The story of Pope Boniface III is as much the history of the Byzantine Empire, at the time, as it is the story of a man who became pope. Boniface was the son of a Greek man, John Catadioce, but was born in the environs of Rome somewhere between 540 and 550 AD.
He was ordained a deacon at some point and became known to Pope Gregory the Great. Towards the end of Gregory’s reign, in 597, the future Pope Sabinian, at the time the papal nuncio to Constantinople, returned home, not having been able to accomplish Gregory’s goals. This was a time of great upheaval in the Empire, where Constantinople was the capital and Italy was pretty much on its own, battling barbarian invasions. Gregory had objected to Emperor Maurice allowing the Patriarch of Constantinople to use the term “Ecumenical Bishop”, on the basis that the term would imply the head of Christianity. Gregory wanted the patriarchs and the bishop of Rome to be equal.
In 602, Emperor Maurice was caught up in a civil war. He was captured and executed by Phocas, once a minor official in Maurice’s army. Phocas then declared himself the new emperor.
In 603, Pope Gregory again sent a papal nuncio to Constantinople, Boniface. Gregory admired Boniface, saying he was a “man of tried faith and character”. The tact and prudence Boniface displayed in his time at the capital made the new emperor regard the nuncio with favor. Boniface stayed for several years, throughout the papacy of Sabinian.
Sabinian’s papacy was in difficulty for a number of reasons, not least of which was the plague and famine, disrupting the social and political cycles. When Sabinian died in 606, Boniface did not return to Rome for a year. Some say he was still too busy with his work. Others say he questioned the election and wanted to wait until he was sure of the election results.
Whatever caused his delay, Boniface returned to Rome and was consecrated February 19, 607. He was only on the throne of Peter until November 12 of the same year. Yet his short reign changed the perspective of the papacy.
Emperor Phocas was an admitted murderer, having killed Maurice as well as others. The Patriarch of Constantinople, now Cyriacus, did not favor Phocas. He had gone so far as to berate Phocas at the emperor’s coronation about his dealings. Boniface asked Phocas to rescind the Patriarch’s title of “Ecumenical Bishop”. Phocas wrote him an edict , to wit, “The See of Blessed Peter the Apostle should be the head of all the Churches”. Suddenly the various sees were not at all equal and the Roman bishop was the exclusive “Universal Bishop”. This seems to be contrary to what Pope Gregory believed and argued for.
Unsure of the recently transpired election, perhaps, Boniface held a council in Rome attended by 72 bishops and most of the Roman clergy. The decree was issued that no one could discuss the appointment of a successor to a live bishop or pope, under pain of excommunication. In addition, no one could discuss such an appointment until the bishop or pope had been buried for three days. This, supposedly, would stop negotiations from going forward and affect an election.
Unfortunately, Pope Boniface III did not live out the year and was buried at St. Peter’s Basilica.
A quote to remember from Pope Boniface III: “He who does a deed by the hand of another, is the same as if he did it himself.”