Saint of the Day: St. Martin of Rome

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Martin of Rome, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)

Saint Martin, Bishop of Rome

The strongest and most authoritative voice raised against the heresy of Monotheletism, which cropped up in the seventh century, was that of Pope Martin, bishop of Rome, whose distance from Constantinople in the day of the donkey and the sailboat was considerable, whether traversed by land or sea. It was this vastness of space by the standards of antiquity which so separated Rome and Constantinople as to contribute to the “Great Schism” that split East and West in the eleventh century, a rift which only now appears to be a rapidly narrowing gap.

The authority of the pope of the seventh century was absolute and he wielded a tremendous influence in the West. His word was law, so long as that word did not conflict with that of the emperor. Pope Martin used the power of his office, which he assumed in 649 after the death of Pope Theodore, with considerable restraint and understanding, taking care that he restrict himself to religious and not political responsibilities. The emperor, however, was placed under no limits, political or religious, and was therefore involved in matters which brought a confrontation with prelates, including the pope himself.

Montheletism offered the theory that Jesus Christ had but one will, a theory to which a number of the clergy subscribed but which was disputed by the vast majority, who argued justifiably that the Savior had two wills since he was both human and divine. The dispute, trivial though it may appear, was contrary to Church dogma and therefore heretical; and heresy in any form or scope is a threat to the basic concepts of theology developed over the early centuries by the greatest minds in the world.

The religious centers of the East, primarily Constantinople and Alexandria, were always the hotbeds of religious controversy, and Monotheletism was already a burning issue when it reached as far as Rome. However, it did not get a chance to take root because Pope Martin lost no time in pronouncing it a heresy.

The pope then went so far as to threaten to excommunicate any who accepted Monotheletism, be he layman or clergyman. That should have put the matter to rest so far as the Roman See was concerned, but Pope Martin had not reckoned on the reaction to this by Emperor Constans II, who had become an avowed Monotheletist. Although the Emperor knew considerably less than the renowned Pope Martin about dogmatic theology, the proud monarch nevertheless strongly asserted his position and expected that the pope would fall in line. When the pope took a hard stand on the issue, refusing to bow to the authority of the emperor on this strictly theological question, he was summoned to Constantinople in an unprecedented humiliation of the Vatican.

Pope Martin, a man of honor and humility, went to Constantinople fully expecting that after this arduous journey he would at least be made comfortable in the capital city. To his dismay, he was not met by a contingent of dignitaries but by the soldiers of the emperor.

This sorry event happened in 653 and, inasmuch as the holy Pope Martin was not brought to trial until December 16, 655, it can be assumed that at the very best he was held captive in the intervening years, suffering an indignity usually reserved for criminals, not men of God.

In a trial that mocked justice, Pope Martin and his entire retinue were condemned to death for having daredto speak for Christianity in opposition to a witless monarch. The Ecumenical Patriarch Paul III of Constantinople intervened on behalf of his fellow prelate and prevailed upon the emperor to commute their sentence of death. Patriarch Paul visited Pope Martin with the news that he and his friends would be spared and expressed the hope that the emperor would relent altogether and release his innocent prisoners.

The commutation might as well never have been made because the cruel emperor changed the sentence to one that was tantamount to execution when he ordered that Pope Martin be exiled to a frigid wasteland, where he died ignominiously on April 13, 656.

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