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John the Faster

Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 595)

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John the Faster (o nesteutes), Patriarch of Constantinople (John IV, 582-595), famous chiefly through his assumption of the title “ecumenical patriarch”; d. September 2, 595. He was brought up (apparently also born) at Constantinople. Under the Patriarch John III (Scholasticus, 565-577) he was deacon at the Hagia Sophia church; then he became sakellarios (an official who acts as patriarchal vicar for monasteries). He had little learning, but was so famous for his ascetical life that he was already called “the Faster”. Under Eutychius I (restored to the patriarchate when John III died, 577-582) he became an important person among the clergy of the city. At Eutychius‘s death he was made patriarch by the Emperor Tiberius II (578-582). Under the next emperor, Maurice (582-602), he was still a favorite at court. There is little to tell of his life besides the great question of the title. He is said to have been tolerant towards the Monophysites; but he persuaded Maurice to have a certain wizard, Paulinus, burnt. He had always a great reputation for asceticism and charity to the poor.

The dispute about the title was this: it was not new in John IV’s time; till then the Bishop of Constantinople had commonly been called archiepiskopos, but at various times he (and other patriarchs) had been addressed as oikoymenikos patriarches. H. Gelzer (Der Streit um den Titel des okumenischen Patriarchen) thinks that it became usual in the time of the Acacian schism (484-519). The first known use of it applied to Constantinople is in a letter from the monks of Antioch to John II (518-520) in 518. Before that the Patriarch of Alexandria had been so called by one of his bishops at the Robber Synod of Ephesus (in the year 449; Gelzer, op. cit., p. 568). Since 518 the whole combination, Greek: archiepiskopos kai oikoumenikos patriarches, is not uncommonly used in addresses to the Byzantine patriarchs. But they had not called themselves so before John IV. There is a real difference between these two uses of a title. In addresses to other people, particularly superiors, one may always allow a margin for compliment—especially in Byzantine times. But when a man uses a title himself he sets up a formal claim to it. In 588 John the Faster held a synod at Constantinople to examine certain charges against Gregory, Patriarch of Antioch (in this fact already one sees a sign of the growing ambition of Constantinople. By what right could Constantinople discuss the affairs of Antioch?). The Acts of this synod appear to have been sent to Rome; and Pope Pelagius II (579-590) saw in them that John was described as “archbishop and ecumenical patriarch”. It may be that this was the first time that the use of the title was noticed at Rome; it appears, in any case, to be the first time it was used officially as a title claimed—not merely a vague compliment. Pelagius protested against the novelty and forbade his legate at Constantinople to communicate with John. His letter is not extant. We know of it from Gregory’s letters later (Epp., V, xliii, in P.L., LXXVII, 771).

St. Gregory I (590-604), who succeeded Pelagius II, was at first on good terms with John IV. He had known him at Constantinople while he had been legate (apocrisiarius) there (578-584), and had sent him notice of his succession as pope in a friendly letter (Epp., I, iv, in P.L., LXXVII, 447). It has been thought that the John to whom he dedicates his “Regula pastoralis” is John of Constantinople (others think it to be John of Ravenna, Bardenhewer, “Patrology“, tr. Shahan, St. Louis, 1908, p. 652). But in 593 this affair of the new and arrogant title provoked a serious dispute. It should be noticed that Gregory was still old-fashioned enough to cling to the theory of three patriarchates only, although officially he accepted the five (Fortescue, “Orthodox Eastern Church“, p. 44). He was therefore not well-disposed towards Constantinople as a patriarchate at all. That it should claim to be the universal one seemed to him unheard-of insolence. John had cruelly scourged two priests accused of heresy. They appealed to the pope. In the correspondence that ensued John assumed this title of ecumenical patriarch “in almost every line” of his letter (Epp., V, xviii, in P. Ti., LXXVII, 738). Gregory protested vehemently against it in a long correspondence addressed first to John, then to the Emperor Maurice, the Empress Constantina, and others. He argues that “if one patriarch is called universal the title is thereby taken from the others” (Epp., V, xviii, ibid., 740). It is a special effrontery for the Byzantine bishop, whose existence as a patriarch at all is new and still uncertain (Rome had refused to accept the third canon of the First Council of Constantinople and the twenty-eighth canon of Chalcedon), to assume such a title as this. It further argues independence of any superior; whereas, says Gregory, “who doubts that the Church of Constantinople is subject to the Apostolic See?” (Epp., IX, xii, ibid., 957); and again: “I know of no bishop who is not subject to the Apostolic See” (ibid.).

The pope expressly disclaims the name “universal” for any bishop, including himself. He says that the Council of Chalcedon had wanted to give it to Leo I, but he had refused it (Epp., V, xviii, ibid., 740, xx, 747, etc.). This idea rests on a misconception (Hefele-Leclercq, “Histoire des Conciles”, IT, Paris, 1908, pp. 834-5), but his reason for resenting the title in any bishop is obvious throughout his letters. “He understood it as an exclusion of all the others [privative quoad omnes alios] so that he who calls himself oecumenic, that is universal, thinks all other patriarchs and bishops to be private persons and himself the only pastor of the inhabited earth” (so Horace Giustiniani at the Council of Florence; Hergenrother, “L Photius”, I, 184). For this reason Gregory does not spare his language in denouncing it. It is “diabolical arrogance” (Epp., V, xx, in P.L., LXXVII, 746, xxi, 750, etc.); he who so calls himself is antichrist. Opposed to it Gregory assumed the title borne ever since by his successors. “He refuted the name ‘universal’ and first of all began to write himself ‘servant of the servants of God‘ at the beginning of his letters, with sufficient humility, leaving to all his successors this hereditary evidence of his meekness” (Johannes Diaconus, “Vita S. Gregorii”, II, i, in P.L., LXXV, 87). Nevertheless the patriarchs of Constantinople kept their “ecumenical” title till it became part of their official style. The Orthodox patriarch subscribes himself still: “Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Oecumenical Patriarch“. But it is noticeable that even Photius (d. 891) never dared use the word when writing to Rome. The Catholic Church has never admitted it. It became a symbol of Byzantine arrogance and the Byzantine schism. In 1024 the Emperor Basil II (963-1025) tried to persuade Pope John XIX (1024-1033) to acknowledge it. The pope seems to have been ready to do so, but an outburst of indignation throughout the West and a stern letter from Abbot William of Dijon made him think better of it (Fortescue, “Orthodox Eastern Church“, p. 167). Later again, at the time of the final schism, Pope Leo IX writes to Michael Crularius of Constantinople (in 1053): “How lamentable and detestable is the sacrilegious usurpation by which you everywhere boast yourself to be the Universal Patriarch” (op. cit., p. 182). No Catholic bishop since then has ever dared assume this title.

With regard to the issue, one should note first that Gregory knew no Greek. He saw the words only in a Latin version: Patriarcha universalis, in which they certainly sound more scandalous than in Greek. How he understood them is plain from his letters. They seem to mean that all jurisdiction comes from one bishop, that all other bishops are only his vicars and delegates. Catholic theology does not affirm this of the pope or anyone. Diocesan bishops have ordinary, not delegate, jurisdiction; they receive their authority immediately from Christ, though they may use it only in the communion of the Roman See. It is the whole difference between diocesan ordinaries and vicars Apostolic. All bishops are not Apostolic vicars of the pope. Nor has any pope ever assumed the title “universal bishop”, though occasionally they have been so called in complimentary addresses from other persons. The accusation, then, that Gregory’s successors have usurped the title that he so resented is false.

Whether John IV or other patriarchs of Constantinople really meant to advance so arrogant a claim is another question. Oikoumenikos patriarches in Greek is susceptible of a milder interpretation. `E Oikoumene Chora was long a name for the civilized, cultivated land of the Greeks, as opposed to the wild country of the barbarians. It was then often used for the Roman Empire. It is at least probable that the clause oikoumenikos patriarches in the Greek Intercession of the Byzantine Liturgy means the “empire” (Fortescue, “Liturgy of St. Chrysostom”, London, 1908, p.106). It may be, then, that meant no more than “imperial patriarch”, as the Greeks of Constantinople told Anastasius Bibliothecarius at the time of Photius (see his statement in Gelzer, op. cit., p. 572). Kattenbusch (Konfessionskunde, I, 116) thinks it should be translated Reichspatriarch. Even so it is still false. The Patriarch of Constantinople had no sort of claim over the whole empire. The most that can be allowed is that if “ecumenical” means only “imperial”, and if “imperial” means only “of the imperial court”, the title (in this case equal to “court patriarch”) is no worse than a foolish example of vanity. But even in Greek this interpretation is by no means obvious. In Greek, too, an “ecumenical synod” is one that has authority for the whole Church; the “oecumenic doctors” (St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John Chrysostom) are those whose teaching must be followed by all. Pichler‘s comparison with the form “catholic bishop” (“Geschichte der kirchlichen Trennung”, II, Munich, 1865, pp. 647 sq.) is absurd. The humblest member of the Church is (in any language) a Catholic; in no language could he be called ecumenical.

Another dispute between John and Gregory was about some relics, especially the head of St. Paul, that the Court of Constantinople wanted the pope to send to them. Gregory would not part with them; eventually he sent part of St. Paul’s chains. The works in Migne attributed to John the Faster [a treatise on Confession (P.G., LXXXVIII, 1889-1918), a shorter work on the same subject (ibid., 1919-1932), “Of Penance, Temperance, and Virginity” (ibid., 1937-1978)] are not authentic. No authentic works of his are extant. He has often been confused with a certain Cappadocian monk, John the Faster, who came to Constantinople about the year 1100. The patriarch, at his death, left no property but a cloak, a blanket, and a praying-stool, which the emperor kept as relics. The Orthodox Church has canonized him and keeps his feast on September 2.


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