top of page
  • hbanziger

F - 156 : Popes and Patriarchs

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill meeting in Cuba in 2016

Media these days are full of news of the horrors of war in the Ukraine. The pictures of Russian rockets hitting apartment buildings and hospitals are shockking. So are the photos of bodies of slain people near buses lined up for their evacuation. We learn that the Pope visited out of protocol the Russian Embassy in Rome to pleadfor an end of violence. At the same time the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow justifies and supports Putin’s invasion. Two Christian leaders - two fundamentally opposing positions. What is going on? This summer, we are visiting the place where this schism started: Constantinople. It is here where Christianity became a state religion under Emperor Constantin the Great. Until his reign, Christians were a minority, accounting for maybe 10% of Romans; it was a grass root religion, founded bottom up with a message of hope for the weak, sick, unprivileged and excluded. Its major event was the communal dinner once a week. It later became the holy communion. There were no churches, no paid positions, no bureaucracy, just faith.

Constantine's (272 - 337) colossal Head is displayed

today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome

All that changed when Constantine became Emperor. He mobilized Christian support for his bid for the throne. Fighting in the name of Jesus helped to motivate his army. Later in his reign, he closed the ancient temples, confiscated their gold and took their silver. The Roman Empire was bankrupt. He needed gold and silver to pay for the mercenaries who made up his army, 60’000 of them Goths. His new capital was built by taxing non-Christian citizens. The town was to have only churches, no temples. It was a clean break from Rome.

Constantine not only ruled an empire. He also took the lead in church matters. Even though not baptized yet, he convened all bishops in Nicaea in 325 AD. Questions of doctrine and church law had to be dealt with. Ordering 50 bible copies, he also accelerated the New Testament’s codification. The last thing Constantine needed was friction in his most loyal constituency. He was the undisputed leader of the Roman Army, the Roman Empire and also the Christian Church. He continued the long Roman tradition of the Emperor being the priest of priests.

The four ancient Eastern Patriarchates

After 100 AD, three patriarchates (patriarchos = father of the family) emerged to coordinate church issuess. There was the patriarchate of Antioch, where most of the New Testament was written, one in Alexandria and the one in Rome. The colloquial name for the Roman Patriarch was Papa, which gave us the name Pope. Under Constantine and his successors the patriarchs were institutionalized. But now they were appointed by the Emperor. They advised him on religious matters but the decision making was the Emperor’s. To have a patriarch close by, the Patriarchate of Constantinople was created in 440 AD. The Patriarch of Rome, as successor to slain Apostle Peter, remained “primus inter pares” (first among equals). The influence of the Patriarch of Constantinople increased though given its proximity to the Emperor – communicating with Rome could easily take 3 months.

The Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Patriarch of Constantinople (on the right), was part of the Imperial Palace Complex

As the power of the Byzantine Empire withered under Arab incursions and Constantinople could not protect Rome any longer, Pope III (750 – 816 AD) looked for a new, powerful overlord and found one in Charlemagne. At that time, Byzantium was ruled by Empress Irene. Leo III used the pretext that a woman could not head the Christian Church to break with Constantinople. Most importantly, it was now the Pope, the self-proclaimed deputy of God on Earth, who put the crown on Charlemagne’s head. Under Byzantine tradition, an Emperor crowned his successor on his dead bed or crowned himself. The patriarch of Constantinople played only a formal role. Leo III herewith created the precedent of Popes becoming Europe’s king makers. With 10% of all church revenues, the Pope was not only the wealthiest person in Western Europe, he now also held the veto on any coronation. From 800 AD, the power of the church and the power of the state were split. Never would a Pope ever take instructions from a sovereign again.

Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III by Raphael in 1517 in the Pope's Private Rooms

The new power center in Rome was not undisputed. Centuries of war between Papists and Monarchs followed. Nobody won and all ended in a stalemate. The dual threat of the Ottoman Empire and the Protestant Rebellion forced the Popes to align themselves again with the ruling monarchs. Gradually, popes were sidelined by the nation states. Calvinist places like Geneva or Zurich abolished the church hierarchy. The Founding Fathers in America completely separated church and state. By 1870, the Papal State was reduced to the area within the Vatican Walls. Since 800 AD however, the Pope is and remains the sole and independent head of the Catholic Church . Something that has not changed to today.

Empress Irene on a Byzantine Coin

The situation for the Orthodox Christians was different. Patriarchs remained advisors, never becoming the head of church. When the Catholic and Orthodox formally split in 1054, the Patriarch of Constantinople was made the Primus Inter Pares of all the Eastern Patriarchs. But the title carried little power. Over the following centuries, the four Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople were joined by new Patriarchates in Bulgaria, Georgia, Serbia, Russia and Romania. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow tried to assume the role of first amongst equal – “the Third Rome” – but never fully succeeded. In all orthodox countries, the ruling monarch headed the church. But even the weak position of a Patriarchs was sometime too much for a monarch. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1682 – 1725), abolished the position of Russian Patriarch and replaced it with an even weaker Synod whose member he personally selected. Orthodox Patriarchs are and were never independent.

When seeing Pope Francis, the Head of the Vatican State, on a “pilgrimage” to the Russian Embassy pleading for peace whilst Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill openly supports Putin’s war, we hear echoes of history. Most people do not pay much attention to the development of our institutions. But they matter. Patriarch Kirill is a state employee. He was picked by Putin as a loyal fellow. It is visible in his statements and a shame for Christianity.

23 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page