19 August – Sixtus III (Pelagian heretic?), other Sixti, and correspondence with Augustine

It is nice to make connections which show us how the Church was always alive throughout the centuries before our own time.  This is what the ideologues of the “spirit” of the Council want to disconnect and rupture.

There are various Papi Sisti in our histri.  You will recalled that Sixtus I (+115) is the sixth after Peter, and is celebrated on 6 April and was succeeded by Telephorus, whom hardly anyone prays to for help.  You will recall that Sixtus II (+257) was Rome’s bishop in the time of the Valerianic persecution when he and St. Lawrence were martyred.  He is the Sixtus in the Roman Canon.  He established that only sacred ministers should touch holy vessels.  Sixtus IV (+1484 della Rovere) built the “Ponte Sisto” which we looked at together in a Rome post with video.  You will recall that Sixtus V (+1590 Piergentile), an old Franciscan with two canes, on his election threw aside the canes and stripped cardinals of their benefices, closed the dome of St. Peter’s, started the Library, drained swamps, rearranged the city according to his coat of arms, set up obelisks, engaged Palestrina to form the Graduale Romanum, excommunicated Henry IV of France, published the Latin vulgate, and was suspicious of the Jesuits.  All in all, a great Pope.  He was Pope for only 5 years.

Alas, probably the last to choose the regnal name “Sixtus”.

What about Sixtus III (+440)?

Today is the feast of St. Pope Sixtus III, whom you will remember as having been involved with the “Liberian Basilica”, more commonly known as St. Mary Major in Rome.

Pope Sixtus has an entry in the Roman Martyrology:

6. Romae via Tiburtina iuxta Sanctum Laurentium, depositio sancti Xysti papae Tertii, qui inter Antiochenum patriarchatum et Alexandrinum dissensiones composuit atque in Urbe beatae Mariae basilicam plebi Dei dedit in Exquiliis. …

At Rome in the Via Tiburtina near (the Basilica of) Saint Lawrence (outside the walls) the Deposition (of the body) of Saint Sixtus III, pope, who resolved the disagreements between the Patriarchs of Antioch and of Alexandria, and gave to the people of God the Basilica of Blessed Mary on the Esquiline Hill.

Sixtus tried to heal a rift between St. Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch, who had aligned himself with the Nestorians.

Tracking back to the dedication of S.M. Maggiore,  the Basilica was completed by Pope Sixtus III and his archdeacon Leo (later Pope Leo I “the Great”).  Leo suceeded Sixtus.

Here is what the Roman Martyrology says about that:

Dedicatio basilicae Sanctae Mariae, Romae in Exquilis conditae, quam in memoriam Concilii Ephesini, in quo Maria Virgo Dei Genetrix salutata est, Xystus papa Tertius plebi Dei obtulit….

The dedication of the basilica of Saint Mary founded in Rome on the Esquiline hill, which Sixtus III, Pope consecrated for God’s People as a memorial of the Council of Ephesus during which the Virgin Mary was hailed as Mother of God.

In the basilica you can see the great triumphal arch decorated with beautiful mosaics prepared and directed by the future Pope Leo I having anti-Manichean themes.

On the summit of the curve of the arch you see the name of “Xystus Episcopus Plebi Dei” even to this day.  Sixtus III.

Here is the old Catholic Encylopedia entry for Sixtus III (emphasis mine):

Consecrated 31 July, 432; d. 440. Previous to his accession he was prominent among the Roman clergy and in correspondence with St. Augustine. He reigned during the Nestorian and Pelagian controversies, and it was probably owing to his conciliatory disposition that he was falsely accused of leanings towards these heresies. As pope he approved the Acts of the Council of Ephesus and endeavoured to restore peace between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch. In the Pelagian controversy he frustrated the attempt of Julian of Eclanum to be readmitted to communion with the Catholic Church. He defended the pope’s right of supremacy over Illyricum against the local bishops and the ambitious designs of Proclus of Constantinople. At Rome he restored the Basilica of Liberius, now known as St. Mary Major, enlarged the Basilica of St. Lawrence-Without-the-Walls, and obtained precious gifts from the Emperor Valentinian III for St. Peter’s and the Lateran Basilica. The work which asserts that the consul Bassus accused him of crime is a forgery. He is the author of eight letters (in P.L., L, 583 sqq.), but he did not write the works “On Riches”, “On False Teachers”, and “On Chastity” (“De divitiis”, “De malis doctoribus”, “De castitate”) attributed to him. His feast is kept on 28 March.

Well… his feast is now today in the Novus Ordo calendar, not 28 March.  I believe he is not in the calendar of the 1962 Missale, since today is St. John Eudes.

Sixtus corresponded with Augustine! Let’s see if we can find a letter. Yes, indeed, here it is.

You see, Sixtus (before his ascent to the See of Rome) was thought to be a supporter of Pelagius.

Augustine get’s into it with him in ep. 194 written in 418. Augustine had also written ep. 191 to him some time before. We need some background into the fascinating time in our family the Church’s history.

Ep. 194 was addressed to Sixtus, who was at the time a priest of the clergy of Rome. Sixtus would not be elected Pope until 432. Augustine wrote to Sixtus about Pelagian issues, since Sixtus was thought to be a supporter of Pelagius. Augustine pressed Sixtus to silence, on the one hand, but to instruct the heretics, on the other.  Thus, he gave Sixtus some talking points about the absolute gratuity of the election of the predestined to salvation.

Pope Sixtus III was not a Pelagian heretic when he was Bishop of Rome.

The issue of predestination and grace would be at the heart of the so-called “Semi-Pelagian” controversy. And it was this very letter, ep. 192 from Augustine to Sixtus, which eventually would spark a real controversy for the monks of Adrumentum in North Africa.

One of the monks of Hadrumentum, Florus found a copy of the letter in the library of Evodius the Bishop of Uzalis.  Florus sent a copy to the monks back home in Hadrumentum and they got all riled up about predestination and grace.

They were shocked by what Augustine was saying and concluded that, for example, there superior shouldn’t punish them if they didn’t pray or if they behaved badly, but should rather simply pray that God would give them the grace they were apparently lacking.

The monks were wondering what good it was to pray, etc., if everything was predestined.

These monks wrote to Augustine for a clarification about what he had written to Sixtus. Augustine responded to their abbot with two works, On Grace and Free Will and On Correction and Grace. Augustine’s letters 214 and 215 have more on all this business.

The letter itself, ep. 192, starts with Augustine saying how happy he is that Sixtus was against the Pelagians. He distinguishes the different types of Pelagians and how to deal with them. Some ought to be silenced and some instructed. He then says in a nutshell that because of Adam’s sin everyone deserves damnation. Through the Sacrifice of the Cross Christ’s merits and justification are extended to us sinners. Since none of us deserve grace on our own, we are justly damned, except for Christ’s merits. We cannot in ourselves merit even the choice of who will receive grace, either because of what we might have done in the past or what God foresees we will do in the future. God saves some out of mercy and He is just when people are damned. He uses the example of infants who die, some baptized and some not baptized. God foresees all outcomes and in mercy provides baptism for some and not for others. It is divine providence, not luck or fate or destiny outside of what God foresees. Similarly, God allows some who hear the Good News to convert and be justified, and to others he does not extend this grace. Even our prayers for mercy and our faith are graces. This is where we get the famous concept that God crowns his own merits in us.

Let us see some of ep. 194 from Augustine to Sixtus, later St. Pope Sixtus III.

18. … But we must confess that God helps us in one way before he dwells in a person and in another way when He dwells in a person. For, when He dwells in a person, he helps a person who is already a believer.

19. What merit, then, does a human being have before grace so that by that merit he may recieve grace, since only grace produces us us every good merit of our and since, when God crowns our merits, He crowns His own gifts?

Does that phrase about crowning his own gifts in us sound familiar? It ought to. It is in one of the new Prefaces, de sanctis” – (De gloria Sanctorum), in the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum which in English is called the Preface “of Holy Men and Women”:

Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere: Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus: Qui in Sanctorum concilio celebraris, et eorum coronando merita tua dona coronas. Qui nobis eorum conversatione largiris exemplum, et communione consortium, et intercessione subsidium; ut, tantis testibus confirmati, ad propositum certamen curramus invicti et immarcescibilem cum eis coronam gloriae consequamur, per Christum Dominum nostrum. Et ideo cum Angelis et Archangelis, cumque multiplici congregatione Sanctorum, hymnum laudis tibi canimus, sine fine dicentes: …

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.
For you are praised in the company of your Saints
and, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.
By their way of life you offer us an example,
by communion with them you give us companionship,
by their intercession, sure support,
so that, encouraged by so great a cloud of witnesses,
we may run as victors in the race before us
and win with them the imperishable crown of glory,
through Christ our Lord.
And so, with the Angels and Archangels,
and with the great multitude of the Saints,
we sing the hymn of your praise,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. maternalView says:

    Thank you, Father. A very enjoyable post.

  2. It’s not important, but I would enjoy having Sixtus Sixtus; or is it Sixtus Sixti?

  3. TonyO says:

    It is good to be reminded just how far back this basic point of our belief goes as to when it was clarified and taught definitively.

    I have been stymied in trying to understand why Francis tries to lay the accusation of being pelagian, (or semi-pelagian) on orthodox Catholics (errr, I mean: on traditionalists). One guess (as appears, from what he says, and which some have claimed regarding him) is that somehow or other he has gotten it into his head that you don’t need to be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist with benefit, and that those who thus insist that unbelievers and those in mortal sin must not receive are meanies, and when they (the meanies) turn around and themselves receive our Lord, they are effectively patting themselves on the back for having “earned the right” to receive – presumably, by their good works.

    Whereas orthodox believers (including trads) do think, with St. Paul, that you need to be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist. But in no wise do true believers think that it is their good works that have earned them the grace they live in: God grants the grace as free gift (hence its name), and it is by that grace that they do good works: or rather (a) that God Himself does the good works through them, and (b) that the only thing THEY contribute of their very own is their blocking, slowing down, or impeding God’s good works by their sins (as St. Josemaria Escriva said of himself), all else being what God accomplishes in them when they cooperate with God (i.e. by not impeding), not what they accomplish of their own work. Thus God crowns his own gifts and works.

    I hope it is not true that Francis somehow believes that you can receive Holy Communion with benefit without being in the state of grace or without being in Communion with the Holy Church, in spite of sometimes ambiguous appearances.

  4. Amina says:

    I pray to Pope Saint Telesphorus, Father. My Litany of Saints is up to a little under 300 now. I still don’t find which Sixtus built the Sixtene Chapel, though. Thanks for covering church history with this post. I read that the study of Martyrs used to be considered a “science.” Why this is neglected in our religious classes baffles me. There is a great website of catholic saints that I read daily- such a treasure. One of the details of the Papal hierarchy it seems during St Lawrence was that it was only maybe 7 people.. The Pope and a few deacons- that’s it! I can’t really comment on various heresies, they are too intricate for me and – knowing me- I might by suggestion be drawn into the erroring side, so I just have to skip it.

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