Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Is the Pope Greek?

And Can a German Preside Over a Similar Success Story?

(The Remnant, November 15, 2006)

Pope Benedict XVI is deeply interested in closer relations with the Eastern Churches, and in this enterprise I wish him very well indeed. Both parts of Christendom were meant to be together, and not simply because of the doctrine of papal supremacy. At certain times in history, either the East or the West has been in highly specific need of "its other half's" influence.

What immediately (and amusingly) comes to my mind in this regard is the action of an eastern prelate at a patristics conference in Oxford several decades ago when the western clerical passion for self-destruction was perhaps at its height. The hall was filled with modernist European and American theologians dealing with the subject of Hell. "If you believe what you just said", this unrepentant descendent of Athanasius shouted to one of his periti who was attempting to mimic his western heretical colleagues, "I excommunicate you". How glorious to hear the words anathema sit in the mouth of a bishop who really still knew how to "bish"! And where else in the delirious Christendom of the 1970’s would such clarity have come from other than some intransigent eastern diocese evoking ancient or exotic splendors?

Many Roman Catholics are skeptical of regular, serious, friendly contact between East and West, fearful, especially, of its long-term anti-papal consequences. They could take heart from the study of a lengthy period of time, from the 640's down to the 750's, when Greeks, Greek-speakers and Greek culture in general not only co-operated with Rome but actually came to dominate it. This domination turned out to be a glorious thing. Far from destroying the Latin Church, it enriched her, filling contemporary gaps in her knowledge and practices and thereby contributing mightily to her further perfection and efficiency. Far from crushing the Papacy in the name of that often shapeless collegiality more frequently associated with Eastern Church principles, it exalted the image and powers of the Holy See beyond previous levels.

A number of works deal in great detail with "Greek Rome", including the monumental thirteen volume Histoire du Christianisme recently completed in France under the direction of Jean-Marie Mayeur. The most accessible is a book by Jeffrey Richards, Professor of History at the University of Lancaster in the United Kingdom. Richards' Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, 476-752 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) comprehensively treats this subject. In the process, he also dispels the still all too common notion of some Iron Curtain having suddenly descended with the appearance of the German barbarians in the 400's hermetically to seal off West from East and the medieval from the ancient world.

Yes, Rome and Italy as a whole did experience some barbarian-induced disruptions, but both were highly prosperous and peaceful from the latter part of the Fifth Century through the middle of the 530's. It was at the latter date that the Emperor Justinian fatefully decided to dispense with the fiction that German Ostrogoth "agents" were actually governing the peninsula in the name of the Empire. He determined to restore substantive, direct Roman rule, guided from Constantinople and working through a governor (Exarch) in Ravenna. Twenty years of warfare were unexpectedly required to break Ostrogoth resistance. A "re-conquered" though devastated Italy then fell prey to a new German invasion, that of the Lombards, in 568. This finally resulted in an uneasy and regularly troubled division of the peninsula into two spheres of influence, with the eastern Roman forces remaining in control of the coastlines, as well as much of the south and Sicily as a whole.

As a result of the re-conquest, Rome and other imperial-ruled sections of Italy played host to administrative and military personnel from the East, many of them Greek-speaking. Nevertheless, the really significant culturally-active Hellenes with whom we are concerned in this article arrived in one impressive wave in the early 600's. These were Greeks or Greek-speaking Syrian, Palestinian and North African migrants coming to Italy for two related reasons. One was to escape disastrous invasions of the eastern parts of the Empire, first by the Persians and, immediately after their crushing defeat at the hands of imperial forces, by the more successful Arab Moslems. Another was to flee imperial religious persecution, about which more anon. Many Greeks and Greek-speakers headed for Sicily and the South. Those who went to Rome tended to settle at a spot which had already become a small Hellenic neighborhood beforehand: the foot of the Aventine Hill, where numerous traces of their presence remain today.

The Roman immigrants included numbers of very energetic monks, shaped by a Palestinian spirituality which taught them to embrace the idea of life as a pilgrimage; as a wandering, challenging "exile" for Christ's sake. Having reached the Eternal City, they took over and transformed some already existing monasteries, such as that of St. Anastasius ad Aquas Salvias, St. Erasmus on the Caelian Hill, and Saints Andreas and Lucia, which they renamed Saints Maria and Andreas. The older Boetiana Monastery was not only taken over by Greek-speaking Syrians, but, as it turned out, by heretics chased out of the East by the stronger defenders of equally unacceptable errors. New Roman monasteries, perhaps as many as ten, like those of the Domus Arsicia and St. Saba, were Greek foundations from the outset.

Greek-speaking monks and clerics swiftly rose to importance in the seventh century Roman Church. Abbot John Symponus became a kind of "secretary of state" to Honorius I (625-638) and John IV (640-642), while the deacon Sericus was sent to by the former pontiff to Constantinople as papal ambassador (apocrisiarios) to the imperial court. By the reign of Pope St. Martin I (649-653), Sericus held the key position of Archdeacon of the Roman Church. Greek officials were henceforth omnipresent, in Rome, as papal envoys abroad and as representatives to General Councils, freely and fluently translating from Latin into Greek and back again. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662), who arrived in Rome at that same time, found that there were so many Greek-speakers active in the clergy there that he could play a central role in Church affairs without knowing any Latin. Greek influence in Italy extended beyond Rome to the Italian episcopate. Important Hellenic bishops included John of Portus, Nicetas of Silva Candida, and the southerners Leontius of Naples, Abundantius of Tempsa and John of Rhegium. So many where these local and peninsular "Greeklings" that "Eddius Stephanus, the biographer of St. Wilfrid of Hexham, noted rather disapprovingly that when his hero presented himself to a synod in Rome in 704 to argue his case against deprivation of his see, the bishops present chatted and joked amongst themselves in Greek" (Richards, p. 277).

More than this, however, Greeks and Greek-speakers soon became popes themselves. Although the first of these, the Palestinian refugee Theodore (642-649), was elected in the first half of the century, and Pope Agatho (678-681) from Sicily may also have been of eastern Greek origin, it was not until 685 that the "Hellenic Papacy" really began. At that time, the Archdeacon John V (685-686), born in Antioch in Syria, ascended the papal throne after a normal career in the Roman clergy. He was followed by Conon (686-687, a Greek speaker from Sicily), Sergius I (687-701, Syrian/Sicilian), John VI (701-705, a "Greek" of unknown origins), John VII (705-707, "Greek"), Sissinius (708, Syrian), Constantine (708-715, Syrian), Gregory III (731-741, Syrian) and the extremely impressive Pope Zacharias (741-752, "Greek").

Eastern influence in Italy, whether under Greek- or Latin-speaking pontiffs, was felt in four specific ways, the first of which was in devotional life. Eastern festivals, such as those of the Exaltation of the True Cross and the Annunciation, Dormition and Nativity of the Virgin Mary were introduced. The cults of saints popular in the East, such as the martyr, St. Symeon, the doctors Cosmas and Damian, and a battery of warrior heroes venerated by the army, like Saint George, also took root. Saint George became so popular that Pope Zacharias himself carried his head in a grand procession from the Lateran to install it in a place of honor in the Church named after him.

A second influence was exercised over the liturgy. This took shape in two ways.

One was through music, and not simply because of the appearance of Greek-inspired hymns, in Latin translation, for use in the Mass. Music was affected by the eastern presence more due to the greater honor that it now received from high Church officials. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-603), for all of his association with chant and his creation of a Schola Cantorum, was worried about the clergy's over-involvement with singing, and wished to control and limit it. From the time of Pope Vitalian (657-672) onwards, however, a new eastern-inspired spirit dominated. This so exalted the role of music that achievements in its realm were seen as superb preparation for higher office. Men like John, Archcantor of the Roman Church, were sent on important diplomatic missions under their cultural cover as musicians. Gifted singers such as Sergius I became popes themselves.

Liturgy was affected by the Greek-speaking presence through the influence of elaborate eastern ecclesiastical and court ceremonial on the various rites of the generally more sober Latin Church. Imperial splendor was especially noticeable in those ceremonies emphasizing the exalted position of the Papacy, rites then enshrined in the mass books of the Latin-speaking Pope Gregory II (715-731). These more heady, formalized liturgical practices were then carried out in churches beautified in the magnificent and icon-friendly eastern manner:

It has been described as: 'a rigid etiquette admitting neither change nor improvisation on the part of the assistants, an awe-inspiring solemnity of ceremonies and a unique grandiose organum chant {which} become symbols of Papal sovereignty in the West turning the congregation into spectators and listeners' (Quoted in Ibid., p. 279).

Associated with this development was a major artistic movement, spurred on by the arrival of refugee Alexandrian artists. It centered on church decoration and in particular the painting of frescoes and images and the designing of ikons in the Byzantine fashion. At its height during the reign of John VII, it was to become in part an element in the assertion of orthodoxy against Iconoclasm but it was also a supreme reflection of the Hellenization of the church and city of Rome. The basilicas of the city, handsomely endowed and lavishly decorated by the Greek popes, became in their oriental opulence veritable Byzantine temples, shimmering with silk gauze draperies, glittering with jewelled chalices, embroidered altar cloths, hanging crucifixes, inlaid silver roof-beams, gold and silver ikons, and ornamental arches, irridescent with multi-coloured frescoes and mosaic floors. (Ibid).

Yet a third eastern influence came in the form of the popularity of certain Greek Church institutions and missionary practices. Easterners were very much active in creating xenodocheia, hospices for foreigners and pilgrims, of whom there were, of course, many in Rome. These were often related to diaconia, charitable organizations, often monastic in character, providing aid to the poor and the sick, attached to Greek churches and chapels in the Eternal City such as St. Maria in Cosmedin, St. George in Velabro, Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saints Sergius and Bacchus, St. Theodore and St. Hadrian. Moreover, the vision of life as a voluntary exile, popular with the easterners, led to the (admittedly not very well known) work of men from the Greek-speaking world in northern Italy. Under the name of decumani and pellegrini, such people played a role in the evangelization of the Lombards.

Finally, and most importantly, the Greek-speaking migration had a significant impact on learning of all types. This influence overturned the anti-elitist tendencies favored by Pope St. Gregory I, who had denounced the classical training of the older intelligentsia--still overwhelmingly strong in the 500's--as an obstacle to the catechizing of common people and an invitation to heretical hair-splitting in dogmatic theology to boot. Learning was affected, as we know by now, first and foremost through making the Greek language and Greek theological arguments well known in Rome once more. Whereas men like Popes Vigilius (537-555), Honorius, Martin, and probably Gregory himself, could not understand Greek, this was no longer the case by the late 600's, when an "elitist" classical training had once again become a ticket to higher office and deep esteem. Hence, the election of a man like Zacharias, who, ironically, translated Gregory's Dialogues into Greek, and the praise given by the Liber Pontificalis to Pope Leo II (682-683), who rendered the Greek proceedings of the sixth General Council into Latin:

A most eloquent man, adequately instructed in the holy scriptures, erudite in the Greek and Latin tongue, outstanding in chant and psalmody and polished in those senses by the most subtle exercise of them; also learned in language and polished in speaking by greater reading, the encourager of all good works and he brought knowledge to the people splendidly. (Ibid., p. 281)

Eastern learning gained its new renown, more than anything else, due to its absolute indispensability in dealing with the Monothelite flip on the Monophysite Heresy troubling the Christian world throughout the 600's. Monophysitism attacked the decision of the Council of Chalcedon defining Our Lord's possession of two natures, human and divine, united in the single Person of the Word. Monophysites emphasized the "one incarnate nature of the Word". Monothelites confirmed the same basic Monophysite position, but by speaking specifically of Christ's possessing only one divine will. Seventh Century Roman Emperors, starting with Heraclius, gave support to Monothelitism in order to overcome divisions in the Middle East, the bulk of whose Christians were Monophysites of one sort or another.

Rome felt specially bound to the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon due to Pope Leo the Great's central role within it through his famous Tome. It would never willingly oppose Chalcedon's orthodox decrees. Nevertheless, Gregorian anti-intellectualism had given all dogmatic theological speculation a bad name in Roman eyes, as something manipulated by pointlessly subtle snobs. It did not take the issues that were at stake in Christological disputes all that seriously, and missed the central points being made by participants in the Monothelite struggle. Hence the confusion of one of Gregory's most loyal followers, the hapless Pope Honorius, whose dismissal of the whole battle as the work of "croaking frogs", made him an unsuspecting agent for Monothelite attacks on Chalcedon and penetration of Christendom.

It was the learned, persecuted, pro-Chalcedonian migrant monks of the East, especially the great St. Maximus the Confessor, who saved the day for Rome and for Orthodoxy. They were the force inspiring Pope St. Martin I to call the Lateran Synod of 649 to attack both Monothelites and their imperial supporters. They were the ones most active at that Synod, through the primicerius notariorum, Theophylact, the senior notaries (Paschal, Exuperius, Theodore, Anastasius and Paschasius), the four Greek abbots, "long time resident in the city of Rome"--John of St. Saba, Theodore of St. Saba in Africa, Thalassius of Saints Maria and Andreas, and George of Aquae Salviae--and, most significantly, the memorial signed by thirty-seven monks demanding pro-Chalcedonian action. Greek-speakers like Theodore, Bishop John of Philadelphia, Theophanes of St. Caesarius ad Baias, George, priest and monk of Saints Maria and Andreas, and the monks Conon and Stephen of the Domus Arsicia, were appointed as Roman envoys dealing with fall-out from Monotheletism by Popes from St. Martin to Agatho from the 640's down through the end of the century.

All of the influences of Greek-speaking monks, clerics and popes in the life of the Latin Church were of enormous importance in building the prestige and glory of the Papacy, ceremonial and substantive, in the eyes of Christendom at large. Such work to enhance the role of the Roman Pontiffs was a conscious one. Everything, from the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor regarding papal authority and the need to flex it, to Pope Sergius I's translation of the body of Pope St. Leo the Great to a new, splendid and more prominent tomb, illustrates this truth. Despite occasional setbacks, owed more to the age and personality of certain Greek and Latin-speaking popes than anything else, the reputation of the Papacy was infinitely higher by the end of Pope Zacharias' reign than at the beginning of Pope John V's. That enhanced status continued further to inspire great eastern friends of the Papacy, such as St. Theodore the Stoudite (c. 758-c.826), in their struggle for Church autonomy against Caesaro-Papism.

But what are we to learn from all this in 2006? A great deal, I think, if nothing else the fact that help for Rome frequently comes from what one might at first glance think to be unexpected sources. We are, after all, supposed to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Nevertheless, we have seen that the question--"is the Pope Greek?"--had to be answered "yes" in the late 600's and 700's, and the person responding to it would have been forced to add--"and thank God for it!"

If we were to speak of that Greek domination of the Roman Church using modern terminology, we might say that it presented a multicultural success story. It showed that "multiculturalism" can be a positive force for good, so long as it allows one culture to give needed backbone to and thereby raise the level of another one which is in trouble. This is what Greek learning in particular did for Rome in the age in question. Perhaps Greek Rome is not so well known precisely because it does not fit the pluralist multicultural call for cultures to melt into some degenerate, least common denominator "mush".

"Foreign" domination of seventh and eight century Rome was a blessing for the Eternal City, leading to her splendid beautification. It was a blessing for the Church, both Universal and Latin, as well. Not only did it add a great deal, theoretically and practically, to the doctrine of Papal Supremacy. It also, interestingly enough, contributed much to the defense of local Latin Church customs against Eastern Church "imperialism" too. It was the Greek-speaking Pope Sergius who fought against the outrageous condemnation of western customs by an arrogant East eager to foist its peculiar traditions on everyone in the so-called Council in Trullo of 692.

One final and perhaps obvious comment. "Foreign domination" of a Rome gone sloppy was again beneficial for the Eternal City and the Universal and Latin Church in the Eleventh Century. It was at that time that superior cultural influences arriving from the north, using the good offices of the Kings of Germany, injected their cultural medicine into the devastatingly parochial and corrupt climate of contemporary Rome. Can we hope something similar may happen in our own day, with a new, outside, German influence shaking up a Rome of "business as usual" for the better? May we someday be able to answer the question--"is the Pope German?"--with an equally enthusiastic "yes, and thank God for it!"? Let us pray so, since prayer is basically all that we have at our disposal at this dramatic juncture in Church History. Such junctures have been reached before, and seen an equally dramatic turn for the better taken. Led by Greeks. Led by Germans.

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