St. John I was a sixth-century pope and martyr. John was born in the Italian province of Tuscany, and was elected Bishop of Rome (that is, pope) in 523. The Mediterranean world was, by this time, divided into the Eastern and Western Empires, each having a separate emperor.
Christianity was also divided (though not in a geographic sense) by the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. King Theodoric, the German chieftain who was in effect the Western emperor, was himself an Arian, though he was initially tolerant of the Catholics in his kingdom. Soon after John was elected pope, Justin, the Eastern emperor, began repressing the Arians in the East. Theodoric was upset by this, and he forced John and other religious leaders from the West to visit Justin in Constantinople (capital of the Eastern empire) for the purpose of lessening the restrictions placed upon the Arians. (Because religious questions had political implications, it was not uncommon for kings to involve themselves in religion, and for bishops to find themselves involved in politics.)
Little is known about the outcome of the negotiations Pope John conducted with Emperor Justin, but because the two leaders got along well together, a paranoid Theodoric assumed they were plotting against him. When John returned to Italy in 526, Theodoric had him arrested. Pope John died soon after he was imprisoned, perhaps as a result of the treatment he received, thus earning a martyr’s crown. John was the first of twenty-three popes of that name, and the first one to be canonized a saint.
Sometimes religion is inescapably involved in politics. As St. John knew, when this happens, our primary loyalty must be to Christ, not to the rulers of this world.
Other Saints We Remember Today
St. Venatius of Camerino (257), Martyr
St. Eric (1160), Martyr, King and Patron of Sweden