On this May 18th we celebrate the first Pontiff with the name of John, the beloved disciple – and it was his birth name. The first Pope to change his name was the second Pope John, whose name had been Mercurius (so you might see why he changed it), who reigned a decade after the first, from 533-535.
Pope John, who died on this day in 526, was already frail when elected on August 13th, 523, well after the ‘fall of Rome’, when the semi-pagan German tribes ruled the Italian peninsula. The new pope was sent by King Theodoric to Emperor Justin at Constantinople, to seek better treatment for the Arians, a heresy that claimed Christ was not really, fully God, to which Theodoric, along with most of his fellow barbarians, heartily subscribed. Much easier to say that Christ was a kind of ‘demi-god’, rather than delve into the theological complexity of His dual nature, as true God and true Man. By turning Christ into a fellow ‘creature’, He became more, shall we say, pliable, one to whom autocratic rulers such as Theodoric need not fully submit. After all, only God has full authority, and if Christ is not God, well then, what power has Christ, really? Or, for that matter, His vicar, the Pope?
Pope John made the arduous 1300-mile journey to Constantinople – many days over dry dusty roads, mountains, vales and stormy seas – with a large and venerable retinue. Emperor Justin received the Pope warmly, and the delegation from the West got more or less what Theodoric wanted – almost – for Justin did not grant the concession that those clerics who converted from Arianism to Catholicism would be ‘restored’, that is, keep their hierarchical positions, for their former heresy precluded them, as possibly forming an undermining ‘fifth column’ in the Church. (One wonders if things have changed all that much.)