|St. John I, 52nd successor to St. Peter|
Pope St. John I was a great defender of the truth of the divinity of the Son of God and died on May 18th in the prison of the Arian King Theodoric at Ravenna in 526, having served the Church as Supreme Pontiff for two years, nine months and seven days. His remains were translated to the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome on May 27th, the day in which his feast is commemorated in the Usus Antiquior.
Additionally, this holy pontiff worked to maintain unity between the East and the West and helped to establish the current mode of calculating the date of Easter (in the Latin Church).
The Easter debate, in brief
By the time of Pope St. John I, it had already been determined that the yearly calculation of the date of Easter would be somewhat independent of the date of Jewish Passover – insofar as Easter would always fall on a Sunday, even when the Passover fell on another day. Still, there was diversity of opinion as to just how independent the Church should be from the Jewish traditions.
Some (principally in Antioch) calculated Easter after the same mode of the Jewish reckoning of the Passover – Easter falling on the Sunday after the Jewish feast of 15 Nissan (that is the 15th day of the first month of the ecclesiastical Jewish Calendar). However, this would occasionally allow the celebration of Easter before the vernal equinox.
The Alexandrians, however, celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – hence, Easter would never fall before the equinox. According to the Alexandrian calculation, Easter could fall no earlier than March 22 and no later than April 25.
In this dispute Pope St. John I sided with the Alexandrians, and this has become the norm in the West. However, many (perhaps all) of the Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) follow the Antiochian calculation of Easter. Hence, the Easter celebration in the East and the West does not often coincide. By a happy coincidence, the two methods of calculation yielded the same date this year – on April 24th, Catholics and Orthodox of both the East and the West celebrated the Easter feast.
Pope John I celebrates Easter in the East
In 526, shortly before Easter that year, Pope St. John I visited Constantinople in order to advise and encourage Emperor Justin in the best means of suppressing the Arian heresy. This was the first papal visit to the East since the time of the apostles and Pope John was greeted with great joy and solemnity – the Emperor even prostrate himself before the Roman Pontiff.
On 19 April 526, exercising his authority as the supreme shepherd of the universal Church, Pope John celebrated the Easter Mass in the Hagia Sophia according to the Latin Rite and was seated on a throne which was higher than that of the local patriarch, Epiphanius. Moreover, in a modification of the local tradition, John I (rather than the patriarch) crowned Emperor Justin with a customary Easter crown.
The eastern patriarchs did not see this as a slight to their own dignity, but “made haste to manifest their communion in the Faith with the supreme pontiff; only Timothy of Alexandria, who had shown himself hostile to the Council of Chalcedon, held aloof.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope John I)
The Roman Pontiff as the foundation of the unity of the universal Church
Pope St. John I knew that the unity of the Church is founded in the successor of St. Peter. Though the bishops exercise their authority as the Vicar of Christ in their own dioceses, Peter alone has been established as the supreme shepherd for the whole Church. While the pontiff respects the traditions of local churches, he also brings these traditions together by uniting them in the Tradition.
“The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches the one and only Catholic Church comes into being. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.” (Lumen Gentium 23)