On May 18, the Catholic Church honors the first “Pope John” in its history. Saint John I was a martyr for the faith, imprisoned and starved to death by a heretical Germanic king during the sixth century.
He was a friend of the renowned Christian philosopher Boethius, who died in a similar manner.
Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians also honor Pope St. John I, on the same date as the Roman Catholic Church.
The future Pope John I was born in Tuscany, and served as an archdeacon in the Church for several years. He was chosen to become the Bishop of Rome in 523, succeeding Pope St. Hormisdas.
During his papal reign Italy was ruled by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric. Like many of his fellow tribesmen, the king adhered to the Arian heresy, holding that Christ was a created being rather than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Arianism had originated in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire during the fourth century, and subsequently spread among the Western Goths. By the sixth century the heresy was weak in the East, but not dead.
In 523, the Byzantine Emperor Justin I ordered Arian clergy to surrender their churches into orthodox Catholic hands. In the West, meanwhile, Theodoric was angered by the emperor’s move, and responded by trying to use the Pope’s authority for his own ends.
Pope John was thus placed in an extremely awkward position. Despite the Pope’s own solid orthodoxy, the Arian king seems to have expected him to intercede with the Eastern emperor on behalf of the heretics. John’s refusal to satisfy King Theodoric would eventually lead to his martyrdom.
John did travel to Constantinople, where he was honored as St. Peter’s successor by the people, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Church’s legitimate Eastern patriarchs. (The Church of Alexandria had already separated by this point.) The Pope crowned the emperor, and celebrated the Easter liturgy at the Hagia Sophia Church in April of 526.
But while John could urge Justin to treat the Arians somewhat more mercifully, he could not make the kind of demands on their behalf that Theodoric expected.
The gothic king, who had recently killed John’s intellectually accomplished friend Boethius (honored by the Church as St. Severinus Boethius, on Oct. 23), was furious with the Pope when he learned of his refusal to support the Arians in Constantinople.
Already exhausted by his travels, the Pope was imprisoned in Ravenna and deprived of food. The death of St. John I came on or around May 18, which became his feast day in the Byzantine Catholic tradition and in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, he is celebrated on May 27, the date on which his exhumed body was returned to Rome for veneration in St. Peter’s Basilica.