Saint John I, Pope and Martyr
On May 18, the Church honors the first Pope St. John in its history. Saint John I, a martyr, was incarcerated and starved to death by a heretical Germanic king during the sixth century.
Pope John was born in Tuscany. He served as an archdeacon for several years before being elected Pope on the death of Pope St. Hormisdas in 523. He was a friend and confidant of the philosopher Boethius.
In 525 Pope John was sent to Constantinople by King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths to reverse the edict of the Emperor Justin against the Arians two years earlier, which required Arians to give back churches which they had taken from orthodox Catholics. Throdoric was himself an Arian and a strong defender of Arianism (a heresy which arose in the 4th century that denied the divinity of Christ).
Even though Theodoric wanted a reversal of Justin’s policy, Pope John did not comply with his wishes, refusing to support heresy, and only counseled the Emperor Justin to be more gentle in his overzealous dealings with the Arians.
The success that Pope John achieved was contrary to the wishes of Theodoric; rather, he was received as the Successor of Peter and all the bishops of the East, with the exception of one, affirmed their communion with him and his precedence as Bishop of Rome, notable by the fact that it was he who presided over the Easter liturgy in Constantinople on April 19, 526. Even the Emperor Justin prostrated himself at the Pope’s feet.
However, on his return to Rome, Theodoric, who had just murdered John’s good friend Boethius, and was furious with the outcome of the mission, had the Pope imprisoned in Ravenna where he died of starvation and ill treatment.
His body was taken to Rome where he now lies buried in the basilica of St. Peter.