Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint John, Pope and Martyr

detail of a bas-relief portrait medallion of Pope Saint John I, date and artist unknown; Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, ItalyArticle

A.D. 526

Pope John was by birth a Tuscan. He distinguished himself from his youth in the Roman clergy, of which he became the oracle and the model. He was archdeacon when, after the death of Hormisdas in 523, he was chosen pope. Theodoric the Arian king of the Goths held Italy in subjection, and though endowed with some great qualities, did not divest himself of that disposition to cruelty and jealousy, which is always an ingredient in the character of an ambitious tyrant and a barbarian. It happened that the Emperor Justin published an edict, ordering the Arians to deliver up all the churches they were possessed of to the Catholic bishops, by whom they were to be consecrated anew. Theodoric, who was the patron of that sect, took this law very ill; and in revenge threatened, that if it were not repealed in the East, he would not only treat the Catholics in his dominions in the same manner, but would fill Rome with blood and slaughter. Being, however, in some awe of the emperor, he resolved to try what he could do by negotiation; and sent the pope at the head of an embassy of five bishops and four senators, of which three had been consuls, to Constantinople on that errand. John used all manner of entreaties to decline such a commission, but was compelled by the king to take it upon him. He was received in the East with the greatest honours possible; and the whole city of Constantinople went out twelve miles to meet him, carrying wax tapers and crosses. The emperor, to use the words of Anastasius, prostrated himself before the most blessed pope, who also relates that the saint entering the city, restored sight to a blind man at the golden gate, who begged that favour of him. The same is mentioned by Saint Gregory the Great, who adds, that the horse on which he rode, would never after bear any other rider. The joy of that city was universal on this occasion, and the pomp with which the successor of Saint Peter was received, seemed to surpass the festival of a triumph. Authors vary as to the issue of his embassy; some say that the pope confirmed Justin in his resolution of taking away the churches from the heretics; but Anastasius tells us that the pope persuaded Justin to treat the Arians with moderation, and to leave them the churches of which they were possessed, and that the emperor acquiesced. However that be, whilst our saint was in the East, Theodoric caused the great Boëtius, who was the pope’s most intimate friend, both before and after he was raised to the pontificate, to be apprehended; and no sooner was Pope John landed at Ravenna in Italy, but, together with the four senators his colleagues, he was cast into a dark and loathsome dungeon. The tyrant forbid any succour or comfort to be allowed to the prisoners, so that by the hardships of his confinement and the stench of the place, the good pope died at Ravenna on the 27th of May, 526, soon after the cruel execution of Boëtius, having sat two years and nine months. His body was conveyed to Rome, and buried in the Vatican church. The two letters which bear his name are suppositious, as appears from their very dates, etc.

When we see wicked men prosper, and saints die in dungeons, we are far from doubting of providence, we are strengthened in the assured belief, that God who has stamped the marks of infinite wisdom and goodness on all his works, has appointed a just retribution in the world to come. And faith reveals to us clearly this important secret. We at present see only one end of the chain in the conduct of providence towards men; many links in it are now concealed from our eyes. Let us wait a little, and we shall see in eternity God’s goodness abundantly justified. Who does not envy the happiness of a martyr in his dungeon, when he beholds the inward joy, peace, and sentiments of charity with which he closes his eyes to this world! and much more when he contemplates in spirit the glory with which the soul of the saint is conducted by angels, like Lazarus, to the abodes of immortal bliss! On the contrary, the wicked tyrant cannot think himself safe upon his throne, and amidst his armies; but sits, like Damocles, under the terrible sword in the midst of his enjoyments, in the dreary expectation every moment of perishing. At best, his treacherous pleasures are a wretched exchange for the true joy and peace of virtue; nor can he fly from the torment of his own conscience, or the stench of his guilt. How dreadfully are his horrors increased upon the approach of death! And how will he to all eternity condemn his extravagant folly, unless by sincere repentance he shall have prevented everlasting woes!

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint John, Pope and Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 August 2018. Web. 25 September 2020. <>