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POPE SEVERINUS, CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE

Pope Severinus spent more time waiting to be confirmed the newly elected pope by the Byzantine emperor than he did being pope.

Severinus, a Roman, was possibly descended from members of the Roman Senate. The Roman Consul in 501 was named Avienus. The father of Severinus was named Avienus. Thus, this man, whom we discuss today, was likely of the higher social class.

As was traditional, after a mourning of three days from the death of Pope Honorius, an election was held to choose a new pope. Severinus was elected around October 15, 638. But the election was not valid until Byzantine Emperor Heraclius confirmed it. So, papal ambassadors were sent to Constantinople within days to get this confirmation.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, officials were breathing a sigh of relief. War with the Persians was over. However, a new group, those of the Muslim faith, was on the move. The political world had calmed down sufficiently that the religious arguments again took center stage. Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, tried to develop a formula to merge the orthodox Chalcedonian Christianity and Monothelitism, an argument that had been going on for nearly 200 years. The former believed that Jesus had two natures and two wills. The Monothelites claimed there was only one divine nature. Sergius wrote his Ecthesis in 636. But he could not get Emperor Heraclius to sign it.

Pope Honorius was against the Ecthesis, keeping Heraclius hesitating to sign on. But Honorius died in October of 638 and Heraclius’ main objection died with him. Within two months, the emperor had signed the document, making Monothelitism the official version of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. Sergius died the same month.

Now that Heraclius had proclaimed the official stand of the empire regarding Christ’s nature, he wanted to make sure the popes followed his lead. He gave the document to Eustachius, one of the head military officers with instructions to give it to the exarch Isaac in Ravenna, the Western capital. It was assumed that the exarch could make Severius bend to the wishes of the emperor, and then the emperor would confirm the election. Severius was made of stronger stuff than that and refused to accept the Ecthesis. In return, exarch Isaac refused to confirm the election in the emperor’s name.

Isaac could not expect the emperor to accept a failure, so he tried a different approach. He commissioned Maurice, an administrative official in the Rome area, to use violence to convince Severius. Maurice found a discontented mob and established his plan. He found local soldiers and told them that Severius was withholding their wages and was putting the money in the Lateran palace. Between the mob and the soldiers, there was a rush to the palace. Somehow, Severius prevented their entry and the mob left. Maurice was not a man to be stopped. He next went to the city judges and got them to let him into the palace. Once in, he sent for Isaac. Between these two leaders and their assistants, they spent eight days looting the Lateran, and exiling the clergymen who lived there. They remembered to send a share of the riches to Emperor Heraclius.

Meanwhile, back in Constantinople, the papal envoys were still there pleading with Heraclius to confirm the election of Severius. The emperor was both ill and stubborn at this point. He had resisted all their arguments. Finally, the envoys developed a ploy to end the standoff. They suggested that Heraclius accept Severius and, in their turn, they would argue the good points of the Ecthesis and get the new pope to sign it. This seemed to satisfy the sick emperor and he confirmed the election.

It appears that Severius may have convened a synod to declare that there were two natures in Christ: both divine and human. In either case, Severius stood up to the emperor and pronounced this as faith. . Severius was followed by several popes who also held fast to the orthodox principal of two natures of Jesus Christ.

Pope Severius was old when he was elected. It was eighteen months before he was confirmed. He lasted just over two months on the throne of Peter before he died, on August 2, 640. Emperor Heraclius died a few months later, in February, 641.

If Severius and his successors had not been so strong in their understanding of the early teachings of the Faith, our Catholic Faith today would be quite different.

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