Pope St. Sergius I and the Agnus Dei Prayer

The challenges facing Pope Sergius I began prior to his election in 687 A.D. He was far from a unanimous choice for pontiff, brought forward as an alternative to an archpriest named Theodore and an archdeacon named Pascal, who competed strongly for the position. Pascal, not accepting defeat graciously, continued to dispute the outcome, and was eventually relegated to a monastery.

Still, Pope Sergius had larger problems with which to contend. The Byzantine Empire, including much of southeastern Europe and western Asia, was under the despotic rule of Emperor Justinian II. Young, cruel and impetuous, Justinian dreamed of restoring the Roman Empire to its former glory, with few or no qualms about pursuing his goals ruthlessly. Having succeeded his father as emperor at an early age, Justinian was still in his teens when Sergius became pope. Perhaps sensing the independence of the Roman pontiff, Justinian viewed Sergius as an adversary.

Matters came to a head in 692 A.D., when Justinian convened the Quinisext Council in Constantinople, bringing together bishops from that region. Justinian had his own ideas about how the Church should be governed. His sentiment, along with that of many others, was that Constantinople should be on a more equal footing with Rome, with the Patriarch of Constantinople an equal of the Pope. The Council was, in addition to being a canonical debate forum, an assertion of authority by Justinian and his clergy followers.

Pope Sergius I had not sanctioned the Council, and he refused Justinian’s “order” to simply sign off on the results. When the Pope made clear that not all of the 102 canons developed by the Council would be adopted, Justinian was predictably enraged, and sought to have the pontiff arrested and delivered to Constantinople.

The general Justinian sent to take the Pope hostage, whose name was Zacharias, arrived in Rome and proceeded to try to arrest Sergius. However, even as he sought to implement his scheme, the city was surrounded by papal supporters from Rome and Ravenna. As the pope’s allies quickly moved in on the papal palace, Zacharias suddenly found himself begging for help from his own hostage, at one point hiding under the papal bed.

Pope Sergius mercifully intervened on Zacharias’ behalf, speaking to his own supporters in defense of Justinian’s agent. The arrest attempt was foiled and, thanks to a very merciful pope, Zacharias suffered nothing worse than expulsion from Rome.

The pontiff went to work on addressing the canons of the Quinisext Council. While some of them reflected worthy changes, to which Pope Sergius was open, he found others to be “erroneous innovations”.  Among the latter were an initiative to allow Greek priests to continue in marriage relationships following ordination, and the proposal to make the Patriarch of Constantinople an equal of the Pope.

Another of the more controversial Quinisext Council recommendations was a finding that Christ should never be portrayed as a lamb, as it was considered inappropriate to depict God as an animal.

In response, Pope Sergius, who was skilled in both theology and music, drew upon the Gospel words of John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world….” and Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God….”, to compose a new prayer, a chant, called the “Agnus Dei.” Next, he inserted the Agnus Dei into the Mass, to be recited following the Consecration, at the Fraction (breaking of the Host), preceding the distribution of the Holy Eucharist.

Enlightened by the Gospels, Pope Sergius took a point of theological and political contention and turned it into a prayer. As a result, Catholics have spoken and sung the Agnus Dei, now an integral part of the Mass, over many centuries.

The words of this prayer, in Latin and in English, convey an important message of God’s forgiveness and mercy:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Emperor Justinian II was deposed in 695 A.D., and would not return to power until after Pope Sergius’ death in 701 A.D. When Justinian eventually did regain power, his violent ways soon caught up with him and, in 711, his own troops turned against him. He was captured and executed, dying at age 42.

Pope Sergius I repaired and decorated many of the churches of Rome, did much to help in the evangelization of England, and proved a strong defender of the Faith. In time, the author of the Agnus Dei chant was named a Saint, whose feast day is celebrated on September 8.

Image: Shutterstock/jorisvo

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John Litwinovich is a Secular Franciscan, a member of the Little Portion Fraternity in Granite Bay, California. With a background as a human services administrator and Peace Corps and VISTA volunteer, his current focus is Catholic writing, travel and research, spending portions of most years in Italy. He is author of the Assisi Walking Adventure Guide and other faith-based works.

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