Pope Eleuterus

Eleuterus or Eleutherius

Eleuterus or Eleutherius or Eleutherus was pope from about 174 to 189 (the Vatican cites 171 or 177 to 185 or 193). He was born in Nicopolis in Epirus.

His contemporary Hegesippus wrote that he was a deacon of the Roman Church under Pope Anicetus (c. 154 - 164), and remained so under Pope Soter, the following pope, whom he succeeded in about 174.

Even though the treatment of Christians under Marcus Aurelius was distressing in various parts of the Roman Empire, the persecution in Rome itself does not seem to have been so violent. The historian De Rossi, dates the martyrdom of St. Cecilia towards the end of Aurelius' reign. During the reign of Commodus (180 - 192) the Christians enjoyed a practically unbroken peace, although the martyrdom of St. Apollonius at Rome took place at the time (180 - 185).

Eleuterus or Eleutherius

Catholic reactions to the Montanist movement

The Montanist movement, that originated in Asia Minor, made its way to Rome and Gaul in the second half of the Second century, more precisely about the reign of Eleutherius; its peculiar nature made it difficult for Christians to take a decisive stand against it. During the violent persecution at Lyon, in 177, local confessors wrote from their prison concerning the new movement to the Asiatic and Phrygian communities, and also to Pope Eleutherius. The bearer of their letter to the pope was the presbyter Irenæus, soon afterwards the Bishop of Lyon. It appears from statements of Eusebius concerning these letters that the Christians of Lyon, though opposed to the Montanist movement, advocated patience and pleaded for the preservation of ecclesiastical unity.

Exactly when the Roman Catholic Church took its definite stand against Montanism is not known with any certanity. It would seem from Tertullian's account (adv. Praxeam, I) that a Roman bishop did send some conciliatory letters to the Montanists, but these letters, says Tertullian, were subsequently recalled. He probably refers to Pope Eleutherius, who long hesitated, but after a conscientious and thorough study of the situation, is supposed to have declared against the Montanists. At Rome, the Gnostics and Marcionites continued to preach against the Catholic church. The "Liber Pontificalis" ascribes to Pope Eleutherius a decree that no kind of food should be despised by Christians (Et hoc iterum firmavit ut nulla esca a Christianis repudiaretur, maxime fidelibus, quod Deus creavit, quæ tamen rationalis et humana est). Possibly he did issue such an edict against the Gnostics and Montanists; it is also possible that on his own responsibility the writer of the "Liber Pontificalis" attributed to this pope a similar decree current about the year 500.

The Conversion of a British King?

The same writer is responsible for a curious and interesting assertion concerning the early missionary activity of the Roman Church; indeed, the "Liber Pontificalis" contains no other statement equally remarkable. Pope Eleutherius, says this writer, received from Lucius, a British king, a letter in which the latter declared that by his behest he wishes to become a Christian (Hic accepit epistula a Lucio Brittanio rege, ut Christianus efficerentur per ejus mandatum). Whence the author of the first part of the "Liber Pontificalis" drew this information, it is now impossible to say. Historically speaking, the fact is quite improbable, and is rejected by all recent critics.

As at the end of the Second century the Roman administration was so securely established in Britain, that there could no longer have been in the island any real native kings. That some tribal chief, known as king, should have applied to the Roman bishop for instruction in the Christian faith seems improbable enough at that period. The unsupported assertion of the "Liber Pontificalis", a compilation of papal biographies that in its earliest form cannot accurately date the first qutarter of the Sixth century, is not a sufficient basis for the acceptance of this statement. By some it is considered a story intended to demonstrate the Roman origin of the British Church, and consequently the latter's natural subjection to Rome. To make this clearer they locate the origin of the legend in the course of the Seventh century, during the dissensions between the primitive British Church and the Anglo-Saxon Church recently established from Rome. But for this hypothesis all proof is lacking. It falls before the simple fact that the first part of the "Liber Pontificalis" was complied long before these dissensions, most probably (Duchesne) by a Roman cleric in the reign of Pope Boniface II (530 - 532), or (Waitz and Mommsen) early in the seventh century. Moreover, during the entire conflict that centered around the peculiar customs of the Early British Church no reference is ever made to this alleged King Lucius. Saint Bede is the first English writer (673 - 735) to mention the story repeatedly (Hist. Eccl., I, V; V, 24, De temporum ratione, ad an. 161), and he took it, not from native sources, but from the "Liber Pontificalis". Harnack suggests a more plausible theory (Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Akademie, 1904, I, 906-916). In the document, he holds, from which the compiler of the "Liber Pontificalis" drew his information the name found was not Britanio, but Britio. Now this is the name (Birtha- Britium) of the fortress of Edessa. The king in question is, therefore, Lucius Ælius Septimus Megas Abgar IX, of Edessa, a Christian king, as is well known. The original statement of the "Liber Pontificalis", in this hypothesis, had nothing to do with Britain. The reference was to Abgar IX of Edessa. But the compiler of the "Liber Pontificalis" changed Britio to Brittanio, and in this way made a British king of the Syrian Lucius.

The ninth-century "Historia Brittonum" sees in Lucius a translation of the Celtic name Llever Maur (Great Light), says that the envoys of Lucius were Fagan and Wervan, and tells us that with this king all the other island kings (reguli Britanniæ) were baptized (Hist. Brittonum, xviii). Thirteenth century chronicles add other details. The "Liber Landavensis", for example (ed. Rees, 26, 65), makes known the names of Elfan and Medwy, the envoys sent by Lucius to the pope, and transfers the king's dominions to Wales. An echo of this legend penetrated even to Switzerland. In a homily preached at Chur and preserved in an Eighth - or Ninth century manuscript, St. Timothy is represented as an apostle of Gaul, whence he came to Britain and baptized there a king named Lucius, who became a missionary, went to Gaul, and finally settled at Chur, where he preached the gospel with great success. In this way Lucius, the early missionary of the Swiss district of Chur, became identified with the alleged British king of the "Liber Pontificalis".

The latter work is the authority for the statement that Pope Eleutherius died on 24 May, and was buried on the Vatican Hill (in Vaticano) near the body of St. Peter. His feast is celebrated on 26 May.




Preceded by: Saint Soter

Pope of the Roman Catholic Church 175 to 189

Succeeded by: Saint Victor I

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