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from issue no. 09 - 2011

Archive of 30Giorni

The treasure to safeguard is more important than the task of custodian

Tradition according to the Letters of Pope Celestine I (422-432)

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Detail of the triumphal arch: The Divine Throne flanked by Saints Peter and Paul with the inscription <I>Xystus episcopus plebi Dei</I>, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

Detail of the triumphal arch: The Divine Throne flanked by Saints Peter and Paul with the inscription Xystus episcopus plebi Dei, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome


On the tenth of September 422 Celestine I became the new bishop of Rome. We know very little about the life of this man who rose to the throne of Peter but the few texts left to us inform us that his only reference point for his being and acting in that see was the faith he had gained from the fisherman of Galilee. The fragmentary remains of his letters, after the multiple damage suffered over the centuries by the archives of the Church of Rome, has recently appeared in a complete Italian translation, the work of Franco Guidi and published by the ‘Città nuova’ printing house. It mostly consists of his interventions in the Nestorian con­troversy before, during, and after the Council of Ephesus in 431. It is not our intention, as hounds of heresies, to investigate the error of Nestor, condemned at that Council. The aim, rather, is to bring out the reasons that guided Celestine.


The faith handed on by the apostles in all its fullness and clarity must be safeguarded from additions and deletions

What first strikes one about Celestine’s approach to the question is that he did not involve himself even minimally with the theological reasons Nestor gives for preferring the title Christotòkos (mother of Christ) to that of Theotòkos (mother of God). This was mined territory. The point, however, was that above all it was not part of the competence of Rome’s charisma, whose originality one might say, was not to offer theological originality, not to offer its own theological solutions. Celestine kept to the Apostolic creed which simply affirms that the only‑begotten Son of God was made flesh by Mary.

At the same time Celestine had learned from past experience. At the beginning of his letter to Nestor in August 430 he went over the recent events in the See of Constantinople: “After his death [that of Atticus, bishop of Constantinople from 406 to 425] our concern was very great, since we wondered whether his successor would succeed him in the faith as well, since good rarely lasts long. Indeed it is often succeeded and replaced by the bad. Nevertheless after him came the saintly Sisinnius, who was not with us for long [he died in 427], a confrère praiseworthy for his simplicity and holiness who preached the faith as he had found it. In his simple holiness and his holy simplicity he had clearly read that fear of God is preferable to deep knowledge; and elsewhere, that one must not scrutinise too deeply, and again: ‘Those who preach other than we have preached, let them be anathema’”. Celestine’s worry was that “the excessive discoursing” of Nestor, who “preferred to put himself at the service of his own ideas rather than of Christ”, and who wants “to speak of God the Word as different to what ordinary faith believes”, enriches or impoverishes, indifferently, the depositum fidei: “The purity of traditional faith must not be tampered with by blasphemous words about God. Of those who have added or taken away something of the faith, who has ever escaped a judgment of anathema? In fact the faith transmitted to us by the apostles must in its fullness and clarity be safeguarded from additions and deletions. We read in our books that nothing whatsoever must be added or detracted. Those who add or detract are indeed subject to great condemnation ... We lament that the words which promise us the hope of our entire life and of salvation have been removed from the Creed handed down by the apostles”. And ever more personally, setting aside the pluralis maiestatis: “Agitur ut mihi totius spei meae causa tollatur”, that is: “It is a matter of being deprived of the reason for my every hope”. This is a decisive passage: there can be no other faith than the fides communis, the faith of the apostles, because paradoxically, only ordinary faith is capable of fostering the reasonable and personal faith of a person. There is nothing mechanical in the safeguarding of the deposit, it is free activity, it is love: “The safeguarding of the doctrine handed on is no less important than the task of those who hand it on [does not the present inverse stress indicate lack of love, perhaps?] The apostles sowed the seeds of faith, let our concern tend them so that Our Lord may find abundant fruit at His coming; to Him alone undoubtedly should be attributed the harvest [but there must be some doubt about this at present, given all the agitation]. Indeed, according to the chosen vessel [Saint Paul], it is not enough to plant and water, if God does not make things grow. So we must busy ourselves together to keep the teachings that have been entrusted to us and which we have made our own so far through the apostolic succession”. That is what he wrote to the Council gathered at Ephesus on 8 May 431. Some years earlier having to deal with the disciplinary and theological novelties of the province of Arles (southern France), Celestine had shown that the faith of the apostles nourishes personal faith just as the questing about for novelty ends in illusory superstitions. “We have learned that some priests of the Lord [bishops, that is] have put themselves at the service of superstition rather than purity of mind, that is of the faith ... If we begin seeking after novelty, we trample upon the norms handed down by the Fathers: and we shall make room for worthless superstitions. We must therefore not drive the minds of the faithful towards such outward things. In fact they should be taught and not misled”. This to the bishops of Vienne and Narbonne (southern France) on 26 July 428.


The apparition of the Lord to Abraham, panel in the central nave, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

The apparition of the Lord to Abraham, panel in the central nave, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

The safeguarding of the doctrine handed down is no less important than the task of him who hands it on

In truth even at that time Celestine was worried about another feature Nestor had in common with the bishops of Provence, their having tampered with the traditional rules governing the election of a bishop. According to Celestine a bishop must be chosen from the clergy of his Church, the candidate already having given positive proof of his capacities in minor and major orders. He sets out his point in the letter just quoted. “No one must have an unwanted bishop imposed on them. Consent should be required and the wishes of the clergy, the people, and those in orders, must be considered. A person from another Church may be elected when it has proved impossible to find anyone worthy among the clergy of the city for whom a bishop must be ordained, something we believe will not occur. Indeed, in such a case, these clergy would first have had to be censured in order for someone belonging to a different Church to be preferred. Let each harvest the fruit of his service in the Church in which he has passed his life in fulfillment of his functions. Let no man lay hands on services and let no man dare abrogate to himself the reward due to others. Let the clergy have the right to challenge if they feel they are carrying too heavy a burden, and let them not be afraid to reject those whom they see have thrust themselves inside by devious means; they must freely express their views on the person who is to rule them, if he is not the person they merit”. Some years later (when Nestor had already been removed) Celestine was also to challenge his status as a famous foreign theologian in his praise of the new bishop of Constantinople: “[Maximinian] is not unknown, he was not brought in from elsewhere. You have had a positive judgment on a person who is amongst you, you who in the recent past were misled, to his shame, by the reputation of an absent person”. This to the clergy and people of Constantinople, 15 March 432.


He wins in you whose divinity it was thought might be questioned

Once the victory is won, however, it can be appreciated how the faith that also wins – and is seen to win: “Our God cannot bear that what he bestows should remain hidden, for the gifts of heaven never remain concealed” – has nothing to do with a move towards wiping out the errant. Celestine remained faithful to what he had written in number 8 of the Indiculus: “That certain things are not asked superficially or futilely of God is shown in the concrete result, since God deigns to rescue many from every sort of error and, after wrenching them from the power of darkness, transfers them into the kingdom of the Son of His love, transforming them from vessels of wrath into vessels of mercy. And all this is to be seen as a divine work, hence it is to God that thanks are given and praise expressed for having enlightened and corrected them”. So when the question of condemning Nestor’s followers came up, Celestine asked the Council fathers at Ephesus to heed him: “For those who turn out to have shared fully in the teachings of Nestor and joined as companions in his errors, whatever their condemnation is in your verdict, we also decree what seems fitting”. And he went on to advise them to use the clemency that had been successfully used with the Pelagians: “In such questions one must always take ac­count of a great many elements, as the Apostolic See always has [not the last sign of Catholicity is its capacity to heed all factors]. What we are saying is demonstrated by the events concerning the Celestians [the Pelagians], who thus far had hoped in the Council. If they revise their thinking they have the chance to come back, something prohibited only to those who, prove to be, as sanctioned by all the brethren, individually condemned along with the authors of the heresy. Thanks to the mercy of God we are glad that some of them have already come back to us ... I counsel your fraternity to follow this example”. Celestine was not malicious with the poor ‘anonymous Pelagians’ against whom both the rival views at Ephesus had waged fiercely for instrumental reasons. The victory at Ephesus was not a victory by one school of theology (Alexandrian) over another (Antiochian). In reality “He wins in you whose divinity it was thought might be questioned … According to the words of the Lord, a plant planted by the Father and which showed it bore good fruit in Him, could not be uprooted. The Lord of Israel has preserved his own vineyard. The Lord’s vineyard is the House of Israel and thus it is no surprise if his house was kept safe against thieves, for the watchman, as we read, neither sleeps nor slumbers ... Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, rest in Him who is in you, so that you may be victorious (permanete in eum qui est, ut vincatis, in vobis)”. The people who claimed to have won in the name of a particular theology soon went adrift. After the death of Cyril (444), the patriarch of Alexandria who had been the real protagonist in the reaffirmation in Ephesus of the apostolic faith, his place was taken by Dioscurus. The new patriarch no longer accepting as his light the faith of Peter (which the See of Alexandria, founded by Saint Mark, shared with Rome), but rather the brilliance of the school of Clement, Origen, and Apollinaris, in 449 called the Council known to history as the Latrocinium ephesinum. It was the most infamous betrayal of the Council of Ephesus not merely because it proclaimed a clearly heretical faith but because of the prevaricating intolerance it employed. Leo the Great, who was then on the papal throne (having been previously, according to tradition, a faithful deacon of Celestine) must have repeated his predecessor’s words: “Good rarely lasts long. Indeed it is often succeeded and replaced by the bad”.


The adoration of the Magi, mosaic of the triumphal arch, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

The adoration of the Magi, mosaic of the triumphal arch, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, rest in Him who is in you, so that you may be victorious

Something should be briefly said about Celestine’s idea of the role of political authority in the affairs of the Church. This time the quotation comes not from Celestine but from the Italian introduction by Franco Guidi: “Celestine also acknowledged that the emperor’s authority also came from Christ, but the acknowledgement was not intended to highlight it, but rather to hint that it should be subordinate to Christ and hence to the interests of the Church of Christ. And his exhorta­tion to the emperor to concern himself with the cause of the faith rather than the business of the empire, which depended on the fate of the Church, should be seen in the same light. As one can see, this is the opposite view from the caesaro‑papist policy of both Constantine and Constantius II, though not yet going as far as the auctoritas sacrata pontificum claim that was to have such importance for the definition of relations between the Church and the imperial power during the Middle Ages”. I feel I must disagree here, since the view seems to me anachronistic. It gives the impression that Celestine’s view necessarily had to lead to Gregorian insistence on hegemony as the counter-image to Byzantine caesaro‑papism. Celestine would seem to have been concerned to bridle a rebel political power. In fact, when one looks at the sources, one finds a much more secular view. Celestine does not acknowledge political authority either to ‘highlight’ it or to ‘insinuate …’. He simply acknowledges it. All this corresponds much more with the opening lines of the thirteenth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, or the First Letter of Peter, or Augustine’s City of God, which he must have known much better, both chronologically and conceptually… than to Gregorian claims. Celestine to Cyril of Alexandria, 7 May 431: “The attention of the imperial authority to God, who faithfully guides the hearts of rulers, is not useless, especially in the case of divine matters”. Celestine to the Council of Ephesus, 15 March 432: “Nor is it surprising that the heart of the king, who is in the hands of God, should be in harmony with those he knows to be his priests”.


An indication of what “the reason for his every hope” had been while alive, is given by Celestine’s determination to be laid to rest ad nymphas sancti Petri, near the catacombs of Priscilla, which ancient tradition said was the place Saint Peter had appointed for the baptism of the first Christians in Rome. Whoever composed it, his epitaph echoes the “trust which is born of simplicity” that had accompanied the Pope in life: “This is the tomb of the body: bones and ashes repose, nor does any of it die; the flesh rises in its entirety in the Lord”.

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