Celestine I, Pope, St.

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Pontificate: Sept. 10, 422 to July 27, 432. The Liber Pontificalis says that he was by birth a Campanian, son of Priscus; he was probably born between 375 and 380. He apparently migrated to Rome and became a member of the city clergy, serving as deacon under Innocent I (401417). In his Ep. 192, which was written in 418, Augustine mentions a letter Celestine wrote to him. Significantly, the letter was written during the pontificate of Zosimus (417418), when Roman-African relations had descended to a new low. The deacon Celestine was clearly a man of some influence. He remained loyal to Boniface I (418422) in his struggle with Eulalius and succeeded him in 422.

Celestine took a very hard line against heresy. He used the civil authority to help him confiscate the churches of the Novatianists, and he supported the imperial policy of expelling the Pelagians. He opposed Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinopole (428431) when he gave sanctuary to the Pelagian leaders, Caelestius and Julian Eclanum. This struggle against Pelagianism would have far-reaching consequences later in his pontificate.

Celestine had an elevated view of Roman primacy. This view was gaining ground in the West, but the Africans rejected the validity of any external authority. A deposed African bishop named Antoninus had appealed to Boniface I, who had died before the matter could be settled, and Celestine inherited the problem. Augustine (Ep.209) made a strong case against Antoninus to his old acquaintance, and Celestine apparently let the matter drop. However, when a second African, the rogue priest Apiarius, appealed to Rome, Celestine heard the appeal and ordered the Africans to reinstate him, sending a legation headed by the overbearing bishop Faustinus to see that this was done. Later at an African council in 426 Apiarius confessed his misdeeds. The triumphant African bishops wrote to the pope to remind him of their right to handle their own affairs and told him never again to send Faustinus to Africa.

Celestine had more success in Gaul, where he weakened the metropolitan status of the bishops of Arles and countered the monks of Lérins who proposed a modified Pelagianism (Semi-Pelagianism) to ward off Augustinian predestinationism. The pope also got the bishops of Illyricum (in the Balkan Peninsula) to accept the authority of his vicar, thus checking the influence of Constantinople in that area.

The central event of his pontificate was the Nestorian controversy. The patriarch of Constantinople had denied that Mary, the mother of Jesus, could be called Theotokos ("God-bearer"), on the logical grounds that no human could be the parent of the deity. However, the title had been in use for centuries among the Eastern Christians, and Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (412444) and a great theologian, argued that the human and divine were so united in the person of Christ that Mary could indeed be called the Mother of God. Unfortunately for Nestorius and Celestine, Cyril was also a consummate and brutal ecclesiastical politician who saw a chance to depose a hated rival, just as his uncle Theophilus of Alexandria had deposed another Constantinopolitan patriarch, John Chrysostom, in 403. Cyril moved quickly to revive the Rome-Alexandria alliance, so prominent in the fourth century.

Nestorius proved an easy target. His sanctuary for the Pelagians had infuriated the pope, who also resented Constantinople's primatial claims. Nestorius wrote to Celestine in Greek, which he could not read, while Cyril sedulously wrote in Latin, listing Nestorius's many errors, a view supported by the papal representatives in the Eastern capital. In 430 a Roman synod condemned Nestorius, and Celestine entrusted the execution of the synod's decision to Cyril, who was delighted to have papal support.

However, Nestorius was the emperor's appointee, and the eastern bishops knew Cyril's concerns were not just theological. The Emperor Theodosius II (408450) thought it best to call an ecumenical council to meet in Ephesus in 431. Celestine found himself in a bind. In his view the Roman condemnation had settled the matter, but Roman primacy carried little weight with the Eastern bishops and none with the emperor. Celestine had to send legates, but he instructed them to work with Cyril, to watch for any threat to papal primacy, and to reject the council's decisions if they differed from Rome's.

Cyril soon showed what he really thought of Roman primacy. Tired of waiting for the legates, he opened the council on June 22, and engineered Nestorius's condemnation for heresy and deposition from office. The Syrian bishops, opponents of Cyril, arrived soon after and held their own council, which rehabilitated Nestorius. When the papal legates finally arrived, they learned that two councils had been held without them. Cyril diplomatically held a third session, which repeated the results of the session on June 22, and with which the legates agreed. Since the Council of Ephesus agreed with the Roman synod, Celestine tactfully ignored Cyril's machinations.

Celestine's concern for heresy had great importance for the British Isles. Pelagius was a Briton, and Rome feared that his teachings had spread to his home church and that the British bishops could not stop it. In 429 a deacon named Palladius urged the pope to send Bishop Germanus of Auxerre to Britain to combat Pelagianism. He enjoyed marginal success because he had to return in 447 during the pontificate of Leo I (440461). In 431, Celestine sent a bishop named Palladius to be the first bishop of the few Irish faithful. Scholars conjecture that he was the deacon who had urged the sending of Germanus to Britain, reasoning that Rome was concerned that Pelagianism could spread from Britain to the incipient church in Ireland and that this deacon was already experienced in dealing with the heresy. Palladius thus anticipated the famous Bishop Patricius (Saint Patrick) by a few years, but nothing is known of his work in Ireland.

Celestine saw to the rebuilding of the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, damaged in the Gothic pillage of 410, and he urged the building of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, probably the finest example of classical architecture in the Late Roman period. He also introduced psalmody into the Roman liturgy, according to the Liber Pontificalis.

Feast: April 6.

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[j. f. kelly]