Today is the feast day of Pope Saint Nicholas the Great. Ora pro nobis.
“From the time the Christian religion began to be spread, she has held unchangeable and taught uncorrupted throughout the world the doctrines which she has received once and for all from her patron and founder, St. Peter.” Quote Pope Nicholas the Great
By Ed Masters
Pope Saint Nicholas the Great is overshadowed on his Feast Day of November 13 by St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Didacus (aka San Diego for whom the city in California is named) and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini on the New Calendar, as well as by Popes Leo I and Gregory I and Saints such as Basil, Gertrude and Albertus whom the Church has designated with the title of “The Great” and but in the degeneration of this dark age in which mediocrity is considered great, that which is of poor quality or would disgrace a privy wall is considered tolerable or acceptable, and that which is excellent is something considered to be ashamed of, Pope Nicholas I truly deserves the title of “The Great” along with the aforementioned individuals.
He was noted for good qualities even while he was young; his holiness, benevolence, intelligence, ability, and gifts as a speaker would benefit him throughout his life and attracted the attention of Popes Sergius II, Leo IV and Benedict II. His zeal for justice, protection of the poor, the oppressed, victims of false accusations and great inner strength and seemingly boundless energy showed that he was the right man for the Papacy at the right time.
A Roman from a distinguished family, educated at the Lateran and son of Theodore the Defensor, Nicholas was elected to the Papacy on April 24, 858 A.D. He inherited a Church and a situation that was in quite a mess. The Empire of Charlemagne was in shambles due in great part to the squabbling of his successors. Just twelve years before his becoming Pontiff Rome itself had been sacked by Arab Muslim invaders in 846 A.D., carrying away all the gold and silver from St. Peter’s Basilica. Christendom was also under threat by invaders from the East, the Bulgars and the Magyars, as well as the Vikings from the north. Corruption had also plagued the Church itself, with crooked nobles removing devout bishops and replacing them with hand picked toadies. The clergy in the East also were responsible for similar situations; the Patriarch Ignatius was unlawfuly deposed in the year 857 A.D. and replaced him with a man named Photius.
Pope Nicholas sent a letter to the patriarchs of the East in the year 863 calling upon them and all of their bishops to refuse any kind of recognition to Photius, whom he excommunicated one year later. It partly read the following: “It is now clearly demonstrated that Photius took part in the schism. He left the world to be ordained bishop by Gregory of Syracuse, who had been deposed and excommunicated some time before. Like a thief in the night who enters the flock to steal away sheep, he usurped the See of Constantinople from our Brother Patriarch Ignatius. Afterward, he joined those who had condemned our Predecessor of happy memory, Pope Benedict. Breaking his word, he convened a council in which he dared to anathematize and depose our Brother Patriarch Ignatius. Acting against the law of the peoples [Jus gentium], he corrupted the emissaries of this Holy See and obliged them to scorn and disobey our commands. He persecuted – and to this date still persecutes – the Church, and ceaselessly inflicts terrible sufferings on the Holy Patriarch Ignatius, our Brother.”
“By the authority of Almighty God, the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul and all the Saints, and the six General Councils, the Holy Ghost pronounces this judgment through us: Let this Photius, guilty of so many crimes, be deprived of every priestly honor and every ecclesiastical function.
“Let him be excluded without hope of re-entering the communion of the Church. Let him be anathematized without receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, except in danger of death.”
As for the western part of the Church, Nicholas also would brook no treachery or knavishness from either clergy or royalty. He stood firmly for the defense of God’s law against fraudelent or nefarious bishops. For example, Archbishop John of Ravenna behaved as a tyrant towards the natives of that area, was guilty of extortion towards other bishops and going so far as to threaten them with violence, illegally imprisoned priests and had the audacity to falsify documentation to support his claims against the Roman See and mistreated Papal legates. Three times he was ordered to appear before a Papal tribunal and refused, whereupon he was excommunicated. He submitted to Pope Nicholas, then signed and agreement with the excommunicated (by Pope Nicholas) Archbishops of Trier and Cologne and was excommunicated and reconciled yet again.
When conflict broke out between Pope Nicholas I and Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims concerning the right of the Papacy to take cognizance of legal issues that were outstanding, the deposition of Bishop Rothbad of Soissons or elevating the cleric Wulfad to the Archepiscopal See of Bourges, Hincmar submitted to the Pope.
He was also vigilant in upholding the sanctity of marriage to the point where even royalty backed down to his decrees. When Ingiltrud, the wife of Count Boso, left him for one of her lovers, Nicholas ordered the bishops in the domain of Charles the Bold to excommunicate her unless she returned to her husband. She refused when ordered to appear before the Synod of Milan so she was put under said ban. Likewise, when King Lothair of Lorraine wanted to put away his wife Theutberga and marry his mistress Waldrada and had the backing of the venal bishops of Cologne and Trier as well as Lorraine, Nicholas overruled the Synods of Aachen and Metz as well as deposing the Archbishops of Cologne and Trier. They appealed to the Emperor Louis II who marched on Rome and had the city under siege for two days and Pope Nicholas was confined for that same time period in St. Peter’s without food. When he became sick with a fever during this siege, Louis II, reflecting on his actions, reconciled with the Pope and marched away from Rome. Nicholas continued to try and reconciled Lothair and Theutberga.
Pope Nicholas also intervened when Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bold married Baldwin the Count of Flanders, without her father’s approval. Frankish bishops excommunicated her and Archbishop Hincmar sided against her also but Nicholas urged them to be lenient with her, in order so that people be free to marry whom they chose. In this and many other matters, Pope Nicholas took action against malfeasant bishops.
Pope Nicholas also encouraged missionary efforts to the Bulgarians, who were vascillating between joining the Western or Eastern branches of the Church having been converted by Greek missionaries even though the Schism would not occur for nearly two more centuries (The Bulgarians eventually decided to join the Easterners even after Pope Nicholas sent them legates and wrote regular letters to them answering any questions they had.) He also encouraged St. Ansgar and his successor Rembert in their quest to convert the Scandinavians, going so far as to write a letter to Danish King Eric the younger to give up his pagan religion and the worship of Odin and Thor, among others. He rebuilt and endowed a number of churches and sought to encourage the religious life, leading by example; Roman citizens and his comtemporaries noted his asceticism, holiness, and his prayerful habits. If there was any area in which he failed, it was his attempts at keeping the peace between the descendants of Charlemagne, namely Charles the Bald and Louis the German and their sons.
Pope St. Nicholas the Great, ora pro nobis.
Image: This illustration is from The Lives and Times of the Popes by Chevalier Artaud de Montor, New York: The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911. It was originally published in 1842. (3)