Feast of Sylvester II (May 13)   2 comments

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SYLVESTER II (CIRCA 945-MAY 12, 1003)

Also Known as Gerbert of Aurillac

Bishop of Rome

Today I add Pope Sylvester II (reigned April 2, 999-May 12, 1003) to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.  The Roman Catholic Church has not seen fit to canonize him; that constitutes an oversight.

I have been pondering adding Pope Sylvester II to my Ecumenical Calendar since the St. Abbo of Fleury post.  Part of the discipline inherent in working of these saints posts is staying on track and not chasing rabbits; one must return to some people later.  I have concluded that Sylvester II deserves a place on a place on my Ecumenical Calendar with one caveat:  My political theories are post-Enlightenment; he were pre-Enlightenment.  Thus I favor the separation of church and state for the benefit of the church, but Sylvester II supported theocracy.  That fact about him troubles me, but the rest of his life offsets that matter.  And he was a product of his times, just as I am a product of mine.

Gerbert of Aurillac was a great intellectual who accepted accurate knowledge wherever he found it.  For this reason many opponents within the Church accused him of being in league with Satan.  These anti-intellectuals shunned the classics of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, calling them “vermin.”  But the works of Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Horace, etc. were not “vermin.”  No, for Gerbert, born into humble origins and educated at Aurillac monastery, they were essential works.  One needed to master the classics and to hone one’s abilities to be an excellent orator, he claimed.

Gerbert was a Renaissance man who lived before the Renaissance.  He studied the night sky with a telescope regularly and mastered mathematics.  He knew how to use an abacus well.  He built clocks and pipe organs.  And, 972 forward, as head of the Rheims Cathedral School, he built up that institution’s reputation as a center of intellectual inquiry.  For Gerbert astronomy, mathematics, Greek classics, good morals, and excellent oratory went hand-in-hand:

With my efforts to lead a good life, I have always tried to speak well, as philosophy does not separate these two things.  While to live a good life is more important than to be a good speaker, still to those of us in public affairs, both powers are necessary.  For it is of the highest advantage to be able to persuade by well-fashioned speech, and by sweet words to restrain angry souls from violence.

–quoted in James Reston, The Last Apocalypse:  Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. (New York:  Doubleday, 1998), page 211

Gerbert’s intellectual reputation in 980 threatened that of Otric, head of the Magdeburg Cathedral School and tutor of German Emperor Otto II (reigned 973-983).  Otric had heard that Gerbert had promoted physics as a branch of mathematics, not as a separate discipline.  Otto II and a rapt audience observed as the intellectuals debated.  Gerbert won the debate and Otto II’s favor.

It was good to have a royal patron, Gerbert learned.  Otto II appointed Gerbert to lead the monastery at Bobbio, which had a vast library, in 983.  Yet mutual misunderstandings led to opposition to Gerbert as abbot.  Otto II died later that year, leaving a three-year-old Otto III (reigned 983-1002), whose throne Gerbert saved from a usurper.  Then, in 984, Gerbert returned to Rheims, where he helped make Hugh Capet (reigned 987-996) then King of France.

Royal and papal politics played major roles in Gerbert’s life in the 990s.  He succeeded to the Archbishopric of Rheims in 991 yet had to vacate that post four years later in favor of one Arnoul.  This was the same Arnoul whom Gerbert had succeeded.  There had been no papal approval for Gerbert’s appointment in 991.  Gerbert argued against such a necessity yet Arnoul favored it.  In 996 Gerbert became the tutor and advisor to his friend, Otto III, who appointed him Archbishop of Ravenna in 998 and pulled strings the next year to make him the Pope.

Gerbert, now Sylvester II, took his regnal name from St. Sylvester I (reigned 314-335), an ally of Roman Emperor Constantine I “the Great.”  From this pontiff Sylvester II drew inspiration for papal-imperial cooperation.  The new Pope dreamed of uniting Europe with the full cooperation of Otto III.

Sylvester II used the powers of the office.  He opposed simony, punished priests who lapsed in their vows of chastity, called for the election of abbots by their monks, and expanded the reach of the Church into Poland, Norway, and Hungary.  He also reversed a previous position, supporting Arnoul’s claim to be Archbishop of Rheims and affirming the papal right to appoint bishops.

Sylvester II’s brief tenure and his shared dream with Otto III faced a great challenge in 1001, when a rebellion forced both of them to flee Rome.  Otto III died in 1002 and Henry II (reigned 1002-1024), son of the usurper from 983, succeeded to the throne.  Sylvester II returned to Rome that year as a purely spiritual leader.

Sylvester II, Bishop of Rome, was a fearless intellectual who challenged the anti-intellectual prejudices of his day.  For that fact I honor him.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 28, 2013 COMMON ERA

MAUNDY THURSDAY

THE FEAST OF SAINT TUTILO, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK AND COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF KAROL SZYMANOWSKI, COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF SAINT GUNTRAM OF BURGUNDY, KING

THE FEAST OF HANS NIELSEN HAUGE, NORWEGIAN LUTHERAN LAY PREACHER

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.

We thank you for the faithful legacy of Pope Sylvester II and all others

who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.

May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Psalm 103

Philippians 4:8-9

Mark 12:28-34

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 6, 2013 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT CHRODEGANG OF METZ, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF EDMUND KING, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF LINCOLN

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2 responses to “Feast of Sylvester II (May 13)

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  1. Pingback: Feast of George Berkeley and Joseph Butler (June 16) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  2. Pingback: Feast of Carl J. Sodergren and Claus A. Wendell (September 5) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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