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St. Martin I (April 13)

April 13, 2011

When Jesus compared the reign of God to a mustard seed which grew and became a large shrub, He wasn’t just talking about physical expansion. In addition to the rapid spread of the Church throughout the Roman empire and then throughout the world, there was also an expansion of doctrine, of our understanding of just what and Whom God had revealed to us in Person of Jesus. This process, like the spread of the Gospel itself, had its share of “growing pains,” especially in understanding Jesus Himself. Was He divine and not human? Human and not divine? Partly human and partly divine? Fully human and fully divine? All of these positions have had outspoken adherents at one time or another–and each has implications that aren’t immediately obvious, but which have a profound impact on our salvation. The asking of deep questions is not without its risks–it’s all too easy to come up with a wrong answer.

Even during His time on earth, Jesus had to correct His disciples on several occasions when they got things wrong (see Matthew 16:23, 19:13-14, Mark 9:38-39, Luke 9:54-55). That capacity for error, for distorting God’s divine revelation, did not end when Jesus ascended to Heaven (see Matthew 7:15, II Corinthians 4:3-4, 11:13-15, Galatians 1:6-9, II Thessalonians 2:9-11, Revelation 2:14-15, 3:30, 12:9, etc.). We needed some guaranteed way of sorting out truth from error.

That’s what papal infallibility is for–to guide and guard the Church against deception and distortion as She wrestles with the deepest questions of life. When Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail over His Church, and gave Simon Peter the keys to the Kingdom (see Matthew 16:18ff) He was showing us where to find Truth. He was giving us a guarantee that even if every other Christian would fall into deception, the Holy Spirit would not allow the pope to proclaim a falsehood as doctrine.
Pope St. Martin I, like many popes before him, paid for this truth with his life.

Born in Todi (not far from Rome) of noble parents (his date of birth unknown), Martin was known for his powerful intelligence, deep learning and open-handed charity to the poor.
He belonged to the order of St. Basil.

In Martin’s day, the prevailing challenge to Jesus’ identity was Monothelitism, the belief that Jesus only has one will: divine. The true understanding is that He has two wills, one human and one divine–He’s fully human and fully divine. His human will is in perfect union with the divine will (as ours is meant to be), so that there is no contradiction between the two (as there so often is in us). This made communication on the matter tricky. One could accurately say that Jesus had only “one will” in that His divine and human wills acted as one, and sound as though you were agreeing with the heresy that there only was one.

Although it sounds like a picky detail, this disagreement has profound implications on our knowledge of Jesus, and therefore on our relationship with Him. The belief that Jesus only has a divine will distances us from Him, denies us the model of uniting our human will with God’s divine will, calls into question Jesus’ ability to empathize with our struggles and undermines the power of His sacrifice for us (among other things).

This and more was at stake in the early 600’s, as bishops from all over the empire were appealing to Pope Theodore for clarity on the truth about Christ’s will(s) and for protection against the heretics. Part of the pope’s response was to send Martin to Constantinople as a papal nuncio to investigate a bishop whose orthodoxy on this point was in question. This put Martin in the headquarters of Constans II, who was trying to impose a gag order on the whole issue (the Type of Constans) in order to restore union and solidarity in a realm racked with violence and intrigue. The mission gave Martin valuable first-hand experience of both the theology and the personalities involved.

When Pope Theodore died in 649, Martin was elected as his successor. In an unprecedented move, he had himself consecrated as pope without waiting for imperial confirmation and called a Church council at the Lateran to clarify Catholic doctrine regarding the two wills of Christ. After exhaustive study of the matter, the council affirmed the belief in two wills in Christ, condemned Monothelitism and rejected the emperor’s gag order on the subject.

The Lord has commanded us to shun evil and do good,
but not to reject the good with the evil.
We are not to deny at the same time both error and truth.
-Fathers of the Lateran Council

Martin had these decrees published throughout the empire, and appointed delegates to enforce them. Already enraged by the Church’s opposition to his efforts to suppress the controversy, Emperor Constans turned the full force of his wrath upon the new pope. First he sent his chamberlain, Olympius, to convince the assembled bishops to favor the emperor’s policies. When that failed, an assassination plot was attempted. When the would-be murderer was miraculously struck blind, Olympius withdrew to Sicily to fight the Saracens and died there. Constans then sent another ambassador, Calliopas, to Rome with orders to bring the ailing pope to Constantinople to stand trial as an intruder on the papacy.

Although the people of Rome would have gladly defended their pope with their lives, Martin forbade armed resistance, wishing to avoid bloodshed, and declared himself willing to be brought before the emperor. He took refuge in the Lateran basilica, lying, ill, on a couch in front of the altar. In June of 653, imperial forces broke in and carried him to a ship bound for Constantinople. After a grueling voyage of three months, during which he suffered much from gout, dysentery and the rigors of travel as a despised prisoner, he arrived at Constantinople, where he was exposed to the jeers and insults of a crowd of spectators for several hours. From there he was taken to a prison for another three months. He wrote,

I have not been allowed to wash, even in cold water, for forty-seven days.
I am wasted away and frozen through,
and have had no respite from dysentery…
The food that is given me makes me feel sick.
I hope that God, who knows all things,
will bring my persecutors to repentance
after He will have taken me out of this world.

When he was finally brought to trial, even the judge mocked him:

You see how God delivered you into our hands.
You were against the Emperor, and thus has God abandoned you.

He was accused of crimes ranging from an intrigue against the emperor to a lack of faith in the mother of God. Weakened as he was, he could only laugh at the absurdity and beg the emperor to excuse the witnesses from testifying, lest they add perjury to false witness! Soldiers shredded his papal robes (what was left of them), took away his shoes, then took away his clothes altogether and dressed him in a tunic that was open at the sides to humiliate him.
He was condemned to death and scourged for days with his hands tied behind his back. Constans tried to incite the mob against him, but even they had no appetite for the death of such an obviously noble man. Soldiers loaded him with chains, put an iron ring around his neck and dragged him through the city for another three month’s imprisonment.

In the meantime, the patriarch of Constantinople was on his deathbed. Although he had not been any great supporter of orthodox teaching, his impending death gave him much to ponder. When the emperor visited, he exclaimed,

Alas, this will increase the severity of my judgment.

At this, Constans commuted Martin’s sentence to banishment on the Crimean peninsula (off the southern coast of modern-day Greece), which was suffering a severe famine. There Martin suffered from the famine, from the roughness of the inhabitants and from neglect by his own people.

I am surprised at the indifference of all those who,
though they once knew me,
have now so entirely forgotten me that they do not even seem to know whether I am in the world.
I wonder still more at those who belong to the church of St Peter
for the little concern they show for one of their body.
If that church has no money, it wants not corn, oil or other provisions
out of which they might send us a small supply.
What fear has seized all these men
that it hinders them from fulfilling the commands of God
in relieving the distressed?
Have I appeared such an enemy to the whole Church,
or to them in particular?

However, I pray God, by the intercession of St Peter,
to preserve them steadfast and immovable in the orthodox faith.

As to this wretched body, God will have care of it.
He is at hand; why should I trouble myself?
I hope in His mercy that He will not prolong my course.

There he died of deprivation in the fall of 655, faithful to the end,
the last of the popes to be venerated as a martyr.

St. Martin I, defender of the Church’s responsibility to proclaim the truth, pray for us.

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