Today is the feast day of Saint Celestine I. Ora pro nobis.
Nothing is known of his early history except that he was a Roman and that his father’s name was Priscus. He is said to have lived for a time at Milan with St. Ambrose; the first notice, however, concerning him that is known is in a document of St. Innocent I, in the year 416, where he is spoken of as Celestine the Deacon. In 418 St. Augustine wrote to him (Epist., lxii) in very reverential language. He succeeded St. Boniface I as pope, 10 Sept., 422 (according to Tillemont, though the Bollandists say 3 Nov.).
His first official act was to confirm the condemnation of an African bishop who had been convicted of grave crimes. He wrote also to the bishops of the provinces of Vienne and Narbonne in Gaul to correct several abuses which had followed upon errors in doctrine. He stipulated, among other things, that absolution or reconciliation should never be refused to any dying sinner who sincerely asked it; for repentance depends not so much on time as on the heart, which can be changed in a moment when God so wills.
A strong friendship seems to have existed between Celestine and Augustine, and after the death of the latter in 430, Celestine wrote a long letter to the bishops of Gaul on the sanctity, learning and zeal of the holy doctor, and forbade all attacks upon his memory on the part of the Semipelagians, who under the leadership of the famous ascetic, John Cassian, were then beginning to gain influence. Though his lot was cast in stormy times, for the Manichaeans, Donatists, Noviatians, and Pelagians were troubling the peace of the Church, while the barbarian hordes were beginning their inroads into the heart of the empire, Celestine’s firm but gentle character enabled him to meet successfully all the exigencies of his position.
We see him everywhere upholding the rights of the Church and the dignity of his office. In this he was aided by Placidia, who, in the name of her youthful son, Valentinian III, banished from Rome the Manichaeans and other heretics who were disturbing the peace. Celestine not only excluded Coelestius, the companion and chief disciple of Pelagius, from Italy, but procured the further condemnation of the sect from the Council of Ephesus, while through his instrumentality St. Germanus of Auxerre and St. Lupus of Troyes, who had been sent to Britain in 429, the native land of Pelagius, by the Gallic bishops, succeeded in extirpating the error from its native soil.
Saint Celestine assembled a synod at Rome in 430, by which the writings of Nestorius were examined, and the heresiarch’s obstinate errors in maintaining in Christ two persons, a divine and a human, were condemned. The Pope pronounced sentence of excommunication against Nestorius, and deposed him. Being informed that in Great Britain, the seeds of the Pelagian heresy, denying the necessity of grace, were spreading, Saint Celestine sent there Saint Germanus of Auxerre, whose zeal and ministry happily prevented the threatening danger.
The last official act of Celestine, the sending of St. Patrick to Ireland, perhaps surpasses all the rest in its far-reaching consequences for good. He had already sent (431) Palladius as bishop to the “Scots [i.e. Irish] believing in Christ.” But Palladius son abandoned Ireland and died the year following in Britain. St. Patrick, who had previously been refused, now received the long-coveted commission only a few days before the death of Celestine, who thus becomes a sharer in the conversion of the race that in the next few centuries was to accomplish such vast works by its countless missionaries and scholars in the conversion and civilization of the barbarian world. I
In the local affairs of the Roman Church, Celestine manifested great zeal. He restored and embellished the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which had suffered from the Gothic pillage of Rome, also the church of St. Sabina, besides decorating the Cemetery of St. Priscilla with paintings of the Council Ephesus. The precise date of his death is uncertain. His feast is kept in the Latin Church on 6 April, the day on which his body was placed in the Catacombs of St. Priscilla whence it was transferred in 820 by Pope St. Paschal I to the church of Sta Prassede, though the cathedral of Mantua likewise claims his relics. In the Greek Church where he is highly honoured for his condemnation of Nestorius, his feast falls on 8 April.
The extant writings of St. Celestine consist of sixteen letters, the contents of many of which have been indicated above, and a fragment of a discourse on Nestorianism delivered in the Roman Synod of 430. The “Capitula Coelestini”, the ten decisions on the subject of grace which have played such a part in the history of Augustinianism, are no longer attributed to his authorship. For centuries they were affixed as an integral part to his letter to the Bishops of Gaul, but at present are considered as most probably the work of St. Prosper of Aquitaine. Anastasius Bibliothecarius attributes to him several other constitutions but with little authority. Doubtful also is the statement of the “Liber Pontificalis” that Celestine added the Introit to the Mass.
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff