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Saturday, September 26th, 2020

‘Unus Dominus, una fides’: a Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all, who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 4, 5-6)

Nihil sub sole novum, say the maxims of Solomon.[1] No, nothing under the sun is new. Intrigue and the struggle of orthodoxy have been with us from the beginning. 

I say this because, this past week, another interesting papal anniversary passed us by. 24 September marks the date of the death of Pope Liberius, who departed this life in 366. And the events surrounding his life prove the point made a moment ago about intrigue and orthodoxy. He is not included in any Roman liturgical books today; but this was not always so.[2] He is included in the Martyrology of St Jerome—an ancient predecessor to our current martyrology—and today is still venerated by the Byzantines and the Copts as a saint.

It’s to our shame that the separated churches of the East should venerate a saintly Roman pontiff before we do.  

But when Rome loses the simplicity and vigor of her faith, she becomes fickle. And so Pope Liberius no longer finds any formal veneration in the Church of Rome, of which he was a staunch defender in his day. But that is often the reward given to many a faithful shepherd in this life: betrayal and oblivion. 

But who is the man, and how did things come to be as they are? In a word, his reign as sovereign pontiff was a snarl of ecclesiastical councils (licit and illicit), imperial interference and persecution, confusion, forgery, bribery, violence, and clerical weakness. His life was linked with that of St Athanasius, the great defender of Christ’s divinity against the Arians. For instance, Liberius was repeatedly threatened by the emperor Constantius, an Arian, for refusing to condemn St Athanasius—after, of course, they attempted to bribe him, which he always rebuffed with contempt. 

A notary has preserved part of a dialogue between Liberius and the emperor and his court: 

LIBERIUS: Do not employ bishops, whose hands are meant to bless, to revenge your own enmity. Have the bishops restored and, if they agree with the Nicene Faith, let them consult as to the peace of the world, that an innocent man [Athanasius] be not condemned. 

CONSTANTIUS: I am willing to send you back to Rome, if you will join the communion of the Church. Make peace, and sign the condemnation. 

LIBERIUS: I have already bidden farewell at Rome to the brethren. The laws of the Church are more important than residence in Rome.[3] 

Thus, for his support of St Athanasius and Nicean orthodoxy, Liberius was sent into exile. Three times he was sent money by the emperor to make his exile more comfortable; three times he returned it.  

At first, the Roman clergy resisted any man taking Liberius’ place on the papal throne. But their resolve soon broke, and the heretic emperor set up an antipope, Felix II. The Roman people, on the other hand, did not accept the usurper. In fact, when Constantius made his visit to Rome in April of 357, faithful Catholics of the city made a great outcry against him. The old Catholic Encyclopedia puts it like this:

He [Constantius] was impressed by the prayers for the return of the pope boldly addressed to him by the noblest of the Roman ladies, whose husbands had insufficient courage for the venture.       

We know Liberius returns from exile toward the end of 357, and it is here that story becomes complicated by forged letters, rumors spread by his enemies, and the general confusion of information during times of controversy. Word began to circulate that Liberius had capitulated; that exile had worn him down; that he had given in to signing a condemnation of Athanasius and an ambiguous semi-Arian creed. Forged letters seemed to corroborate the story. To this day, many speak of ‘the fall of Liberius,’ which explains why the Roman Church affords him no place in her liturgical role of honor.  

However, once Liberius had returned to Rome, his conduct was consistent with his way of acting before his exile. He, a man of undisputed piety from his youth, made no admission of and did no penance for a fall; the Roman people did not regard him as having fallen; he annulled the false council of Rimini in 361; he received Arian bishops back into communion only after they declared their fidelity to Nicea.—Would he have had the moral authority to do such things if he had ever been an Arian or semi-Arian himself? 

But an episode from his life after exile is instructive, and which brings us to my reason for mentioning Liberius in the first place; it has something to do with today’s Mass. When Constantius had recalled Liberius, he proposed to the Roman people that Liberius and the antipope Felix rule side-by-side, in order to keep the peace. The Catholics of Rome would have none of it: 

God is one, the faith is one; there is one baptism and one bishop! With these words in olden days the Romans, making tumult in the Circus, answer the heretical Emperor Constantius.[4]

Unus Deus, una fides; unum baptismum et unus pastor! Such words are an exact echo of St Paul’s Credo in today’s epistle: ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all.’ 

If controversy and ecclesiastical shadow-games aren’t anything new, then neither is the remedy. You and I need poise, dear friends: poise and discretion and courage will carry the day. But—above all—we do well to remember this: that we hold the Catholic faith vigorously, not on account of ourselves; not as an act of self-assertion or self-aggrandizement—but on account of God.  

That, in conclusion, is what St Paul teaches us today, and what the people of Rome echoed in the time of the saintly Liberius: ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all; who is blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.’—That is at once a Creed and a Gloria, rolled into one. St Paul’s declaration of faith seamlessly transitions into words of praise. Thus, the correct faith is doxological; fidelity has a liturgical finality. 

That is the lesson of the life and teaching of every high priest and pastor: to be faithful is nothing less than to render God the worship that is his due. And to him be glory unto ages of ages. Amen.

 


[1] Ecclesiastes 1, 10.

[2] I have followed the account given by Bl Ildephonso Schuster in The Sacramentary, vol 5, pp 133-137; trans Arthur Levelis-Marke and W Fairfax-Cholmeley.

[3] For this citation as well as the remainder of the historical account presented here, see: Chapman, J. (1910). ‘Pope Liberius’ in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 23, 2020 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09217a.htm .

[4] Schuster, The Sacramentary, vol 3, p 147.  

{Art Credit: Dome of the Sistine Chapel in the Liberian Basilica.}

 

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