) Leo was one of the only two pontiffs in history to be given the title of the Great. His primary goal in his reign was to further strengthen the position of the Holy See in Rome and the Catholic Church. His first accomplishment in his attempt to attain this goal was securing recognition of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the West from Emperor Valentinian III. He also was successful in a defeat of the heresies plaguing the East, in particular the teaching that Christ possessed only one nature (instead two natures; human and divine), which was taught by the orthodox theologians. His most famous work, writing the Tome of Leo, which clarified the orthodox teachings, was formally accepted by the Council of Chalcedon. Leo is also well-known for his meeting in Mantua with Attila the Hun, who was terrorizing Italy, and he was able to convince the leader to depart Italy. Three years later, he pleaded with King Geiseric and the Vandals, asking them not to destroy the city. He was unable to prevent the fall of Rome; however, he convinced them not to murder the citizens.
Simplicius, St. (468 483) Simplicius reign was all but obfuscated by the final dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the removal of the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer, thus beginning an age of Germanic rule in Italy. Most significant, but largely forgotten in Simplicius reign, was his struggle against the Monophysitic heresies.
Gelasius I (493 496) Gelasius impact on history was strongly felt and largely influential in the position of the church. In a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius, he outlined the superiority of the church, even over secular government. This affected the thinking and actions of the church into the Middle Ages. He was also the first pope to use the title, Vicar of Christ. In history he is viewed as tyrannical, but he died with almost no money, having given away large sums to the poor, and he was revered as very prayerful and reverent.
Felix IV (III), St. (526 530) There is some confusion as to whether this pope was the third or fourth Felix, as Felix II was considered by many to be an antipope. Theodoric, Arian King of the Goths, used his considerable influence to ‘suggest’ that Felix be elected pontiff, and bowing down to Theodoric’s wishes, the people of Rome chose Felix. Knowing that he had a great deal of influence over the King, Felix used this to the advantage of the the church. Even after Theodoric’s death, Felix stayed in favor with the newest ruler, Theodoric’s daughter, Amalasuntha. She gave Felix a gift of two buildings in the Roman Forem, which he turned into a church. As for Felix’s ecclesiastical duties, he issued a Capitula-which was later converted into canon at the Synod of Orange-regarding grace and free will. He also approved the writings of Caesarius of Arles on grace and free will, De gratia et libero arbitrio. Before his death, Felix tried to name the Archdeacon Boniface as his successor because of the political tensions in Rome at the time, hoping that Boniface would be able to maintain peace. Upon his death, however, his wishes were disregarded and the people elected Dioscorus. Not accepting this decision, Boniface very nearly became the seventh antipope in history, but within just weeks of this rift, Dioscorus died, and the people accepted Felix’s choice for the pontiff to succeed him.