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ST. NICEPHORUS, C. PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE
From his life by Ignatius, deacon of Constantinople, afterwards bishop of Nice, a contemporary author; and from the relation of his banishment by Theophanes. See Fleury,1. 45, 46, 47. Ceillier, t. 18, p. 467.
A. D. 828.
THEODORUS, the father of our saint, was secretary to the emperor Constantine Copronymus: but when that tyrant declared himself a persecutor of the Catholic church, the faithful minister, remembering that we are bound to obey God rather than man, maintained the honor due to holy images with so much zeal, that he was stripped of his honors, scourged, tortured, and banished. The young Nicephorus was from his cradle animated to the practice of virtue by the domestic example of his father: and in his education, as his desires of improvement were great, and the instructions he had very good, the progress he made was as considerable; till, by the maturity of his age, and of his study, he made his appearance in the world. When Constantine and Irene were placed on the imperial throne, and restored the Catholic faith, our saint was quickly introduced to their notice, and by his merits attained a large share in their favor. He was by them advanced to his father’s dignity, and, by the lustre of his sanctity, was the ornament of the court, and the support of the state. He distinguished himself by his zeal against the Iconoclasts, and was secretary to the second council of Nice. After the death of St. Tarasius, patriarch of Constantinople, in 806, no one was found more worthy to succeed him than Nicephorus. To give an authentic testimony of his faith, during the time of his consecration he held in his hand a treatise which he had written in defence of holy images, and after the ceremony laid it up behind the altar, as a pledge that he would always maintain the tradition of the church. As soon as he was seated in the patriarchal chair, he began to consider how a total reformation of manners might be wrought, and his precepts from the pulpit received a double force from the example he set to others in an humble comportment, and steady uniform practice of eminent piety.* He applied himself with unwearied diligence to all the duties of the ministry; and, by his zealous labors and invincible meekness and patience, kept virtue in countenance, and stemmed the tide of iniquity. But these glorious successes rendered him not so conspicuous as the constancy with which he despised the frowns of tyrants, and suffered persecution for the sake of justice.
The government having changed hands, the patrician Leo the Armenian, governor of Natolia, became emperor in 813, and being himself an Iconoclast, endeavored both by artifices and open violence to establish that heresy. He studied in the first place, by crafty suggestions, to gain over the holy patriarch to favor his design. But St. Nicephorus answered him: We cannot change the ancient traditions: we respect holy images as we do the cross and the book of the gospels.” For it must be observed that the ancient Iconociasts venerated the book of the gospels, and the figure of the cross, though by an inconsistency usual in error, they condemned the like relative honor with regard to holy images. The saint showed, that far from derogating from the supreme honor of God, we honor him when for his sake we pay a subordinate respect to his angels, saints, prophets, and ministers: also when we give a relative inferior honor to inanimate things which belong to his service, as sacred vessels, churches, and images. But the tyrant was fixed in his errors, which he at first endeavored to propagate by stratagems. He therefore privately encouraged soldiers to treat contemptuously an image of Christ which was on a great cross at the brazen gate of the city; and thence took occasion to order the image to be taken off the cross, pretending he did it to prevent a second profanation. Saint Nicephorus saw the storm gathering, and spent most of his time in prayer with several holy bishops and abbots. Shortly after, the emperor, having assembled together certain conoclast bishops in his palace, sent for the patriarch and his fellow-bishops. They obeyed the summons, but entreated his majesty to leave the government of the church to its pastors. Emilian, bishop of Cyzicus, one of their body, said: “If this is an ecclesiastical affair, let it be discussed in the church, according to custom, not in the palace.” Euthymius, bishop of Sardes, said. “For these eight hundred years past, since the coming of Christ, there have been always pictures of him, and he has been honored in them. Who shall now have the boldness to abolish so ancient a tradition?” St. Theodorus, the Studite, spoke after the bishops, and said to the emperor: “My Lord, do not disturb the order of the church. God hath placed in it apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers.1 You he hath intrusted with the care of the state; but leave the church to its pastors.” The emperor, in a rage, drove them from his presence. Some time after, the Iconoclast bishops held a pretended council in the imperial palace, and cited the patriarch to appear before them. To their summons he returned this answer: “Who gave you this authority? was it the pope, or any of the patriarchs? In my diocese you have no jurisdiction.” He then read the canon which declares those excommunicated who presume to exercise any act of jurisdiction in the diocese of another bishop. They, however, proceeded to pronounce against him a mock sentence of deposition; and the holy pastor, after several attempts made secretly to take away his life, was sent by the emperor into banishment. Michael the Stutterer, who in 820 succeeded Leo in the imperial throne, was engaged in the same heresy, and also a persecutor of our saint, who died in his exile, on the 2d of June, in the monastery of St. Theodorus, which he had built in the year 828, the fourteenth of his banishment, being about seventy years old. By the order of the empress Theodora, his body was brought to Constantinople with great pomp, in 846, on the 13th of March, on which day he is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology.*
It is by a wonderful effect of his most gracious mercy and singular love, that God is pleased to visit all his faithful servants with severe trials, and to purify their virtue in the crucible, that by being exercised it may be made heroic and perfect. By suffering with patience, and in a Christian spirit, a soul makes higher and quicker advances in pure love, than by any other means or by any other good works. Let no one then repine, if by sickness, persecution, or disgraces, they are hindered from doing the good actions which they desire, or rendered incapable of discharging the duties of their station, or of laboring to convert others. God always knows what is best for us and others: we may safely commend to him his own cause, and all souls, which are dearer to him than they can be to us. By this earnest prayer and perfect sacrifice of ourselves to God, we shall more effectually draw upon ourselves the divine mercy than by any endeavors of our own. Let us leave to God the choice of his instruments and means in the salvation of others. As to ourselves, it is our duty to give him what he requires of us: nor can we glorify him by any sacrifice either greater or more honorable, and more agreeable to him, than that of a heart under the heaviest pressure, ever submissive to him, embracing with love and joy every order of his wisdom, and placing its entire happiness and comfort in the accomplishment of his adorable most holy will. The great care of a Christian in this state, in order to sanctify his sufferings, must be to be constantly united to God, and to employ his affections in the most fervent interior exercises of entire sacrifice and resignation, of confidence, love, praise, adoration, penance, and compunction, which he excites by suitable aspirations.