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Papal Library

Celestine I Biography

by Catherine Frakas 02 Jan 2007

Celestine I422-432
Celestine, a Roman priest who had spent some time with St. Ambrose at Milan, was elected on 10 September. In his letter of congratulation St. Augustine asked the new pope to condemn Antonius, an unworthy bishop of Fussala, who had been condemned by the African bishops but restored to his see by Boniface. Celestine agreed. But the outstanding dispute about the African priest, Apiarius, dragged on. Celestine espoused his cause and was confronted by a council of African bishops in 424 or 425, which denied a papal right of interference with their decision. Like Sixtus II confronted with Cyprian, Celestine judged it prudent to keep silence. A few years later St. Leo was to intervene in African affairs and receive appeals.
Celestine dispatched the first missionary Palladius to Ireland. His mission was brief; the evangelist of Ireland was to be St. Patrick. Celestine vigorously pursued the campaign against Pelagianism and after his death in 430 held up St. Augustine to the Gallic bishops as the doctor of grace. Presumably he knew and approved St. Germanus' mission to Britain to combat the heresy.
The outstanding event of this pontificate was the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, had hardly been installed in 428 when he began to preach the doctrine which bears his name. For he was the disciple of an Antiochene school of theology which understood the union of Christ's human and divine natures more loosely than Catholic orthodoxy. For Nestorius the person of Jesus was not the Word, but a new person, the product of divine and a human person. Moreover he objected to Our Lady's long established title, the Mother of God,though he would accept it as explained by himself. Theophilus' nephew, St. Cyril of Alexandria, took instant alarm and condemned Nestorius' teaching. In 430 he denounced him to Celestine who had already received from Nestorius unsatisfactory doctrinal explanations. In July or August 430 Celestine held a council at Rome which condemned the patriarch. A papal letter to Nestorius commanded his submission and retraction within ten days on pain of excommunication. The pope entrusted the execution of his sentence to Cyril. This was an error of judgment. Not only was there a traditional rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople, but St. Cyril's methods were unscrupulous and his terminology unsatisfactory. He now demanded Nestorius' subscription to a list of twelve propositions, among them disputable statements not approved by Celestine and involving serious ambiguity. Nestorius refused to submit and asked the emperor, as also did Cyril, to summon a council. It met at Ephesus on 7 June, 431. In the absence of the Antiochene bishops and the papal legates Cyril, relying on the pope's commission, opened the council on 22 June and obtained its condemnation and excommunication of Nestorius. A few days later the legates, two bishops and a priest, arrived bearing Celestine's peremptory demand not to judge Nestorius, which had already been done, but to promulgate the papal sentence against him. This however was a fait accompli. Meanwhile John, Bishop of Antioch, and his suffragans had arrived. In protest against the opening of the council in their absence they withdrew and for some years there was a schism between Antioch and Alexandria. After some hesitation the Emperor Theodosius II accepted the council's decision, deposed and banished Nestorius.
In Gaul a group of theologians whose leading exponent was Cassian, reacting against the teaching of Augustine, put forward what was to be somewhat misleadingly called the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. Only one of their tenets was in fact unorthodox, namely that, although natural human choice without grace cannot save us, it can initiate the process of salvation. In a letter to the bishops of Gaul, Celestine warmly supported St. Augustine's teaching but abstained from any doctrinal pronouncement. He addressed a letter of rebuke to bishops in Gaul who when celebrating Mass wore a pallium,a scarf of honor reserved for senior bishops, and a girdle, and bade them be done with the worthless superstition of a liturgical vestment.
St. Celestine died on 26 or 27 July, 432 and was buried at the cemetery of Priscilla which he had adorned with paintings.
This biographical data is from The Lives and Times of the Popes by The Chevalier Artaud De Montor. Published by The Catholic Publication Society of New York in ten volumes in 1911. The pictures, included in the volumes, were reproduced from Effigies Pontificum Romanorum Dominici Basae.

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