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The fisherman’s net: the influence of the papacy on history

30 November, 1999

Fr Michael Collins examines the extraordinary history of the papacy and the great influence it has had on the development of civilisation.

270 pp, The Columba Press, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie. 


1. St Peter and the early bishops
2. The barque of Peter
3. Early one morning
4. The empire collapses
5. Gregory the Great
6. A fire from the east
7. Of kings and popes
8. For God wishes it thus
9. The great denial
10. Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult
11. Flowers on the ruins of Rome
12. The pope divides the world
13. A new era
14. From the rising of the sun
15. I have no money to bury the pope
16. If you want an honest man, elect me
17. ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes’
18. A prisoner in the Vatican
19. A world at war
20. A new spring
21. A man from afar
Appendix: The papal succession


In 2003 as Pope John Paul II celebrated the twenty-fifth year of his pontificate, he passed into history as the third longest-serving pope ever. While during his reign the Catholic Church has received much criticism and condemnation, the power and authority of the pontiff was undeniable and he remains one of the most influential figures in the world.

The Fisherman’s Net by Michael Collins is a timely publication, therefore, as it examines the history of the papacy and the profound influence it has had on shaping the history of the world. The papacy is, he writes, ‘the oldest nonhereditary monarchy in the world’. While the influence of the popes has waxed and waned, he continues, the papacy will continue to have ‘an influence on the development of humanity’.

Fr Collins begins by looking back to St Peter and the early bishops and how they helped shaped the origins of the church. Then he takes us through the reigns of all the popes right up to Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. Pope John Paul, throughout his reign, has actively advocated human rights for workers and has been outspoken in his condemnation of violence. He is intimately associated with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

The Fisherman’s Net gives a concise history of the papacy and uniquely examines its influence outside the religious sphere.


The emperor Augustus (27 bc-ad 14) boasted that when he came to power, Rome was a city of brick but by the time of his death, it was a city of marble. It all started with a spark.

One of his successors, the ill-fated Nero (54-68), was not happy with the shabby wooden buildings he found in the city. All around the Palatine, near his imperial residence, lay the untidy hovels of the poor. He told friends that he wanted to demolish these slums and expand his palace, the Golden House. Few believed, or wanted to believe, that the emperor would really carry out his threat.

On the night of 19 July, in the year ad 64, a fire broke out around the area where the emperor lived. The dark dank houses of the poor were the first to go up in flames. The fire raged until dawn. As the sun rose, it fought with the orange flames for attention. The citizens were devastated at the destruction. The fire brigade, under the special command of the emperor, had been ineffective. Eyewitnesses would later swear that they saw the emperor high on the plinth of his palace stroking the strings of his lyre and singing a lament for the city.

Nobody ever found out what happened. Perhaps a spark falling from an unattended lamp, perhaps a torch deliberately thrown in a window landing on the straw bedding caused the conflagration. Whatever it was, soon the citizens were blaming their emperor. Mad as he may have been, Nero was no fool. He realised that he had to find a scapegoat, and chose a newly-arrived religious group in the city. They were related to the Jews. They claimed that their leader, a certain rabbi called Jesus, had been crucified, and had risen from the dead. And so he gave the order that all followers of this sect should be arrested. The Roman writer Tacitus gives us some more details:

To scotch the rumours, Nero charged and tortured some people hated for their evil practices – the group popularly known as the Christians.

In their deaths, they were made a mockery. They were covered in the skins of wild animals, torn to death by dogs, crucified or set on fire, so that when night fell, they burned like torches. Nero opened up his own gardens for this spectacle and gave a show in the arena, where he mixed with the crowd, or stood dressed as a charioteer on a chariot. As a result, although they were guilty of being Christians and deserved death, people began to feel sorry for them. For they realised that they were being massacred not for the public good, but to satisfy one man’s mania.

Among the casualties of this pogrom, we are told by tradition, was a Galilean called Peter. He had been living quietly in the city for some years. As a close friend of Jesus of Nazareth, he was seen as the leader of the little group of Christians in Rome. And so he had to die. Late one autumn evening, he was brought to the Circus of Nero, which lay in the valley between the Vatican and the Janiculum Hills. According to legend, one of the soldiers had heard how Jesus, his leader, had been executed. Peter was condemned to perish in the same way, crucified as a common criminal. In a moment of zeal for martyrdom, he begged to be crucified upside-down, claiming not to be worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. And so the wooden cross was slammed into the ground headfirst. As the blood rushed to his head, Peter may have heard the agonised screams of his friends, or seen their contorted faces disappear behind grey plumes of acrid smoke. The smell of burning flesh was everywhere. How could it all have ended like this, he must have thought desperately. How could the promises of the Messiah perish and curl away like dried-up parchment?

And so it had come to pass. When it was all over, those who had survived the round-up took Peter’s bruised body away for burial. At least, they comforted themselves, he had been spared the indignity of being burned alive. The little band snaked its way across the road, the Via Cornelia, and into the cemetery which lay alongside Nero’s gardens. There, under a little red wall they buried him, a tiny flagstone to mark his grave. Years later, Gaius, a Roman presbyter wrote to pilgrims: ‘If you want to see the trophy of the apostles, go to see Peter at the Vatican and Paul at the Via Ostiense.’

The effect of this event must have been traumatic. We have no reliable information from within the Roman community. We do not know for how long Peter lived in Rome. Later traditions claim that he lived 25 years in the city, but it was more likely less than half that time. He had previously been leader of the community at Antioch, the Syrian city where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The early followers of Jesus were almost all Jewish. Gradually, the disciples realised that they would have to spread their net further. Surely Jesus had not just wanted the conversion of the sons of Abraham? Was not his instruction to go to the whole world and baptise everybody in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? It was a clear indication that Peter, the leader of the disciples and apostles, decided that the message of Jesus was for everybody, Jew and Gentile alike.

There are no contemporary records of Peter’s life in Rome – some scholars even question whether he ever lived there at all – but it seems that his memory was venerated by the Roman Christians. Archaeologists continue to find graffiti scratched on the walls around the tomb underneath St Peter’s High Altar, ‘Peter, pray for me!’

Another great figure of the early church, Paul of Tarsus, had met the executioner’s sword in Rome. A native of Cilecia , Paul had converted from Judaism and travelled extensively throughout modern-day Greece and Turkey. He founded small communities and kept in touch with them by brief letters when he moved on.

Denounced to Rome, Paul was held under house arrest for several years before he was executed. Although we cannot be certain, he must have met Peter during that time. He also was to die under the persecution of Nero. These events must have almost destroyed the Christian community in Rome.

Little by little, the Roman church sought to reorganise itself. A successor was elected to Peter, and the community regrouped as a tight little band, anxious to avoid the public gaze. The terrible persecution ordered by Nero ended when the emperor committed suicide in ad 68. None the less, the Christians in Rome had learned a salutary lesson and were determined to keep as much as possible to themselves. News that the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman troops in ad 70 must have confirmed their fears of renewed persecution. The Roman writer, Tacitus, although writing 50 years after the event, refers to the Christians’ ‘crimes’ and their ‘hatred of humanity’. A contemporary of Tacitus, the Roman historian Suetonius, remarks with evident distaste on ‘the new and criminal superstition’. Both Tacitus and Suetonius used earlier documents on which to base their assertions. The educated classes evidently little understood the Christians with whom they often confused the Jews.

We know virtually nothing but the names of Linus (c. 66-c. 78) and Cletus (c. 79-91), the successors of Peter as leaders of the Christians in Rome. Whatever they achieved evidently disintegrated into the dust. Although a third-century list of the popes name Cletus after Linus, it is possible that the two may have worked as a team. Certainly there was no tradition at this early stage of a monarchical bishop ruling alone. For the first several centuries, the clergy and people of Rome met to elect a leader, or bishop, from among the deacons and presbyters. Not infrequently these elections were marred by factions that sought, even violently, to have their candidate elected. In time, the position of bishop of Rome was to be as highly prized as it was lucrative. The Roman clergy were anxious not to be identified with the pagan priests who presided over the temple worship, where the office was often handed down from father to son.

Most of our knowledge of the early popes comes from a catalogue compiled sometime in the sixth century. The anonymous author of the Liber Pontificalis – the Book of the Popes – probably worked at the papal court on the Caelian Hill overlooking the Coliseum and seems to have had access to documents written centuries earlier. These manuscripts have since perished, and the information contained in the catalogue is thus invaluable. Although an indispensable aid to the study of the development of the papacy, the book is not without its limitations. The writer often attributes events and happenings to various popes who evidently lived after the events had happened. Given the precarious nature of the Christian community in Rome, it is easy to understand how detailed records were not kept. Often we read of the Tiber overflowing, of earthquakes and invaders who destroyed all they could in the city. The Liber Pontificalis lists the popes in a chronological order, but the precise dates of the reign of any one bishop are often inaccurate. It is also true to say that the concept of history in the sixth century is vastly different from our modern-day understanding. Writers saw themselves as chronologers, setting down events of which they had heard. Myth and legend were often recorded indiscriminately. Hearsay was sometimes relayed as faithfully as fact, gossip as undeniable truth.

We have only the briefest information concerning Clement (c. 91-c. 101), the third successor of Peter as head of the Roman Christian community. Most of our knowledge is contained in a letter that he wrote sometime around the year 91. Having heard of some turbulence within the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth, Clement addressed them, lamenting that a few rash and self-willed persons have inflamed you into such madness that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be loved by all men, has been greatly defamed.

Excusing his tardiness in sending the letter of reprimand, Clement shows that he considered it his clear duty to bring the upstarts to order, no matter what the distance. He mentions the city as having previously carried on a correspondence with ‘the apostle Paul’. As with the letters of Paul, there is no trace of a reply from the unruly Corinthians. Perhaps, as we have no further word from Corinth, the troublemakers changed their ways and obeyed Clements’s instruction.

Of the 12 emperors who ruled during the first century, six of them met violent deaths at the hand of zealous assassins. One can easily understand how the nervous Roman legislators would seek to outlaw secret meetings, especially those that took place under the cover of darkness. Conspiracies and plots to assassinate the emperor, hatched and developed in the glow of an oil lamp, were all too often successful. The inward-looking Christian community was an understandable target of imperial agents.

The pagan Roman historian Suetonius has left us a vitally important book, The Lives of the Emperors. Written in elegant prose, it remains our most important source of information for these emperors. Their coins and statues give us a glimpse of what the men looked like. Circulating from hand to hand around the empire, the coins were an important source of propaganda. Marble and bronze busts of the reigning emperor adorned courts and temples throughout the empire. Men from Britain to Africa studied the latest portrait of their ruler and styled their beards and hair in the same manner. But Suetonius describes them, their passion and actions, and brings them to life. He relates how a plot to kill the emperor Diocletian was discovered in the year 95. Among those to be rounded up were the consul of that year, Flavius Clemens and his wife. They were accused of ‘godlessness, for which many others also were condemned because they had drifted into the practices of the Jews’. Retiring to their bathing room, the couple entered a sunken bath filled with warm water. Having bid farewell to each other with a kiss, they opened the veins of their wrists and watched their lifeblood ebb out. How often in the future centuries would people sacrifice their lives in this world in the hopes of an immortal life in the world to come. The Romans probably did not distinguish too clearly between Jews and Christians, and it behoved both groups to avoid seeking undue attention. This may account for the fact that we have such scant information about the next bishops of Rome. Certainly persecutions of the Christians were reported from as far away as the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus.

Around the year 117, the legate Pliny the Younger wrote to the emperor Trajan for advice concerning accusations against some Christians living in the region. The legate may well have wished to ingratiate himself with the emperor, and prove that he was determined to root out any conspirators against the state. Pliny informed the emperor that he had rounded up the accused. Some claimed that they had never been Christians, while others declared that they had left the community as much as 20 years previously. To put them to the test, Pliny obliged them to address prayers to the gods and offer a pinch of incense to the image of the emperor. To seal the pact, he demanded that they curse the name of Christ. A true Christian, he had been informed, would rather die first.

In case the emperor was not familiar with the practices of the Christians, Pliny summarised their activities:

They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn, to say an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves with an oath – not for performing any crime but for abstaining from theft, robbery, adultery, the violation of oaths, and the refusal to repay deposit on demand. After this they were accustomed to meet again for a meal which was ordinary and harmless.

It is tempting to read into this account the soft-heartedness of the governor. None the less, he carried out the emperor’s order that required punishing as necessary. Pliny adds that with the round-up and persecutions there was general satisfaction at the pagan temples. The contented meat vendors reported brisk business as people returned to make burnt offering as sacrifices to please their gods. Rising smoke around the temple precinct and the scent of sizzling meat was always a sign of good business.

The emperor replied, praising Pliny for the course of action that he had taken so far. He counselled against a general round-up of Christians, and especially against listening to anonymous charges. However, where Christians were tried and convicted, they were to be punished. Recantation would result in full pardon.

Some five years earlier, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, was condemned to die in the arena at Rome. The old man saw himself as the central lynchpin of the Christian community in the Syrian town. On his journey from Antioch to Rome, he wrote seven letters to the communities he was to visit on his way. He seems to have been quite resolved to die as a martyr. The Greek word martyr means witness, and Ignatius saw himself as an innocent if willing victim. Greeting the Romans shortly before his arrival, he wrote:

Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.

How did the Roman Christians anticipate the arrival of this zealot in the city? All we know is that the elderly bishop’s will was fulfilled and he perished in the arena.

In view of the activity in the provinces, it is not surprising that the leaders of the Roman community would seek to protect the members by staying on the right side of the law.

The bishops Evaristus (c. 101-109), Alexander (c. 109-c. 116), Sixtus (c. 116-125) and Telesphorus (c. 125-136) appear and fade like the morning mist. There are no traces of their stewardship apart from their names.

While the community was seeking to avoid the public gaze, the Christians had to contend with internal differences. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon in Gaul, tells us that during the administration of the bishop Hygenus (c. 136-c. 142) a certain Valentinus came to Rome from the provinces. He was greeted with suspicion and branded by the locals as a heretic. The Christians had up until recently been proud of the fact that they were new, fresh, enthusiastic. Now, however, they came to distrust people without a pedigree.

This type of visitor was the worst of all. Valentinus was a Gnostic, one of the groups that claimed to have secret knowledge. Nobody likes to be on the wrong side of secrets, and Christians, above all, should have known that. Hygenus set about making Rome an uncomfortable place for the Gnostic Valentinus and his companions, urging the Christians neither to offer the visitors hospitality in their homes nor to welcome them to the liturgy on Sundays. Valentinus outlived Hygenus and went on to win more and more converts to his doctrines.

How loyal were the Christians to their bishop? It is an intriguing question which, almost 2,000 years later, eludes a response. The fact, however, that some Christians were won over to the Gnostic faith evidently rankled the loyal Christians and goaded them to denounce them, sometimes in violent terms.

Who then were these Gnostics that caused such anxiety for the community?

The Christian faith was still in a process of development, trying to come to an ever-clearer understanding of the message of Jesus. Paul, writing in the first century, had warned against those who sought to offer a definitive interpretation that would not be in accordance with their Lord’s teaching. Those who claimed to have a secret knowledge were labelled as Gnostics (gnosis in Greek means knowledge), as knowledge was seen to be the key to understanding humanity’s relation to the universe and its creator.

Although such elitism was not peculiar to the Christians, it nevertheless became a strong branch in the Christian community. Different groups sprang up both in the Middle East and further westwards towards the heart of the Roman Empire. The basic tenet of the Gnostics (all led by different founders) was that the world was invented, not by the Supreme Being, but rather by a demiurge, or spirit, who sought to enslave humanity. A small number of people were fortunate enough to realise that they could escape this world and be united to the demiurge. The pathway, taught the Gnostics, was through knowledge. Anyone who claimed to have some esoteric knowledge which united them to the demiurge was sure to be sought after. Various teachers set themselves up as masters of the new way. Much of the church’s theology was a reaction against Gnostic heresy. When the Gnostics argued that the spiritual was good and material was bad, a response was called for from the orthodox Christians. When they argued that Jesus was only a phantom, the Christians had to think out an intelligible reply. That the Gnostics had articulate spokesmen is obvious by the amount of Christian authors who railed against them. This had the effect of forcing the orthodox Christians to define the tenets of their belief. Church leaders, the bishops being chief amongst them, saw this as their ministry.

The Gnostics rejected the Old Testament and most of the New Testament, as well as basic beliefs such as the resurrection. The orthodox Christians were forced to define their own canon of scripture. None the less, the Gnostics continued to have similarities to the Christian Church. Several Gnostic branches had an episcopate, and, if they had not entirely rejected the sacraments, they celebrated baptism and Eucharist.

Marconian of Pontus, a rich merchant, was one of the most influential Gnostic leaders. In 140 he left Bithynia and, arriving in Rome, began a popular school of teaching. Soon his sect rivalled the mainstream church at Rome. His influence spread, but as the church more carefully defined itself, it became less of a threat. There was always a willing audience for the teachers who sought to found new ways of faith, loosely modelled on the Christian Church. Eventually the Christian community tired of Marconian and expelled him from the city.

The Eucharist became more and more important in the lives of the Christians. In the mid-150s, Justin, a Palestinian who had settled in Rome and taught philosophy there, wrote an account of how they met once a week to celebrate the Eucharist, as a symbol of communion with each other and with God. It still echoes down the centuries and strikes us with its immediacy.

On the day called after the sun there takes place a meeting of all who live in towns or in the countryside. The memoirs of the apostles are read, as are the writings of the apostles, in so far as time will allow. When the reader has finished, the president, in his speech, admonishes and urges all to imitate these worthy examples. Then we all stand and pray together aloud. When the prayers are ended, we greet one another with a kiss. At that point, as we have already said, bread is brought, with wine mixed with water to the president. Prayers are offered, giving ‘praise and glory to the Father of the Universe, through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit’. The bread and wine is then distributed to those present by the deacons, and also brought to the sick in their homes.

The Sunday Eucharist provided a sense of community and solidarity in a harsh and difficult world.

Around the middle of the century, a venerable visitor arrived in Rome to consult with the bishop of the city. Polycarp was bishop of the Turkish town of Smyrna. His claim to fame rested on the fact that he was a disciple of the apostle John the Evangelist, and indeed a friend of several of the other disciples of Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch had also addressed a letter to him as he made his way to Rome to meet his death. Polycarp’s purpose in making the difficult journey by sea and land was to discuss with the bishop of Rome the date of Easter.

The bishop, Anicetus (155-166) received his noble visitor in his small villa outside the city walls. The two men talked of various problems besetting the Christian communities throughout the world. Anicetus listened politely as the white-haired Polycarp begged the bishop to change the date of celebrating Easter. Anicetus was in favour of celebrating the feast on the Sunday after the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. Polycarp hoped to persuade Rome to celebrate the feast of the resurrection of Jesus according to the eastern tradition, that is, the fourth of Nisan. What a wonderful thing it would be, he urged Anicetus, if all Christians could celebrate the feast of the resurrection of Jesus together. Anicetus excused himself, pleading that the weight of tradition forbade any such change from the Roman way of doing things.

This journey shows that Polycarp must have attached importance to visiting the Roman community. Polycarp pressed him, perhaps referring to his prestigious teacher, John the Evangelist. But it was to no avail, and after exchanging prayers and blessing one another, Polycarp departed from Rome to return to Smyrna. There, in his 86th year, he was burned to death during renewed persecutions. As the flaming hemp torch was lowered to the stake in the arena of the city, the prefect offered the old man the chance of recanting. ‘I have served Christ as my Lord for 86 years,’ came the dignified reply, ‘and I can do no other.’

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