Pope Eleuterus

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Pope Saint Eleuterus, or Eleutherius, (Greek Ελευθέριος) was Bishop of Rome from about 174 to 189 (the Vatican cites 171 or 177 to 185 or 193). He was born in Nicopolis in Epirus. His name is Greek for free.

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, whom he succeeded in about 174.

Catholic reactions to the Montanist movement

The Montanist movement, which originated in Asia Minor, made its way to Rome and Gaul in the second half of the second century, around the reign of Eleuterus. Its nature did not diverge so much from the orthodoxy of the time for it to initially be labeled heresy. 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 Eleuterus. The bearer of their letter to the pope was the presbyter Irenaeus, soon to become 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 certainty. 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 Eleuterus, 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.

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) or literally, "Here accept the letter from Lucius Brittanius, king, that he might become a Christian by his own will". Whence the author of the first part of the Liber Pontificalis drew this information, it is now impossible to say.

As at the end of the second century the Roman administration was so securely established in Britain south of Caledonia, that there could no longer have been any real native kings in that part of the island. That some tribal chief there, 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 quarter 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 British Church and the nascent mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Saxons, recently arrived 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. Bede is the first English writer (673–735) to mention the story repeatedly (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, 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 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.

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