Popes in a Year
#105 - Pope St. Nicholas the Great
Pope from April 24, 858 - November 13, 867
Lived: c. 800 - November 13, 867
Give me the scoop on Nicholas I.
A Roman from a noble family, Nicholas was well-known, even before becoming pope, for his holiness, goodwill, intelligence, and ability to lead. He was a subdeacon under Pope Sergius II and a deacon under St. Leo IV. Nicholas was elected on April 24, 858 and wasted no time doing a little spring cleaning (‘twas the season). With the Holy Roman Empire in shambles and Christian morality in a sad state of decay, Nicholas the Great led the Church well through a time where things could easily have dwindled into anarchy. We're guessing he loved that line from Romans: “Do not grow slack in zeal” (12:11).
During his time in office, Nicholas continued to restore churches and was an active proponent of the religious life, considering he himself lived monastically, through and through. He died November 13, 867, and after death was venerated as a saint.
What was he known for?
Many bishops of the time were living worldly and decadent lives, so one of Nicholas’ hallmarks was reforming and renewing the standards to which bishops and priests should be held. He twice excommunicated the archbishop of Ravenna, John, for basically being a tyrant who extorted his subordinate bishops and imprisoned his priests, not to mention forging papal documents and abusing the pope’s representatives. Nicholas also battled with Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, over the pope’s supremacy, but thankfully that issue was resolved without Hincmar getting the boot.
Nicholas also dealt with the emperor wanting a divorce, seemingly a foreshadowing of Henry VIII nearly 700 years later, when Lothair II left his lawful wife, Theutberga, to marry another woman, Waldrada. The area bishops, who were in Lothair’s pocket, approved of his abandonment, as did a meeting of bishops where papal representatives were bribed. Nicholas, never one to back down, convened his own meeting, thank you very much, where he reversed the decision and excommunicated his representatives. Even Lothair besieging Rome for two days (which he did promptly thereafter) couldn't discourage The Other Jolly Old St. Nick, despite the pope himself effectively being imprisoned without food in St. Peter’s during that time. Lothair ultimately reconciled to the pope and retreated.
Nicholas had to deal with another case involving marriage, but with an entirely different result. Judith, princess of Italy, had married Baldwin, Count of Flanders without her father’s consent. Frankish bishops, naturally, demanded Judith be excommunicated. Nicholas, on the other hand, said, “Guys, seriously? Take a chill pill,” urging leniency and preferring instead to protect the inherent freedom of marriage.
What else was going on in the world at the time?
Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the great missionary brothers and co-patrons of Europe, began what became known as their “Mission to the Slavs.” Among their many acts was inventing the Cyrillic alphabet and the first Slavic literary language, into which they eventually translated the Bible. Some Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches still use “Old Church Slavonic” (the original language) in their liturgies.
Coming Monday...Pope Adrian II
SOURCES (and further reading)
John, E. (1964). The Popes: A concise biographical history. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Pope St. Nicholas I -
Pope Nicholas I -
Old Church Slavonic -
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Sent by Matthew Sewell on Friday, May 26 at 2:00AM