Political controversy in the Church is not a new thing. Ever since the Apostles and other disciples experienced disagreements about practices in the infant Church, there have been occasions of rivalry, power plays, and intrigue in dioceses and in the Church as a whole.
St. Sergius, pope of Rome from 687 to 701, certainly knew about such intrigues. Born in the Patriarchal city of Antioch, Syria, Sergius’ Christian family left Antioch, probably to escape the Arab Muslim invaders (from 638) and moved to Sicily. Sergius was educated in Palermo and then sent to study at the Schola Cantorum, or choir school, in Rome.
Sergius was ordained to the priesthood by Pope Leo II and was serving the Church of St. Susanna in Rome when Pope Conan lay dying in 687. Behind the scenes, a power struggle began with several contenders vying to succeed the pope. Knowing that the emperor had to confirm the selection of a new pope, the Archdeacon Pascal offered John, the Imperial Exarch in Ravenna, a bribe to rig the election in favor of him. The Exarch agreed and, upon the death of Pope Conan, the announcement was made for Pascal. At the same time, however, an Archpriest, Theodore, was put forward by another faction of the population. In the midst of the ensuing confusion, the majority of the people refused to recognize either Pascal or Theodore and called, instead, for Sergius. When the Exarch arrived back in Rome to demand his bribe money, he quickly agreed to the change, but insisted on receiving his “fee”, so the Roman citizens paid the money in order to restore peace and to have Sergius confirmed.
During his fourteen-year pontificate, Pope Sergius had opportunities to affect the liturgical life and missionary endeavors of the Church. He restored to the Church the bishop, clergy and people of Aquilea who had followed the Nestorian heresy, when they recanted and embraced Orthodox Christology.
After his conversion, King Cadwalla of the West Saxons in Britain gave up his kingdom and traveled to Rome to be baptized by the Pope. Sergius happily conferred this sacrament, giving the king the baptismal name Peter, and when the newly-illumined servant of God died shortly thereafter, the Pope arranged for his burial in the church of his name saint.
In 695, Pope Sergius consecrated St. Willibrord to be bishop for the Frisian people who had accepted Christianity in 678. According to a liturgical calendar assembled by St. Willibrord, Pope Sergius is credited with extending to the West celebrations of feast days in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Purification or Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, Annunciation, Dormition or Assumption, the Nativity of the Theotokos) which had begun in the East. He also instituted the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
But there was to be more controversy and intrigue during the pontificate of St. Sergius. The Emperor Justinian II called for another Council to approve disciplinary canons, something which had not happened at the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils. This “Quinisext” (fifth/sixth) Council, also called “in Trullo” from the name of the Trullus, the building in which it was held, enacted one hundred and two canons. The more than two hundred bishops who attended were all from the East and the canons reflect their perspective.
Although many of the canons were not controversial (establishing minimum ages for ordinations, prohibiting laymen from serving themselves Communion), there were several which greatly affected the unrepresented dioceses of the West. One ruling would have elevated the position of the Patriarch of Constantinople to that equal to the Patriarch of Rome. Fasting on Saturdays and celebrating the Liturgy on week days in Lent, which had long been customs in the West, were prohibited, and mandatory clerical celibacy, which Western bishops advocated, was condemned. The depiction of Christ as the Lamb of God was to be forbidden.
Pope Sergius refused to sign the decrees, responding that disciplinary canons which violated long-held local traditions should not be issued by one segment of the Church. The Emperor sent his captain of the body guard, Zacharias, to force the Pope to sign or to bring him back as a prisoner. The attitude of the people was made clear when Zacharias only escaped with his life through the mercy of the Pope who let him hide under his own bed!
Surrounded by mosaic images of Christ as the Lamb of God in the ancient churches of Rome and Ravenna, Sergius chose to add the beautiful Agnus Dei chant to the Liturgy (“O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us”) to reinforce St. John’s words referring to Christ. He maintained the right of Western bishops to continue their practice of Lenten weekday Masses, fasting whenever they deemed appropriate (there was great divergence at this time among the various Western dioceses), and upheld the desire for clerical celibacy although, even as late as the 12th century, this practice was not completely accepted in the West.
Justinian was soon deposed as emperor and several years later, a compromise was reached in which Western bishops agreed to accept those rulings which were not contrary to their local practice. However, this controversial Council – and the intrigue associated with it – served as a precursor to the later divisions which would eventually lead to schism.
Having served the Church faithfully and well, St. Sergius died on September 8, 701 and was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. His feast day on our calendar is September 7.
As Western Rite Orthodox Christians, we can be grateful to St. Sergius for enriching our liturgical heritage and for insisting on the right to maintain ancient regional customs. We ask for the intercessions of St. Sergius, as we seek to live out our Orthodox faith in a Western manner.
Sources: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Venerable Bede; Catholic Encyclopedia; The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, Leo Donald Davis; Greek East and Latin West, Andrew Louth; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.