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Pope Symmachus is, unfortunately, more well known for the difficulty he had holding on to his reign than for the things he did to earn him the name "saint". He was alive during difficult times.

Symmachus was born in Sardinia, the son of a man named Fortunatus. The family was probably pagan, for Symmachus was baptized in Rome. He rose up the ranks of clergy quickly and was archdeacon under Pope Anastasius II.

If you will remember, Pope Anastasius II was not a very good arbitrator and he left the East-West schism in place at his death. Symmachus inherited that schism at his election, November 22, 498. This election took place at the papal church, St. John Lateran, attended by many of the higher clergy. Despite the announcement of the election, Laurentius, the archpriest of the small basilica of Santa Prassede, in Rome, was elected hours later. One of the groups which supported Laurentius was a number of Byzantine sympathizers, including Emperor, Anastasius I.

Both of the elected men turned to the Ostrogoth king, Theodoric, to arbitrate. This shows that the Church was controlled to some extent by the state. Theodoric held an investigation and declared Symmachus the valid pope.

A synod was called for, immediately, to be held March 1, 499. It was attended by 72 bishops and all the priests in Rome, including Laurentius. At the synod, Symmachus assigned Laurentius to the diocese of Nuceria in Campania (around Naples). Some say Symmachus was feeling sympathetic towards Laurentius and others said he was retaliating. One new discipline was declared during the synod: a ruling that any cleric who tries to gain votes for a papal election during the lifetime of a pope, or has conferences for such, is deposed and excommunicated.

You would think that was the end of the contest between the two men, but it was not. Senator Festus, a supporter of Laurentius, and of the Henotikon document, accused Symmachus of the crime of celebrating Easter according to the old Roman calendar, rather than the Byzantine calendar. King Theodoric called the pope to his capital, Arimium. Once there, Symmachus found other indictments against him such as unchastity and misuse of church property. He ran off with a companion. This was seen as an admission of guilt. In answer to that action, Laurentius was brought back to Rome and occupied the Lateran church, while Symmachus had to occupy the diocesan church, St. Peter's. Laurentius had some difficulty holding on to his supporters, since a sizable minority abandoned him.

This was probably antagonizing to the king. So, the next year, Theodoric, urged by Festus and friends, appointed Peter, the bishop of Altinum (now near Venice) to be the "Apostolic Visitor" and to celebrate the Easter, 502 AD Mass, instead of the pope. Peter was also to assume the administration of the Papal See pending another synod in May or July. Meanwhile, Peter took Laurentius' side.

At this synod, Symmachus insisted that the presence of another bishop running the See implied that the see was vacant, which meant that he was perceived as guilty even before a hearing. Many of the attendees wanted Peter gone from the synod. But he could not leave without Theodoric's permission, which was not forthcoming. Hence, there was a deadlock. Bishops left and others asked for a change of venue.

Theodoric refused to change the venue and required a new synod September 1. Days before, the king assured the synod would remain safe. Accusers insisted that Symmachus was guilty and should be proclaimed so. As Symmachus and his supporters walked to the meeting place, a mob attacked them and killed several. Symmachus and others ran off and hid in St. Peter's. They would not come out, even after deputies of the synod came three times to beg him. The bishops petitioned Theodoric to dissolve the synod. Theodoric refused and ordered a resolution.

The bishops, probably fearing for their lives, moved the synod to Palma, Campania, in late October. Their ultimate decision was: Since Symmachus was the successor of St. Peter, one can not pass judgement on him. And all who abandoned Symmachus were encouraged to reunite. Although the document was signed, Theodoric refused to support the decisions.

So, once again, Laurentius returned to Rome and ruled as pope with help from his main supporter, Festus. There was mob violence by supporters of both sides. It took until 506 before Theodoric would recall Laurentius, probably a political play, since Theodoric was supported by the Byzantine emperor who also supported the Monophysite document, the Henotikon.

Symmachus had eight years left to be a productive pope. In that time, he defended the opponents of the Henotikon to both the emperor and the king. He welcomed all orthodox bishops who were persecuted. He warned bishops and priests to not commune with heretics. He took measures against the Manichaeans, burning their books and expelling them from Rome. He built St. Andrews Church near St. Peters and the Basilica of St. Agnes. He adorned the Church of St. Peter, rebuilt the Church of St. Sylvester and Martinus and improved the catacomb of Jordani. He even built asylums for the poor outside the city walls. Under Symmachus, the Church sent money and clothing to the bishops and faithful of Africa and Sardinia who had been exiled by African vandals. He ransomed prisoners who had been held by the barbarians in North Italy and supported them for a time.

The pope died in July 514 and is buried at St. Peter's in Rome.

"The sheep should not reprehend their Pastor unless they presume that he has departed from the Faith"--Pope St. Symmachus


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