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Pope Sabinian, The Despised Pope

Sabinian was born in Biera, near Viterbo, in the central part of Italy, about 530 AD. His father’s name was Bonus, but other than that nothing is known of his youth. The first decade of his life was the beginning of a complex weather pattern which dictated Sabinian, the Church and, indeed, most of the northern hemisphere for several centuries. It began with two large volcanic eruptions thousands of miles away from Italy, and caused a serious cooling, causing rains and floods, famines and plagues for the rest of the century and on.

An older man already, Sabinian was named cardinal deacon 15 October 590. He apparently was well known to Pope Gregory the Great for he was sent by Gregory to be Apostolic nuncio to Constantinople in 593. At this time, the Byzantine emperor was Maurice and the Patriarch of Constantinople was John IV. John had labeled himself “Ecumenial (Universal) Patriarch”. This was seen to be in direct opposition to the pope. Gregory wanted the label removed and his position acknowledged. Unfortunately, Sabinian was either not astute enough for the rulers of Byzantium or he was simply not firm enough with the Patriarch. But, in either case, he failed in his mission and was recalled about 597. However, Pope Gregory kept Sabinian on at the papal court.

The great pope died March 12, 604 and Sabinian was voted to replace him shortly afterward. However, due to the need to get permission from the emperor before consecrating the new pope, six months went by before he could ascend the throne. He was consecrated 13 September 604.

Many accomplishments had been made by the Church in the years of Pope Gregory and Sabinian had a vastly expanded Church. Irish missionaries had gone to Scotland and England to preach. St. Augustine of Canterbury, an emissary of Gregory’s had finally converted King Aethelbert of Kent. And the monastery of St. Catherine was being built on Mt. Sinai. This pope added two small changes to the Church. Gregory had appointed monks to high clerical places; Sabinian appointed secular priests and, indeed, consecrated 27 bishops during his short reign. He also instituted the ringing of bells to mark the canonical hours and to mark the consecration of the Eucharist.

On the other hand, smallpox had shown up for the first time, there were occasional outbreaks of another plague and the Lombards were not living up to their truce and were invading again. The wheat and vine harvest of 605 AD was bad, even on the thousands of acres of papal land. Sabinian was obligated to pay the Lombards to stop their invasion, limiting the money he had to handle the famine. Whereas Gregory had opened the doors of the granaries to the poor, Sabinian charged the people for the food. This infuriated the citizens of Rome.

After a reign of less than two years, Sabinian died, in his mid-70s, on 22 February, 606. The typical papal funeral procession went around the city walls and on to St. Peter’s. An angry mob blocked the procession and the mourners were obligated to take an alternate route and go to the Lateran, instead. He was buried in an unknown location.

Pope Sabinian was a counterfoil to the popular Pope Gregory. But he was not completely at fault. The unreasonable weather caused an unreasonable economy. We should feel compassion for the man who could not follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.


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