The Legacy of Pope St. Nicholas the Great

The titanic papacy of Pope St. John Paul II saw a renewed discussion of the few “Great” popes in history.  With the addition of the Polish pontiff to the list, many historians now number three “Great” popes.  They have forgotten a pope so grand, so profound, that in his lifetime he dealt with direct challenges to his papal authority, meeting each with mettle rivalling most of his papal peers.  He was Pope St. Nicholas the Great, a pope who in both thought and deed transformed the papacy of his day and the Church as a whole.

Pope St. Nicholas lived in the mid-800s, a time of great upheaval in the Church.  In the centuries between the death of the last “Great” pope, Pope St. Gregory I (d. 604), Christendom faced an onslaught at the hands of militant Muslims and faced the rising tide of Viking invaders.  In Constantinople, political intrigue shifted the Byzantine Empire’s throne between families.  In Europe, barbarian tribes accepted the Faith, though more often than not with problematic pagan practices intermixed.  In a word, it was a time of discord.  Times of discord are perfect stages for great men; it was the perfect time for a man like Pope Nicholas I.

A Pastoral Pope

In Nicholas we see a pope with a strong papalogy, or theology of the papacy.  His papalogy sounds typical today, but in Nicholas’s day, his view of the papacy stood out among the popes: all doctrinal questions or issues should be brought to the Holy See for clarification; all secular leaders should see in the pope their judge and guide; all bishops must be approved by the pope, for he is the prince of the Apostles.  As Nicholas himself said, “The Pope shall judge everyone and be judged by none.”  Such a strong view of the papacy manifested itself throughout Nicholas’ reign, leading to some of the most dramatic moments in Church History.

There was the intriguing incident with the Bulgarians, who had converted in large numbers but still needed strong catechesis.  Unsure of how to live as Christians (the Bulgarians were stuck in the middle of a dispute over whether they were Latin or Byzantine Christians), the Bulgarian king Boris wrote to Pope Nicholas with 115 questions, many of which come across as strange today (the Bulgarians, for example, wanted to know if men or women should wear pants, a question which Nicholas wasn’t sure how to answer).  Other popes in the Church’s history might address the major questions, or have one of their bishops answer them; Pope Nicholas took the time to answer every single question, even the most bizarre ones.  By addressing these questions, Nicholas not only brought the Bulgarians closer to Christ, but he also exemplified how a teacher of the Faith must educate and inspire, even in strange circumstances.

Defender of Marriage

Another dramatic moment was when Pope Nicholas defended the marriage of Lothair II (brother of Holy Roman Emperor Louis II) and Theutberga.  The marriage had been an arranged one, and the displeased Lothair rejected his young wife for his mistress Waldrada.  Seeking to divorce his queen, Lothair turned to the bishops in the Holy Roman Empire, and after a trial where Theutberga was forced to say she had incestuous relations prior to marriage, the bishops voted in favor of Lothair’s proposal.  He sent away his wife and wed his mistress.  Theutberga appealed to Nicholas, who sent legates to a synod in Metz in 863 (the year after Lothair’s second marriage).  The legates were bribed into accepting Lothair’s position, infuriating Nicholas.

The pope called the archbishops who had run the synod to Rome; there he deposed them and suspended their faculties as priests.  The archbishops returned home furious (they would later refer to Nicholas as “the lord Nicholas who is called pope, who pretends to be an apostle among the apostles and who poses as emperor of the world”) and Holy Roman Emperor Louis II sent an invading force to Rome to put the pope in his place.  Pilgrims and processions fled as the Frankish army tore through the city, vandalizing in the ensuing chaos.  Yet despite this threat on his life, Nicholas refused to recant his position and give in to the demands of Louis and Lothair.  “The Holy See does not change its mind,” Nicholas said; “Let these men carry their shame.”  His tenacity worked; Lothair took Theutberga back as his wife (though the whole affair repeated itself a few years later under the reign of Pope Hadrian II) and the invaders returned home.  In a time where clerics again debate the Church’s teaching on marriage, it is wise to reflect on what men like Nicholas did to defend the sanctity of marriage, even risking their very lives.

Firmness in Politics

The last moment we’ll examine is Nicholas’s struggle with Patriarch Photius of Constantinople.  Photius was one of the most well educated men of his age.  He seemed the perfect choice to become Patriarch of Constantinople.  Unfortunately, Photius was not yet a cleric when this idea came into the head of the Byzantine Emperor Michael “the Drunkard” (side note: we should really bring back “the” based nicknames).  Also, perhaps even more unfortunately, the see of Constantinople was already occupied by one Ignatius, who had been on Michael’s bad side ever since Ignatius reprimanded Michael’s uncle Bardas for his illicit relations with his daughter-in-law.  Michael exiled Ignatius and had Photius elevated in his place.  Ignatius wrote to Pope Nicholas, and Pope Nicholas sided with Ignatius (not surprising).  Despite behind-the-scenes intrigues in Constantinople (which included, among other things, bribing the papal legates sent to investigate the situation), Nicholas remained firm.  In 863, Nicholas held a synod in Rome which discussed the situation; from this synod’s discussion, Nicholas decided to depose Photius, excommunicate him, reinstate Ignatius, and depose the legates who had been bribed in Constantinople.

He sent letters informing Photius and Emperor Michael of his decision.  Emperor Michael threatened to invade Rome; Nicholas responded by writing a lengthy letter summarizing the authority the pope had in these affairs.  Photius responded in 867 by “excommunicating” Nicholas and all who supported him (since bishops can only excommunicate while in union with the Holy See, a bishop can’t really excommunicate the pope).  Despite all of this, Nicholas remained firm.

The sort of political intrigue that caused the schism led to its resolution.  Basil the Macedonian, Emperor Michael’s second-in-command, and murdered Michael in his sleep on September 24, 867.  Basil then became emperor, exiled Photius, and re-installed Ignatius as patriarch.  We don’t know if Nicholas heard of the exploits of Basil and the sudden, bloody resolution to the schism; he died on November 13.  Doubtless he wouldn’t have approved of the methods to resolve the schism, but he may have been pleased that the Church was once again united.

There are many other stories from Pope St. Nicholas I’s reign, and each of the above stories could be expanded into their own reflections.  Yet we see in these three stories the key aspects of a pope’s mission.  We see in the story of the Bulgarians Nicholas’s zeal for teaching the truths of the Faith.  We see in the stand-off with Lothair Nicholas’s strengths against the corruption of secular leaders.  We see in the Photian Schism Nicholas’s strengths as the Church’s shepherd.  Catholics throughout the world should learn more about this great hero of the Faith, this great pope.  He may be frequently forgotten, but his Greatness cannot be denied.  He deserves to be listed with his great saintly papal companions: Leo, Gregory, and John Paul II.

image: nomadFra /

Matthew B. Rose


Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He lives with his wife and two sons in Falls Church, VA.

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  • noelfitz

    I am grateful for this thought-provoking article.

    Was the papacy of St JP II titanic because it resembled in some way the Titanic which ran into an iceberg and sank? I hope not.

    At mass recently (Nov 10) the priest said there were two popes called great, Leo and Gregory. Was he wrong?

    Was the papacy of St Nicholas I, due to his claims of papal jurisdiction, a contributing factor to the Great Schism of the 11th century?

    It is challenging to have articles raising important issues. Thanks!

  • Matthew B. Rose

    Oh no, I meant “titanic” in the sense of huge and grand. Pope St. John Paul II was an awesome pope (in my humble opinion) and deserving of the title “the Great.” But that’s a discussion for another day.

    As far as not mentioning Nicholas in a list of Great popes: The “Great” pope list is not a set teaching of the Church (like canonized saints), nor is it an official list of titles established by the Holy See (like the Doctors of the Church), nor is the list bound by a set time (like the Fathers of the Church). It’s a historical title, like any other historical personages called “the Great” you might read about in a history book (Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Catherine the Great, etc). It isn’t bad catechesis to not know the full list of popes people call the great; for some, the only Great popes are Leo and Gregory (I actually discussed whether Nicholas was called “the Great” with a former history professor of mine). So no, he wasn’t necessarily wrong.

    Nicholas’ strong papalogy wasn’t in isolation; he built on previous theologians, including Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. However, the controversies that arose during the Photian Schism (especially some of the arguments against Nicholas and the Western part of the Church devised by Photius) played a significant part in the Schism of 1054. Of course, to look at the Schism of 1054 as suddenly happening in 1054 is severely historically short-sighted. The papacy of Nicholas itself had less an impact on the Great Schism than the Photian Schism did.

    Fun fact: When the mutual excommunications occurred in 1054 (the nice fun event which some historians point to as the moment of the Schism beginning), there was no pope. The pope who HAD been ruling, Pope St. Leo IX, had died; word hadn’t reached Constantinople yet of his death.

    I hope these answer your questions. If you have more, let us know!

  • noelfitz

    I am really grateful to Mathew B Rose for this long and informative reply to me. He went to a lot of trouble to give me such a comprehensive answer.

    On reflection I did realize the sense for which he used titanic, but on first reading the word titanic recalled for me the ship Titanic.

    I agree with all the points, and admire the clarity and courtesy of the replies to each of them.

    I am not a historian and the causes of the schism in 1054 were presumably many, but the split was unfortunate and in recent times popes and church authorities have done much to heal rifts.

    So thanks once more for a great article and for the detailed reply to me.
    I am also grateful to CE for publishing the article.