Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Pope St. Eleuterus

Commemoration (1954 Calendar): May 26

Continuing my series of posts on the History of the Sovereign Pontiffs, I now pick up with the 13th Pope: St. Eleuterus. 

In the year 174, St. Eleuterus succeed Pope St. Soter as the Vicar of Christ after St. Soter suffered martyrdom.  Previously, he served as a Deacon under Pope St. Anicetus. Under his reign, the most notable occurrences included his declared opposition to Gnostics and the Montanists, the sending of Fugatius and Damjan to convert the Britons, and the abrogation of some Jewish dietary customs for Christians.

On St. Eleuterus, the New World Encyclopedia writes:
Eleuterus' most important contribution to church history seems to have been his manner of dealing the Montanism hereasy. At first disposed to tolerate the movement, he was eventually persuaded to condemn it, resulting in the Catholic Church's rejection of prophetic movements in general, as well as solidifying its doctrine that the true teaching authority of the Church resided with the bishops.

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 peculiar nature, affirming the continuation of Christian prophecy and urging a high standard a piety among its members, made it difficult for Christians to take a decisive stand against it.

According to Tertullian, who himself accepted Montanism in his later years, Eleuterus was at first favorably inclined to this movement, but in the end he rejected it. During the violent persecution of Christians by imperial authorities at Lyon in 177, local confessors wrote from their prison concerning the new movement to the Asiatic and Phrygian communities, and also to Eleuterus as the bishop of Rome. The bearer of the letter to Eleuterus 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 rather than the expulsion of the alleged heretics.

Exactly when the Roman Catholic Church took its definite stand against Montanism is not known with 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. The bishop to whom he refers is probably Eleuterus, who long hesitated to anathematize Montanism but eventually declared against them.

Meanwhile, at Rome, the Gnostics and Marcionites continued to preach against the Catholic version of Christianity. The Liber Pontificalis ascribes to Pope Eleuterus 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). Some believe the decree was directed against the Montanists, who often abstained from rich foods. It would also fit with the Church's position against those forms of Christian Gnosticism which practiced vegetarianism, as well as against Jewish Christians who refused to eat non-kosher foods, and even against otherwise orthodox Christians who adhered to the dictum of James in Acts 15:29: "You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals." Some scholars, however, suspect that the decree is anachronistic. In this theory, the writer of the Liber Pontificalis attributed Eleuterus a decree similar to one issued about the year 500.
It is worth remembering the error of Montanism that the Church has condemned:  "The fundamental flaw of Montanism, which it shared with Gnosticism as well as many other heretical movements, was its rejection of the notion of the clergy. Montanus taught 'the Priesthood of the People,' and this was a threat to the existing Church clergy. Much of the history of Christianity has been determined by this repetitive struggle between the clergy of the Church and those who would do away with it" (Early Christian History).  In fact, this same idea has caused the widespread errors of Protestantism in our world as these ideas reject our Divine Lord's establishment of an ordained priesthood.

St. Eleuterus served as the Vicar of Christ until his death in 189.  Pope Eleutherius died on 24 May and was buried on the Vatican Hill (in Vaticano) near the body of St. Peter. Later tradition has his body moved to the church of San Giovanni della Pigna, near the pantheon. In 1591, his remains were again moved to the church of Santa Susanna at the request of Camilla Peretti, the sister of Pope Sixtus V. His feast is celebrated on May 26th.

Like all of the Popes who preceded him, St. Eleuterus was martyred for the True Faith.  We should often call to mind the lives of all of these holy popes and pray for them to intercede for the Church today.  We should also not cease praying for their courage in the face of death and torture.


Look forgivingly on thy flock, Eternal Shepherd, and keep it in thy constant protection, by the intercession of blessed Eleutherius thy Martyr and Sovereign Pontiff, whom thou didst constitute Shepherd of the whole Church. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. R. Amen.

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