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Saint Gelasius I

Third of the 'African' Popes

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Gelasius I, who is recorded as having come from Roman North Africa, was pope from 492 CE to 496 CE. His feast day is 21 November.

Date of Birth: unknown, North Africa
Date of Death: 19 November (11 days before the Kalends of Decembris) 496, Rome

Little is actually known about Pope Gelasius I (as is true for the other two 'African' popes, Victor I, and Miltiades) . Gelasius succeeded Felix III in March 492 CE (during the reign of the Roman Emperor Theodosius II) to become the 49th pope, in a line that starts with St Peter (32--67 CE). He died in 496 CE, in Rome, and was succeeded by Anastasius II. Gelasius is said to have previously been Felix III's clerk, penning many of his ecclesiastical documents.

The Liber Pontificalis states "Gelasius, natione Afer", which roughly translates as "Gelasius, an African by birth." But Afer was the Roman term for its North Africa province Africa Proconsularis -- present day Tunisia and Algeria -- so he was likely either Carthaginian, Berber, or Roman by decent. (It is unlikely that he was from sub-Saharian Africa, since the Romans used the term Aethiopes ('Ethiopians') [from the Greek "aitho" and 'ops" effectively meaning "burnt face"] to describe black Africans.) Gelasius is reported1 to have referred to himself as Romanus natus, i.e. born a Roman citizen.

Gelasius fought against the Acacian Schism (a position he inherited from his predecessor Felix III) -- Rome's refusal to accept the Henotikon promulgated by the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (c. 425--491 CE) in 482 CE. The Henotikon tried to reconcile the preaching of the Monophysites (who advocated that the human and divine in Christ are one in nature) as supported by Acacius , the Partiarch of Constantinople (in power from 471--489 CE). Acacius' successor, Anastasius I (ruled from 491 to 518 CE), was sympathetic to the Roman view but continued to support the Henotikon. Gelasius I wrote a text, De duabus in Christo naturis ("On the dual nature of Christ") which outlined the Western (Roman Catholic) view which opposed the Monophysite heracy. (The Acacian Schism over the Henotikon was finally settled in 519 CE with the excommunication of Acacius being recognized by the Byzantine Emperor, Justin I.)

Gelasius I's rule increased the tension in the church between the West and East, and he took the opportunity to reiterate the primacy of Rome (claimed because of the bishopric of St Peter, the first pope in Rome) over both eastern and western parts of the church.

Gelasius I was prolific, and is acknowledged to have written almost one hundred letters and six treatises. The foremost states that civil and sacred power are both of divine origin, and are independent of each other -- in other words there should be a separation of church and state. Additionally, Gelasius developed a list of acceptable and non-acceptable books, the De Libris Recipiendis et Non Recipiendis ('Books to be Received and Not-Received'), which effectively differentiated between canonical and apocryphal books, as well as those books by proscribed heretics, which were available at the time.

Gelasius I also re-envisaged the pagan festival of Lupercalia into the Feast of Purification in an attempt to remove its relationship with pagan fertility rites. The original festival exists today as Valentine's Day.

Gelasius I, the first pope to be known as "Vicar of Christ", was buried in the Basilica of Peter the Apostle in December 496. CE.

1Letter to the Emperor Anastasius (Ep. xii, n. 1)

Principal Sources:
• 'Liber Pontificalis (Late 6th century A.D.)', Retrieved 10 February 2013, from http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/liberpontificalis1.html
The Book of the Popes: Liber Pontificalis trans. by Louise Ropes Loomis, Columbia University Press, 1916.

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