Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Strange Case of the Antipope Venerated as a Saint

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, the feast of St Martha is kept today with the commemoration of four Roman martyrs named Felix, Simplicius, Faustinus and Beatrix. This commemoration originated as two separate observances, which seem to have been united because St Felix was buried in a catacomb named for him along the via Portuensis, the great ancient road which led to the port of Rome, while the other three were buried further down the same road in the Catacomb of Generosa. In earlier liturgical books, however, Felix is called “Pope Felix II”; this is true even in editions printed in the early 1950s, despite the fact that ever since the 1947 revision of the Annuario Pontificio, he has been officially listed as an antipope.

The Mass of Ss Simplicius, Faustinus and Beatrix, and the Mass of St Felix, who is named only as a Martyr, in the Gellone Sacramentary (folio 97v), ca. 780 AD. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 12048)
Felix was the archdeacon of Rome in the mid-4th century, when the Church, so recently freed by the Emperor Constantine from pagan persecution, was subjected to its first “Christian” persecution by his son Constantius, an ardent supporter of the Arian heresy. In 355, the latter banished Pope Liberius to Greece for his opposition to Arianism, and Felix was consecrated by three Arian bishops to take his place. Although the majority of the Roman clergy apparently did recognize him as their bishop, the laity would have nothing to do with him. Two years later, when Liberius was permitted to return from exile, Felix and his supporters tried but failed to occupy the basilica of Pope Julius I (now known as Santa Maria in Trastevere); he was then banished from Rome by the Senate, never to return. After living for eight years near Porto in quiet retirement, he died in 365.

However, his entry in the Roman Martyrology before 1960 told the story differently. “At Rome, on the Via Aurelia, (the death of) St Felix the Second, Pope and Martyr, who, having been cast out of his see by the Arian Emperor Constantius because of his defense of the Catholic faith, died gloriously at Cera in Tuscany, being secretly slain by the sword.” According to the revised version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints by Herbert Thurston SJ and Donald Attwater, Felix was confused with two persons: first with his rival Liberius, which is difficult to explain, and secondly, with a martyr named Felix who was buried along the Via Aurelia, on which this Felix had built a small church. (Felix was an extremely common name in ancient Rome.) They also note that this confusion is already evidenced in documents of the 6th century. Therefore, the revised liturgical books of 1960, conforming to the updated Annuario Pontificio, eliminate the title “Pope” and the number “II” from his name, and delete his separate entry from the Martyrology altogether, while adding his name to that of the other three martyrs named above.

An engraved portrait of Cardinal Baronius, the frontispiece of a 1624 edition of his Annals. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Jeffdelonge, CC BY-SA 3.0)
What I think is particularly interesting about this is not the hagiographical confusion per se, but rather the way this confusion is treated in the revised Butler’s Lives, which calls it “a sad memorial to the still backward state of critical scholarship at the time when Cardinal Baronius was editing (the Martyrology).” After noting that “(t)he insertion of Felix as Pope and Martyr was not any oversight, for Baronius in his annotated edition of the martyrology refers his readers for an elucidation of the matter to the volume of his great work, the Annales, which was on the point of appearing,” it goes on to ascribe all of the confusion to the Liber Pontificalis, a famous collection of Papal biographies, famously unreliable as an historical document.

It turns out, however, that Baronius’ treatment of the problem is far more detailed and interesting than the brief entry in Butler’s would lead one to believe.

First of all, Baronius did not “insert” Felix into the Martyrology; he was already in the Roman liturgical books (Missal, Breviary and Martyrology) before the Tridentine reform. Moreover, Baronius was perfectly well aware of the historical problem posed by his cultus. In the pre-Tridentine Roman breviary, which he, as a member of the Roman Oratory, would certainly have used, the first lesson of Matins on July 29th tells the story of Felix II in terms similar to those of the Martyrology entry noted above. It is followed, however, by another lesson which gives the history of Pope St Felix III, who reigned from 483-92, and also staunchly opposed a heresy supported by the Roman Emperor, although he was not martyred for this. The prayer of this Office, however, names only one Felix; this strongly suggests that the compilers of this earlier edition of the Breviary hedged their bets, so to speak, as to which Pope named Felix was actually honored by the feast.

Two columns of a Roman Breviary printed at Venice in 1481, with the lessons for July 29th. On the lower left (“lectio prima”) is the historical lesson for the Felix II, and at the upper right (“lectio secunda”) the lesson for Felix III. Notice that in the title of the feast and in the Collect, only one Felix is mentioned.
In the Tridentine Breviary, both of these historical lessons were completely expunged, along with those of the other three martyrs, and their collective feast reduced to just a commemoration on the feast of St Martha. This change is a clear sign that that the editors, Baronius among them, were aware that the statements contained in the older lessons could not to be regarded as historically reliable.

Turning to the relevant entry in Baronius’ Annals (Liberii ann. 4, 56-58) mentioned in Butler’s Lives, we discover the real reason why the notice of Felix as “Pope” was retained. He points out that Felix was (to borrow an odious turn of phrase from modern politics) personally faithful to the Nicene confession of faith, although he did not therefore separate himself from communion with the Arians or refuse ordination at their hands; this, according to the testimony of two ancient Church historians, Sozomen and Theodoret of Cyrus. Since he was deacon under Liberius, who also held fast to the Nicene faith, Baronius thought it unlikely that the latter would promote a convinced heretic to the important position of archdeacon, or keep him in that role. Furthermore, he explains, Felix must have known that he could not legitimately be Pope if Liberius was unlawfully deposed by a heretical Emperor. It was therefore Baronius’ opinion that Felix had accepted episcopal ordination not as the unlawful replacement of Liberius, but rather as a “chorepiscopus”, the title of a bishop who took care of rural areas without a fixed see in a city; effectively, what we would nowadays call an auxiliary bishop. He would have accepted this role so as to not leave the Church of Rome without governance during the exile of its rightful pastor.

Baronius goes on to explicitly state that “what is said about Felix’s ordination in the book about the Roman Popes falsely attributed to the name of Pope Damasus (i.e. the Liber Pontificalis), does not seem to be at all true”, an important recognition of that book’s value (or lack thereof) as an historical source. Further on (Liberii ann. 6, 58), he also notes that the ancient sources were not in agreement as to Felix’s ultimate fate, whether he died in peace near Porto, as is now believed, or was condemned by Constantius and killed at Caere in Tuscany, as formerly stated in the Martyrology.

Baronius then gives an account (ibid. 62) of something which happened in his own time, which vindicates him from Thurston and Attwater’s charge of being a backward scholar. He writes that scholars had long accepted that Felix was an intruder in the papal office, and that the ancient sources did not agree on the circumstances of his death. Under Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85), several learned men had gathered in Rome to work on the revision of the Martyrology, and there had been a great deal of intense discussion among them specifically about the case of Felix. Baronius himself leaned strongly towards removing him altogether, and wrote a lengthy treatise in defense of this position, which found much support and agreement among his colleagues.

Mass for the Lenten Station at Ss Cosmas and Damian in 2017, photographed by our Roman pilgrim friend Agnese.
It happened, however, that in the year 1582, a side-altar of the very ancient church of Ss Cosmas and Damian in the Forum was moved, revealing a marble box that was divided into two parts by a stone slab. On the one side were the relics of three Martyrs, Ss Mark, Marcellian, and Tranquillinus; on the other, bones, and the following inscription on a small stone plaque: “The body of St Felix, Pope and Martyr, who condemned Constantius.” This discovery happened to take place on the day before his feast. “To the wonder of all, Felix himself seemed to appear as one come back to life, as if to personally take up his own cause, since he had been greatly overwhelmed by the pens of those who wrote against him. I myself, struck by no small wonder at an event of such greatness… with the moderation of a Christian, then curbed my pen, which I had sharpened in zeal for the truth, and deemed that it had most happily (felicissime) befallen me to be beaten by Felix.”

Now none of this is to say that Baronius’ assessment of the historical question was necessarily correct, or that the revisers of the liturgical books were wrong to do as they did in 1960 by joining Felix to the other martyrs. It is however, very much to say that whether he was ultimately right or wrong, Cardinal Baronius was not careless; he acted in good faith, and in the belief that divine providence had intervened to prevent the suppression of the long-standing veneration of a Saint. Contrast this with the disdainful attitude of the supposedly far more sophisticated modern scholars, who speak of his work as the product of a “backward” state of affairs, but do not mention the discovery of the relics in connection with him, nor the reason why he changed his mind about St Felix. This cavalier and unjustified attitude of superiority has been all too common for far too long, and we have lived with the damage it has done to the Church’s tradition for far too long.

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