Saint Gelasius I, the Forty-Ninth Pope (Successors of Peter – Part 49)

Saint Gelasius I, the Forty-Ninth Pope (Successors of Peter – Part 49)

The reign of Pope Gelasius I was the first time in the history of the Church that a Pope was called and known as the Vicar of Christ. This marked a significant period for the Church in the fifth century, following the era of Pope Leo I the Great.

Pope Gelasius was elected as the forty-ninth Pope of the Holy See on March 1, AD 492. Born in Africa, he served as an archdeacon under his predecessor, Pope Felix III.

Pope Gelasius' election came during a time of difficulty and crisis for the Church. Most of Europe was ruled by barbarian kings who accepted the Arian heresy, denying Christ's divinity and considering Him as the best of creation. Theodoric, an Ostrogoth, controlled much of Italy, leading to an influx of refugees and a scarcity of priests and resources. However, Gelasius managed to build a friendly relationship with Theodoric, persuading him not to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs. Additionally, he generously used his personal wealth, income from the papal estates, and aid from King Theodoric to help the poor and address the shortage of priests by temporarily easing the criteria for ordination.

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Another significant challenge for the Church and Pope Gelasius was the unresolved Acacia schism in the Eastern Church, particularly in Constantinople. Pope Felix III had taken a firm stance against the Acacian schism, opposing the efforts of the orthodox and doctrinal Patriarch of Constantinople to lift the bans imposed by Pope Felix III on Patriarch Acacius and others involved in the Acacian Schism. Pope Gelasius strongly held the position that no indulgence was possible until the heresy of Monophysitism was abandoned from the sacrament of the Eucharist and other prayers. Despite some bishops in the Eastern Church arguing that the excommunication of Patriarch Acacius was not canonical, the Pope remained steadfast in his belief in the permanence of the patriarch's excommunication.

Pope Gelasius I's reign also strained relations with the Eastern Roman Empire, particularly Emperor Anastasius I. This strained relationship had implications for the ties between Rome and the Eastern Church. Eastern bishops blamed Pope Gelasius for the confusion within the Church, and murmurs of discontent against the Pope arose from certain circles of influence in Rome, prompting him to approach the Acacian schism with a logical mindset.

At the synod of Rome in AD 494, the excommunication of one of those sent by Pope Felix III to Constantinople as his representatives, but later excommunicated by Pope Felix for mishandling their mission, was revoked. The following year, at the synod held in Rome, Gelasius described the Pope as the Vicar of Christ in a famous letter addressed to Emperor Anastasius I.

Pope Gelasius expressed this view in a letter to Emperor Anastasius I, stating that the world is ruled by two types of forces - spiritual power centered on the Pope and physical power centered on the emperor. He emphasized that while both powers originated from God, spiritual power was intrinsically superior to physical power because salvation was more crucial than earthly matters. This perspective had a profound influence on the Church in the Middle Ages.

Like his predecessors, Pope Gelasius I was unwilling to accept Constantinople's arguments that, based on the teachings of the Chalcedonian Synod, Constantinople was equal in status and glory to Rome, just below Rome in Christendom. He remained vigilant in protecting the papal prerogative from all threats.

Pope Gelasius was not only a strong ruler and pastor during his papacy but also a powerful writer and theologian. Despite his firm leadership, contemporaries praised his modesty and dedication to assisting the poor and practicing self-sacrifice in his personal life. Pope Gelasius I was laid to rest in St. Peter's Basilica on November 21, AD 496.
-edit&transl. SM

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