Spirituality for Today – November 2010 – Volume 15, Issue 4

The 51st Pope
Saint Symmachus

An image of Saint SymmachusSaint Symmachus the 51st Pope

Pope St. Symmachus (498-514)
His pontificate was plagued by an all too common problem in papal succession – an anti-pope. There was no doubt that Symmachus had the greatest support among the clergy. There was, however, a significant group that wanted a pope who assuredly would continue the conciliatory approach to the Acasian Schism adopted by the late Pope Anastasius II. They chose the archpriest Lawrence.

In a touch of irony, an appeal was made to Theodoric, the King of Italy and an Arian (belief that Jesus was not the Son of God but God's highest creation), to resolve the conflict. He ruled in favor of Symmachus.

In an attempt to quiet matters, Pope Symmachus convened a synod in which he established the policy that future papal elections were to be decided by the clergy of Rome exclusively. The laity would no longer be involved in the process. Peace was reached with the anti-pope Lawrence with his being named bishop of Nuceria.

Not satisfied so easily, the influential supporters of Lawrence concocted a number of accusations that Pope Symmachus was guilty of immoral behavior and administrative abuses. Theodoric appointed an administrator of the Church of Rome pending the resolution of these charges. A synod decided that God alone can pass judgment on a pope. Thus, the unfounded accusations against Pope Symmachus were dismissed.

As a side note, certain documents known as the Symmachian Forgeries appeared some years afterward that supposedly provided proofs that the pope was immune from secular judgment. There is no historical merit to these writings.

Power is power. King Theodoric rejected the synod's conclusions and set up Lawrence as the Bishop of Rome with all the authority of that position. For four years, Pope Symmachus lived in Saint Peter's Basilica virtually under house arrest. The political winds would change. Ultimately, Theodoric confirmed the decision of the synod and restored the always popular Symmachus as the rightful pope. Lawrence went into quiet retirement.

Now firmly entrenched as pope, Symmachus vigorously addressed the many issues of Church administration. In a unique event for a bishop outside of Italy, Caesarius of Arles was elevated by the pope who bestowed upon him the pallium (a vestment worn by one possessing the authority of an archbishop). Pope Symmachus also instituted the sung Gloria at Mass.

The pope died before being able to preside over an Eastern council – an important overture toward unity in the Church that was made by the patriarch of Constantinople.

Pope Symmachus is buried in Saint Peter's Basilica.

Habemus papam