Rorate Caeli

Scandal in Constantinople
1150 years ago

The schism of the Churches in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, completely materialized only in the 11th Century, began in earnest with scandalous events in the Byzantine court exactly 1150 years ago, in November 857. The [old] Catholic Encyclopedia details the events, in the biography of one of the most brilliant and astute clerics in History, Photius. As it would happen in a future schism in the West, the desire of a ruler to have the Church accept his unlawful relationship and the whims of an ambitious bishop would ignite an unpredictable chain of events, which, in less than 200 years, would definitively separate millions from full communion with the Vicar of Christ:

In the year 857, then, when the crisis came in his life, Photius [then, a layman] was already one of the most prominent members of the Court of Constantinople. That crisis is the story of the Great Schism.

The emperor was Michael III (842-67), son of the Theodora who had finally restored the holy images. When he succeeded his father Theophilus (829-842) he was only three years old; he grew to be the wretched boy known in Byzantine history as Michael the Drunkard (ho methystes). Theodora, at first regent, retired in 856, and her brother Bardas succeeded, with the title of Cæsar.

Bardas lived in incest with his daughter-in-law Eudocia, wherefore the Patriarch Ignatius (846-57) refused him Holy Communion on the Epiphany of 857. Ignatius was deposed and banished (Nov. 23, 857), and the more pliant Photius was intruded into his place.

He was hurried through Holy Orders in six days; on Christmas Day, 857, Gregory Asbestas of Syracuse, himself excommunicate for insubordination by Ignatius, ordained Photius patriarch. By this act Photius committed three offences against canon law: he was ordained bishop without having kept the interstices, by an excommunicate consecrator, and to an already occupied see. To receive ordination from an excommunicate person made him too excommunicate ipso facto.