On this day: St. Martin I, Pope and Martyr

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Martin I, the last martyred pope.

"Gregory was unquestionably the greatest Pope of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and arguably the greatest Pope ever. . . . In Rome itself, however, there were many who wished to forget or even to repudiate his legacy. . . . These divisions in the Roman Church were highlighted by the rapid turnover of popes in the first half of the seventh century: there were ten elections between Gregory's death in 604 and Martin I's accession in 649. Recurrent elections had the effect of drawing attention to another striking feature of the period, the subordination of the papacy to the emperors at Constantinople."

--Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 2006 edition.

Pope Theodore I opposed imperial religious policy, and when he died in May 649, he was succeeded by a former apocrisiary in Constantinople who shared his views -- Pope Martin I (649-53). "Martin at once demonstrated his courage and his commitment to Theodore's policies by refusing to apply for the imperial mandate confirming his appointment as pope: he was consecrated without it two day after his election. Preparation had begun under Theodore for a synod at the Lateran to condemn monothelitism, and Martin went ahead with it."

There were other problems for 7th-century popes, of course: "Slav hordes, above all the Avars," . . . Persian armies who "destroyed the Holy Places and carried off the relic of the True Cross," and "a great new religious movement, Islam". But it was Martin's rejection of the "Ekthesis", a degree issued by the Emperor "imposing 'monothelite' (one-will) teaching as the official doctrine of the empire" that led to his martyrdom.

Following the synod, one "of the largest and, thanks to the Eastern presence, one of the most theologically sophisticated councils ever held in the West", the emperor, Constans, ordered Pope Martin's arrest. "Chronically ill and savagely maltreated by his gaolers (at one stage, while suffering from dysentery, he was held for forty-seven days without being allowed to wash), Martin was taken to Constantinople. . . . The Pope was duly found guilty of treason. He was stripped of his vestments, dragged in shackles through the streets and publicly flogged. . . . he was deported to the Crimea where he died in September 655 from the hardships he had endured. . . . One of the worst elements in Martin's suffering was the knowledge that while he still lived the Roman Church had bowed to imperial commands, and had elected a new pope."

--Duffy, p. 76.

Click here to read "St. Martin I", in The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, by Horace K. Mann, London: Kegan Paul, 1902.

Fr. Mann concludes the sad story of the martyred pope by quoting a hymn "of no great merit", but written in "Sapphics" (verses composed of a dactyl and a spondee)".

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