|264||John Paul I||1978|
|265||Saint||John Paul II||1978-2005|
The popes, by raising themselves to the head of the Western Church, became in many respects more powerful than any of the kings and princes with whom they frequently found themselves in bitter conflict. While we cannot discover, either in the Acts of the Council of Nicaea or in the Theodosian Code, compiled more than a century later, any recognition of the supreme headship of the Bishop of Rome, there is little doubt that he and his flock had almost from the very first enjoyed a leading place among the Christian communities. The Roman Church was the only one in the West which could claim the distinction of having been founded by the immediate followers of Christ, - the " two most glorious apostles."
The New Testament speaks repeatedly of Paul's presence in Rome, and Peter's is implied. There had always been, moreover, the first a persistent tradition, accepted throughout the Christian Church, that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome. While there is no complete documentary proof for this belief, it appears to have been generally accepted at least as early as the middle of the second century. There is, certainly, no conflicting tradition, no rival claimant. The belief itself, whether or not it corresponds with actual events, is indubitably a fact, and a fact of the greatest historical importance. Peter enjoyed a certain preeminence among the other apostles and was singled out by Christ upon several occasions. In a passage of the New Testament which has affected political history more profoundly than the edicts of the most powerful monarch, Christ says : " And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven : and whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven : and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
It was thus natural thai the Roman Church should early have been looked upon as the mother church in the West . Its doctrines were considered the purest, since they had been handed down from its exalted founders. When there was a difference of opinion in regard to the truth of a particular teaching, it was natural that all should turn to the Bishop of Rome for his view. Moreover, the majesty of the capital of the world helped to exalt its bishop above his fellows. It was long, however, before all the other bishops, especially those in the large cities, were ready to accept unconditionally the authority of the Bishop of Rome, although they acknowledged his leading position and that of the Roman community.
Comparatively little is known of the bishops of Rome during the first three centuries of the Church's existence. Even as the undisputed heads of their persecuted sect, they could not have begun to exercise the political influence which they later enjoyed, until Christianity had gained the ascendancy and the power of the Empire had become greatly weakened.
We are, however, much better instructed in regard to the Church of the fourth and early fifth centuries, because the century following the Council of Nicoea was, in the history of church literature, what the Elizabethan era was in that of England. It was the era of the great "fathers" of Christian theology, to whom all theologians since have looked back as to the foremost interpreters of their religion. Among the chief of these were Athanasius (d. 373), to whom is attributed the formulation of the creed of the Orthodox Church as opposed to the Arians, against whom he waged unremitting war; Basil (d. 379), the promoter of the monastic life; Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (d. 397) ; Jerome (d. 420), who prepared a new Latin version of the Scriptures, which became the standard (Vulgate) edition ; and, above all, Augustine (354-430), whose voluminous writings have exercised an unrivaled influence upon the minds of Christian thinkers since his day.
Since the church fathers were chiefly interested in matters of doctrine, they say little of the organization of the Church, and it is not clear from their writings that the Bishop of Rome was accorded as yet the supreme and dominating position which the popes later enjoyed. Nevertheless, Augustine calls a contemporaneous Bishop of Rome the "head of the Western Church," and almost immediately after his death one ascended the episcopal chair at Rome whose ambition, energy, and personal bravery were a promise of those qualities which were to render his successors the kings of kings.
With the accession of Leo the Great (440-461) the history Leo the of the papacy may, in one sense, be said to have begun. At 461. his instance, Valentinian III, the emperor of the West, issued a decree in 445 declaring the power of the Bishop of Rome supreme, by reason of Peter's merits and apostolic headship, and by reason of the majesty of the city of Rome. He commanded that the bishops throughout the West should Decree of receive as law all that the Bishop of Rome sanctioned, and that in. any bishop refusing to.answer a summons to Rome should be forced to obey by the imperial governor.
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