A Pope Named Zosimus

On this day in 417, following the death of Pope Innocent I, Zosimus was consecrated as Pope in the Vatican City. To this day, virtually nothing is known about his life before he became Pope, except that he originated from Greece. Nor did he rule for very long—he died the next year, on 26 December 418, which is now considered his feast day. Nevertheless, although his pontificate was fleeting, it was during a time of great turbluence, one in which he found himself embroiled in disputes with the territories of Africa and Gaul, as well as the heretical doctrine of Pelagianism.

Zosimus’s papacy was controversial from the start. His very first act was to appoint Bishop Patroclus of Arles as the Papal Vicar in Gaul—a vast region of Roman Europe encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Patroclus’s power was substantial, including authority over all the bishops of the Gallic provinces. No man of the church, for example, was allowed to travel from Gaul to Rome without bringing a certificate of identity from Bishop Patroclus.

Zosimus justified Patroclus’s appointment through the alleged historical primacy of the See of Arles in the South of France over the See of Vienne in the North of France, but his bold act provoked a crisis across the churches of Southern Gaul. Complaints poured into Rome from the Bishops of Vienne, Narbonne, and Marseille. The dispute lasted throughout the rule of Zosimus, and was only resolved decades later by Pope Leo I.

There was also the confrontation with the heresy of Pelagianism: the theological belief (taking its name from Zosimus’s contemporary Pelagius) that human nature was not tainted by Original Sin, and that humans have the will to choose good or evil without divine grace. Soon after his election, Zosimus was visited by a proponent of Pelagianism named Caelestius, who had been expelled from Constantinople, condemned by the African Bishops at Carthage and also condemned by the previous Pope Innocent I. Zosimus initially defended both Caelestius and Pelagius against the African and Gallic Bishops, and accused them of acting too hastily, but eventually he relented to their criticisms and issued a treatise, the Tractoria, condemning Pelagianism and its supporters.

Finally, Zosimus clashed with the African Bishops after the Priest Apiarus of Sicca, who had been excommunicated (for unspecified crimes) by his Bishop, appealed directly to him rather than through the proper course of appeal. Zosimus immediately accepted this appeal, asserting the primacy of the Roman See and sending his emissaries to Africa to investigate, and so he became involved in another long-running dispute.

After his death, all three of the disputes that Zosimus started were still ongoing, and many in the Church were probably happy to see Boniface I replace him. Pope Zosimus I’s reign may have been very brief, but he still managed to ruffle a lot of feathers.