Pope Sergius I was the third in a line of six Syrian popes. At that time, the emperor, located in Constantinople (now, Istanbul, Turkey), tended to side more closely with those popes from the East. It worked for a little while….
Sergius was the son of Tiberius, a Syrian from Antioch. The family had moved from Antioch to Palermo, Sicily, possibly due to business, as Sicily was a trading partner with Syria. Born around 650, Sergius was educated in Sicily and then moved to Rome. He was likely part of the Sicilian clergy escaping the intermittent attacks by the Muslims in the mid-7th century. Well known for his skill in liturgical music, he worked his way up through the lower clerical ranks and was a canon regular at St. John Lateran. Sergius is credited with developing a composition “Venerable”, taken from Greek poetry. He was ordained by Pope Leo II as a cardinal-priest on 27 June 683 and was assigned to the church of St. Susanna.
In August 687, Pope Conan, who had been confined to his bed for some time, died. Thus began a power struggle. Knowing that the pope’s death was imminent, the archdeacon, Pascal, promised John Platyn, the exarch in Ravenna, a large sum of gold should Platyn make Pascal’s succession to the papacy happen. A minority supported Pascal. But at the same time, a second minority supported Theodore, the archpriest. When Platyn realized that a majority supported Pope Conan’s request that Sergius be his successor, the exarch approved Sergius. However, he still wanted his gold and pressed the new pope to pay his “fee”, which Sergius did. Theodore ceded his position. Pascal refused. He ended up being held in a monastery on charges of witchcraft and died five years later.
Like most Eastern popes, Sergius was much involved with mission work. He dealt with England extensively. He baptized King Caedwalla of West Saxon in 689. The pope then buried the king at St. Peter’s when he died the same year. The new pope finally got Bishop Wilfrid restored to his rightly see at Herham and Ripon after years of negotiating. He favored St. Aldheim, the abbot of Malmesbury, who was helpful in assisting Wilfrid. Sergius tried to secure the Venerable Bede, the author of the famous history of England, to be his advisor. And he was the pope who consecrated Willibrod bishop to the Frisians.
In dealing with the East, things did not go so smoothly. In 692, a council was called in Constantinople to smooth out the canons of the Fifth and Sixth Councils. It was referred to as the Trullan Council. Only the Eastern bishops were invited. There were three things in particular that sent up red flags. The council forbade the term calling Jesus “Lamb of God”, because it was seen as comparing Jesus to an animal. Second, it allowed Greek priest and deacons to keep marital relations with wives after ordination, as opposed to Western tradition. Third, it placed the Patriarch of Constantinople on a par with the Bishop of Rome. Emperor Justinian, the young man with anger management issues, upheld this Council. Sergius did not. So Justinian sent troops to Rome to kidnap Bishop John of Pontus, the chief papal legate to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and Boniface, the papal counselor. This was to try to teach Sergius a lesson. It did not work and Sergius would not sanction the canons. Then Justinian sent his own commander, Zacharias, to take the pope. The people of Rome and the militia of the exarch protected the pope. And the pope protected Zacharias by letting him hide under the papal bed to avoid being killed. Justinian finally was deposed in 695.
To counterman the attempted ban of “Lamb of God”, Sergius went on to develop the “Agnus Dei” chant used to this day in our Masses.
A group of orthodox Catholics in Antioch were fighting the Muslim Arab expansion and the oppression of Justinian. Sergius appointed St. John Maron as the first Patriarch of these Maronites, who stayed with Rome after the schism 400 years later.
In addition to all this activity, Sergius was able to repair and adorn many churches and instituted parish processions for Candlemas.
He died after serving a relatively long reign on 8 September 701 and was buried at St. Peter’s. His feast day is 8 September.