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St. John I, Pope

St. John I, Pope

Feast date: May 18

On May 18, the Catholic Church honors the first “Pope John” in its history. Saint John I was a martyr for the faith, imprisoned and starved to death by a heretical Germanic king during the sixth century.

He was a friend of the renowned Christian philosopher Boethius, who died in a similar manner.

Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians also honor Pope St. John I, on the same date as the Roman Catholic Church.

The future Pope John I was born in Tuscany, and served as an archdeacon in the Church for several years. He was chosen to become the Bishop of Rome in 523, succeeding Pope St. Hormisdas.

During his papal reign Italy was ruled by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric. Like many of his fellow tribesmen, the king adhered to the Arian heresy, holding that Christ was a created being rather than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Arianism had originated in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire during the fourth century, and subsequently spread among the Western Goths. By the sixth century the heresy was weak in the East, but not dead.

In 523, the Byzantine Emperor Justin I ordered Arian clergy to surrender their churches into orthodox Catholic hands. In the West, meanwhile, Theodoric was angered by the emperor’s move, and responded by trying to use the Pope’s authority for his own ends.

Pope John was thus placed in an extremely awkward position. Despite the Pope’s own solid orthodoxy, the Arian king seems to have expected him to intercede with the Eastern emperor on behalf of the heretics. John’s refusal to satisfy King Theodoric would eventually lead to his martyrdom.

John did travel to Constantinople, where he was honored as St. Peter’s successor by the people, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Church’s legitimate Eastern patriarchs. (The Church of Alexandria had already separated by this point.) The Pope crowned the emperor, and celebrated the Easter liturgy at the Hagia Sophia Church in April of 526.

But while John could urge Justin to treat the Arians somewhat more mercifully, he could not make the kind of demands on their behalf that Theodoric expected.

The gothic king, who had recently killed John’s intellectually accomplished friend Boethius (honored by the Church as St. Severinus Boethius, on Oct. 23), was furious with the Pope when he learned of his refusal to support the Arians in Constantinople.

Already exhausted by his travels, the Pope was imprisoned in Ravenna and deprived of food. The death of St. John I came on or around May 18, which became his feast day in the Byzantine Catholic tradition and in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, he is celebrated on May 27, the date on which his exhumed body was returned to Rome for veneration in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Saint John I

Drawing of Saint John I
Image: U.S. Archives, Book Reader Images | Unknown

Saint of the Day for May 18

(c. 470 – May 18, 526)
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Saint John I’s Story

Pope John I inherited the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Italy had been ruled for 30 years by an emperor who espoused the heresy, though he treated the empire’s Catholics with toleration. His policy changed at about the time the young John was elected pope.

When the eastern emperor began imposing severe measures on the Arians of his area, the western emperor forced John to head a delegation to the East to soften the measures against the heretics. Little is known of the manner or outcome of the negotiations—designed to secure continued toleration of Catholics in the West.

On his way home, John was imprisoned at Ravenna because the emperor had begun to suspect that John’s friendship with his eastern rival might lead to a conspiracy against his throne. Shortly after his imprisonment, John died, apparently from the treatment he received in prison.

John’s body was transported to Rome and he was buried in the Basilica of St. Peter.


Reflection

We cannot choose the issues for which we have to suffer and perhaps die. John I suffered because of a power-conscious emperor. Jesus suffered because of the suspicions of those who were threatened by his freedom, openness, and powerlessness. “If you find that the world hates you, know it has hated me before you” (John 15:18).


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Christianity Is a Complete Way of Life

Christianity isn’t an abstract philosophy. It’s a complete way of life. Consequently, profession of belief in Christianity isn’t simply an intellectual nod of the head, but a commitment to live in such a way as to express concretely one’s convictions in the everyday world. Such engagement demands a sense of direction, a sense of individual mission and purpose. This is supplied by the particular vocation each of us is given. When we discover our own unique calling, regardless of what it may be, we find the spiritual true north by which to plot our course.

—from the book Perfect Joy: 30 Days with Francis of Assisi  by Kerry Walters

God's Presence in Our Neighbors

The heart of Christianity is the great and incomprehensible truth that God’s true majesty, God’s authentic immensity, consists in God’s willingness to become lowly and forsaken, to pitch a tent among us and become one of us. God’s presence is sometimes revealed in lightning and thunder and smoke on Mount Sinai, but it’s much more likely to show up in the faces of our neighbors. And not just our respectable neighbors, either, but those whom we generally go out of our way to avoid: the poor, the ill, the imprisoned, the aged, the weak, and the despised. In their faces, if we but have eyes to see, we encounter God. In their lowliness and helplessness we discover the real majesty of a God of love and self-sacrifice.

—from the book Perfect Joy: 30 Days with Francis of Assisi  by Kerry Walters

Our Physical Surroundings Are Holy

We who tend to think of nature as nothing more than a usable commodity can learn a great deal from Francis’s relationship with the environment. He teaches us the liberating truth that our physical surroundings are holy because they aren’t purely physical. Instead, they’re permeated through and through with the Spirit and beauty of God. In a mysterious way that the mind can’t fathom but the heart knows full well, we don’t just dwell in God’s world. In dwelling in God’s world, we also abide in God himself.

—from the book Perfect Joy: 30 Days with Francis of Assisi  by Kerry Walters

Using Our Creativity for Others

A Christian celebration of humanity consists in lovingly midwifing our fellow humans into full being. One of our God-given endowments is creativity, the ability to cooperate with God in the inauguration of the kingdom. We’re called to use this creativity in nurturing our brothers and sisters as full members of that kingdom, and we do this by going out of our way to help them recognize and affirm themselves as images of God. In concrete terms, this means performing the acts of charity listed in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew: clothing the naked, tending the sick, visiting the imprisoned, giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty. Celebrating the sheer existence of others often demands that we do the dirty work of easing the material burdens that inhibit them from arriving at a conscious appreciation of their own holiness.

—from the book Perfect Joy: 30 Days with Francis of Assisi  by Kerry Walters

Being in Love with God

Slavish imitation is not what holiness is about, but rather it’s about learning to love God in our own time and place with its own sensibilities and ways of following in the footsteps of Jesus with all our heart and mind and soul. It’s about doing and making choices commensurate with our own capacities, our own strength and/or weakness of mind and body. We don’t have to be nutty to be a saint, but being in love with God will sometimes move us to do things that others will consider nutty or unbalanced.

—from Surrounded by Love: Seven Teachings from Saint Francis by Murray Bodo, OFM

 

Becoming a Portable Peacemaker

Mutual giving and receiving is, I believe, the bedrock of Franciscan peacemaking. By overcoming shame or fear, or whatever it is that is holding you back from reaching out to the poor and broken ones, you enter a startling world of sweetness of soul that is not just self-serving but that accomplishes a profound reconciliation of opposites that makes it possible to experience a new, unexpected bond with the other. And you want to stay there, not necessarily in that physical place but in that spiritual and psychological space where the lion and the lamb lie down together. Nor is the bond something static. It only endures if you continue to overcome new barriers, cross new and fearsome barriers so that you yourself become the place of reconciliation wherever you go. That kind of portable peacemaker was who St. Francis was.

—from Surrounded by Love: Seven Teachings from Saint Francis by Murray Bodo, OFM

 

Letting God Change Our Hearts

That is the Franciscan challenge in our own time: contemplative seeing, affective response, practical help, and sustained assistance as the way of restoring God’s house which is falling into ruins. It is Jesus’s own prescription for learning to love. In contemplative prayer we learn to love God who created all things and made them our brothers and sisters. And when we begin to see others for what they are in God’s eyes, we are moved to compassion. And when we then reach out to those of our brothers and sisters in distress, the love of God becomes the love of others, all of whom are beloved of God.

In responding, we ourselves become a story, not just an empty shell that hung around for a number of years and then disappeared, leaving behind no story of goodness worth telling because there was no significant act of the will to love our neighbor. So, repairing God’s house is not about stones and mortar as Francis once thought when he heard the voice of Christ. It’s about changing our hearts, or rather, letting God change our hearts, a process in which we become fruitful vessels of grace. For it is only repaired hearts that repair the house of God. It is only then that we can fruitfully “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

—from Surrounded by Love: Seven Teachings from Saint Francis by Murray Bodo, OFM

 

Moved to Do God's Will

Absence was beginning to be replaced by presence, silence with voices. Or were the voices only in his head? Whatever. They moved him to act, to do positive things with his life, a pattern Francis would follow from then on. Once he knew God’s will, whether from some mystical voice or from listening to the scriptures, he would immediately try to live it out. He was filled with what theologians called, “devotion,” an alacrity in doing God’s will. And that is how Francis began to change. He knew now that Christ is to be found in unexpected places and people. He had experienced the abstract God in the person of Jesus Christ who was the incarnation of the God he thought had abandoned him. And he had experienced this Jesus in the most excluded and feared people of his time, the lepers who, instead of bad things, brought him the greatest good, Jesus Christ. And now he had heard the voice of this Christ. It came from his crucified image in an abandoned church. It was a voice that gave him his life’s task: “Go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruins.”

—from Surrounded by Love: Seven Teachings from Saint Francis