Saints of the Day – Nicholas I, Pope

Pope Saint Nicholas IArticle

Born in Rome between 819-822; died there in 867. Born into a distinguished Roman family, Nicholas served in the Curia under Pope Sergius II, became a deacon under Pope Leo IV, and was a trusted adviser to Pope Benedict III. Nicholas was elected bishop of Rome on April 22, 858, while still a deacon, and occupied the see with distinguished courage and energy for nine troubled years. Among the matters with which he had to deal was the long dispute about the patriarchal see of Constantinople, the turbulence of Archbishop John of Ravenna and the ambition of Hincmar of Rheims, in addition to the matrimonial troubles of several important persons. He insisted on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, despite the threat of the invasion of Rome, when he denounced the bigamous marriage of the emperor’s nephew, King Lothair II of Lorraine. This precipitated a struggle during which Nicholas deposed two German archbishops and Lothair’s army threatened Rome.

He also insisted on the freedom to marry when he forced King Charles the Bald of Burgundy to accept the marriage of his daughter Judith to Baldwin of Flanders without the king’s consent and compelled the Frankish bishops to withdraw the excommunication they had imposed on her for marrying without her father’s consent.

In 861 Nicholas compelled Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims to accept papal appellate jurisdiction in important cases when he obliged Hincmar to restore Bishop Rothad of Soissons, whom he had deposed.

Twice he excommunicated recalcitrant and powerful Archbishop John of Ravenna, who counted on imperial support, for infringing on the rights of the Holy See and for abuses of his office, and made him submit to papal authority.

Nicholas was also involved in controversy with Constantinople throughout his pontificate over the illegal deposition of Ignatius and the appointment of Photius as patriarch of Constantinople by Emperor Michael III. Nicholas excommunicated Michael in 863; the matter was not finally resolved until newly crowned Emperor Basil I expelled Photius, who had declared the pope deposed, on the day Nicholas died.

Faced by disorder or scandal, Nicholas could not rest until he had dealt with it; but he sometimes invoked the aid of persons considerably less moderate and reasonable than himself.

He encouraged missionary activities, sending Saint Anskar as papal missionary to Scandinavia and bringing about the conversion of Bulgaria with missionaries he sent there. A letter (Responsa Nicolai ad consulta Bulgarum) he sent to the newly baptized Khan Boris of the Bulgars has been characterized as ‘a masterpiece of pastoral wisdom and one of the finest documents of the history of the papacy.’ The letter summarizes Christian faith and discipline.

A champion of papal primacy and the ascendancy of the Church over emperors, kings, and other secular authorities in matters concerning the Church, he was responsible for restoring the papacy to the highest prestige.

Nicholas’s generosity made him beloved by the people and his defense of justice and virtue earned the respect of his contemporaries generally. He was famous for the reforms he instituted among the clergy and laity, was a patron of the arts and learning, and was a man of the highest personal integrity. Saint Nicholas is one of the three popes to whom the epithet ‘the Great’ is given (Saint Leo I and Saint Gregory I being the other two) (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 11 August 2020. Web. 16 May 2021. <>