Saint Symmachus, Pope

July 19

Today is the feast day of Saint Symmachus.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Symmachus date of birth is unknown.  He died July 19, 514 of natural causes.  According to the “Liber pontificalis” (ed. Duchesne, I, 260) he was a native of Sardinia and his father was named Fortunatus. Symmachus was baptized at Rome (Thiel, “Epist. pont. rom.”, I, 702).  He entered the ranks of the clergy of Rome, and was ordained a deacon. Directly after the death of Pope Anastasius II, Symmachus was elected his successor by a majority of the Roman clergy at the Lateran Basilica on 22 November, 498. He was the 51st pope.

An anti-pope, Laurentius, was elected the same day by a minority with Byzantine sympathies and with the support of Emperor Anastasius.  King Theodoric the Great supported Symmachus who ascended to the throne. Any sort of campaigning for the papacy during the life of a sitting pope was outlawed by canon law.

In 501, Senator Festus, a supporter of Laurentius, accused Symmachus of assorted crimes.   Symmachus refused to answer the charges, claimed that secular rulers had no jurisdiction over a pope, and the Synodus Palmaris of 23 October 502 confirmed this decision. The schism with Laurentius continued for years.   At one point Theodoric installed the anti-pope in the Lateran Palace and proclaimed him the legal pontiff.  Theodoric later decided that Laurentius was too Byzantine, and had him removed.

During all the turmoil, Symmachus spent largely to support bishops of Africa who were persecuted by the Arian Vandals. He also gave aid to northern Italians who suffered from the invasions of barbarians.

Symmachus zealously defended the supporters of orthodoxy during the disorders of the Acacian schism. He defends, although without success, the opponents of the “Henotikon” in a letter to Emperor Anastasius I (491-518). At a later date many of the persecuted oriental bishops addressed themselves to the pope to whom they sent a confession of faith. Shortly after 506 the emperor sent him a letter full of invectives, to which the pope sent a firm answer, maintaining forcibly the rights and liberty of the Church (Thiel, “Epist. rom. pont.”, I, 700 sq.).

In a letter of 8 October, 512, addressed to the bishops of Illyria, the pope warned the clergy of that province not to hold communion with heretics. Soon after the beginning of his pontificate Symmachus interposed in the quarrel between the Archbishops of Arles and Vienne as to the boundaries of their respective territories. He annulled the edict issued by Anastasius II in favour of the Archbishop of Vienne and later (6 November, 513) confirmed the metropolitan rights of archbishop Caesarius of Arles, as these had been fixed by Leo I. Moreover, he granted Caesarius the privilege of wearing the pallium, the first-known instance of such a grant by the Holy See to a bishop outside of Italy.

In a letter of 11 June, 514, he appointed Caesarius to represent the interests of the Church both in Gaul and Spain, to hold synods of the bishops in certain cases, to give letters of recommendation to clergy who journeyed to Rome. More important matters were to be laid before the Holy See. In the city of Rome, according to the “Liber pontificalis”, the pope took severe measures against the Manichæans, ordered the burning of their books, and expelled them from the city. He erected or restored and adorned various churches. Thus he built a Church of St. Andrew near St. Peter’s, a Basilica of St. Agnes on the Via Aurelia, adorned the Church of St. Peter’s, completely rebuilt the Basilica of Sts. Sylvester and Martinus, and made improvements over the Catacomb of the Jordani on the Via Salaria.

He built episcopal houses (episcopia) to the right and left of the parvis of St. Peter’s. These buildings were evidently connected with the residence of the pope for several years near St. Peter’s during the disorders of the Laurentian schism. He also built asylums for the poor near the three churches of St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Laurence that were outside the city walls. The pope contributed large sums for the support of the Catholic bishops of Africa who were persecuted by the rulers of the Arian Vandals. He also aided the inhabitants of the provinces of upper Italy who suffered so sorely from the invasion of the barbarians. After his death he was buried at St. Peter’s. Symmachus is venerated in the Roman Church as a saint.


Image: Pope Symmachus, from the basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, Rome;  by Parrocchia di Santa Agnese fuori le Mura (3)



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