August 27, 2017

Saint Liberius the Confessor, Pope of Rome (+ 366)

St. Liberius the Pope of Rome (Feast Day - August 27)


Now Liberius has wealth that is not exhausted,
For you sensibly stored your treasures in heaven.

Our Holy Father Liberius, a Roman, became Pope of Rome on April 17, 352, amid the Arian crisis of the fourth century.

Emperor Constantius, an Arian himself, knew he had no hope of uniting Christians by a Semi-Arian formula if Pope Liberius continued to defend orthodoxy. At a synod held in Milan in 353, the emperor demanded that Saint Athanasius be condemned and warned the bishops to obey him or face exile. Some bishops refused, and they were promptly banished.

Constantius called Liberius to Milan in 355. Pope Liberius refused to sign the condemnation of Saint Athanasius and become an Arian, so Emperor Constantius tried, unsuccessfully, to bribe him. Emperior Constantius then exiled Pope Liberius to Beroea  in Thrace and elevated the antipope, Felix II.

In 358 Constantius came to Rome, where petitions from wealthy matrons and of the Roman populace against Felix and in favor of the return of Liberius caused him to grant Liberius the right to return to the eternal city. Many have falsely accused Pope Liberius of having grown weak in exile and in turn both condemning Saint Athanasius and signing in favor of the Arian heresy, thus being granted by Constantius to return to Rome, but this is not true and a false accusation based mainly on forgeries and Protestant bias against the Papacy.

Historians of the era write the following regarding the return to Rome of Pope Liberius following his exile:

Sulpitius Severus: “Liberius, bishop of the city of Rome, and Hillary, bishop of Poitiers, were driven into exile… Liberius, however, was, a little afterwards, restored to the city, in consequence of the disturbances at Rome.” (Sacred History, Bk. 2, Ch. 39)

Socrates: “Indeed Liberius was recalled, and reinstated in his see; for the people of Rome having raised a sedition, and expelled Felix from their Church, the emperor even though against his wish consented.” (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 2, Ch. 37)

Theodoret (and repeated by Cassiadorus, Historia tripartita, Bk. 5, Ch. 18): “Their persuasions were successful, and the Emperor commanded that the great Liberius should be recalled from exile, and that together with Felix, he should conjointly rule the Church. When the edict of the emperor was read in the circus, the multitude shouted that the imperial ordinance was just. The spectators were divided into two factions, each wearing its own colors; each faction should thus have its own bishop. After having thus ridiculed the edict of the emperor, they all exclaimed with one voice, ‘One God, one Christ, one bishop’ and after the Christian people had uttered these pious and righteous acclamations, the holy Liberius returned.” (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 2, Ch. 14)

Pope Liberius Baptizing Neophytes by Alessandro Algardi (c. 1648)

The accounts of these historians form a very solid argument for believing in the innocence of Liberius, that he neither condemned Saint Athanasius, nor that he signed an Arian statement of faith. Moreover, the Arians never prided themselves in the Pope embracing Arianism or Semi-Arianism, nor do any Greek or Latin Fathers in the centuries that followed ever speak of the fall or apostasy of the Pope, in fact, Pope Liberius is numbered among the Saints of the Orthodox Church, and he is praised in the Menologion of Basil II and the Synaxarion of Constantinople, neither of which mention his apostasy.

Socrates reports a letter from Liberius to the Orientals, several passages of which bear witness to the steadfast orthodoxy of Liberius when many apostatized for a time; I shall cite these few words only: “Almost all those who gathered at Ariminum had been either lured into error by flattery or tricks; they have since taken a right view of the matter; and after anathematizing the exposition of faith set forth by those who were convened at Ariminum, have subscribed the Catholic and Apostolic Creed which was promulgated at Nicaea. They have entered into communion with us, and regard the dogma of Arius and his disciples with increased aversion, and are even indignant against it.”

Nor can it be explained in this hypothesis how the clergy and the Roman people could have welcomed Liberius’s return with such a great show of affection if, in order to return to his homeland, he had condemned Athanasius, betrayed the Nicene faith and subscribed, at the least, a formula where the word consubstantial (homoousion) was omitted. For the clergy and the Roman people had a strong attachment to the Nicene creed and its defender Athanasius; while for the Arians, on the contrary, they had nothing but loathing.

Sozomen gives us the cause of the Roman’s love for Liberius: “The people of Rome esteemed Liberius highly as a very excellent man, and on account of the courage he had evinced in opposing the emperor in defense of their faith.” Theodoret writes on the other hand that the Roman’s hatred of the Arians was because they loathed Felix, whom the Arians had instated while Liberius was in exile: “Felix preserved inviolate the doctrines set forth in the Nicene confession of faith, yet he held communion with those who had corrupted that faith and, for this reason, none of the citizens of Rome would enter the House of Prayer while he was in it.”

Emperor Constantius therefore recalled Pope Liberius from exile, and the antipope, Felix II, was expelled by the Romans.

After shepherding the flock of Christ in a God-pleasing manner, Pope Liberius reposed in peace on September 24, 366 and was buried at the cemetery of Priscilla in a catacomb on the Via Salaria in Rome.

The Miracle of the Snow and the Founding of the 
Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore)

In the time of Pope Liberius, there lived at Rome a certain nobleman named John and a noble lady his wife, who had no children to whom to leave their substance. Then they vowed that they would make the most holy Virgin Mother of God their heiress, and earnestly besought her in some way to make known to them upon what godly work she would that the money should be spent. The blessed Virgin Mary graciously listened to their prayers and heartfelt earnestness, and by a miracle assured them of her will. On the 5th day of August, which is that time when the heat of summer is greatest in Rome, a part of the Esquiline Hill was covered by night with snow. And on this same night the Mother of God appeared in a dream to John and his wife separately, and told them that on that spot, which in the morning they should see clad with snow, they should build a church, to be dedicated in the name of the Virgin Mary, for that this was the way in which she chose that they should make her their heiress. John went and told it to Pope Liberius, who declared that he also had been visited by a like dream. Therefore he came in a solemn procession of priests and people to the snow-clad hill, and traced upon that spot the plan of a church which was built with the money of John and his wife. It was afterwards rebuilt by Sixtus III. At the beginning it was called by diverse names, sometimes the Liberian Basilica, sometimes the Church of St. Mary-at-the-Manger. Since there are in Rome many churches called after the Holy Virgin Mary, and this church excels them all, both in honor, and because of the strange sign wherewith it was dedicated, it has come to be called the Church of Saint. Mary Major.