Gelasius I was Pope (492 - 496). Gelasius had been closely employed by his predecessor Felix, especially in drafting papal documents, and his election, March 1, 492, was a gesture for continuity: Gelasius inherited Felix's struggles with the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople and exacerbated them by insisting on the removal of the name of the late Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople, from the diptychs, in spite of every ecumenical gesture by the current, otherwise quite orthodox patriarch Euphemius (q.v. for details of the Acacian schism).

The split with the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople was inevitable, from the western point of view, because they had embraced a view of a single, Divine ('Monophysite') nature of Christ, which the papal party viewed as heresy. Galasius' book De duabus in Christo naturis ('On the dual nature of Christ') delineated the western view.

Separation of powers

On a political level, Felix' excommunication of Acacius had attacked the foundation of the emperor's powers. Now Gelasius drew upon both Ambrose and Augustine to formulate in 494 a political foundation for the western, Catholic church, based on a distinction of powers that was inherent in Roman law. Gelasius defined the separate (though not quite equal) powers of church and state, which have defined Western culture ever since, even to framing of the U.S. Constitution. Gelasius noted that there were figures in Biblical tradition who were both kings and priests, like Melchizidek, but that since Christ there were two foundations for power in the world: the prelates exercised sacred power, and the kings and emperors exercised royal power. Drawing on Roman tradition, the power of the church was auctoritas, a legislative power, while the authority of the emperor was potestas, an executive power. In Roman law, which was supreme, auctoritas was superior to potestas. Gelasius drew upon Ambrose's justification, "the authority of the priests is so much the weightier, as they must render before the tribunal of God an account even for the kings of men."

Gelasius' immediate problem was to keep the emperor out of doctrinal affairs by formulating a counterweight to the contrasting Byzantine theory of power, generally characterized as Caesaropapism. The schism precipitated by Felix and Gelasius healed eventually, but not forever, and the Gelasian theory of the powers of auctoritas and potestas slept until they were reawakened, in a radical new form, by Pope Gregory VII, who demanded, not only the separation of church and state, but the subjection of all kings and the emperor to papal authority.

Suppression of pagan rites and heretics

Closer to home, Gelasius finally suppressed the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia, after a long contest. Gelasius's letter to Andromachus, the senator, covers the main lines of the controversy and incidentally offers some details of this festival combining fertility and purification that might have been lost otherwise. Significantly, the February Lupercalia was replaced with a festival celebrating the purification and fertility of the Virgin Mary instead.

Gelasius smoked out the closeted Manichaeans, the heretical dualists who considered themselves Christians and certainly passed for such and were present in Rome in large numbers, it was suspected. Gelasius decreed that the eucharist had to be received "under both kinds,' with wine as well as bread As the Manichees held wine to be impure and essentially sinful, they would refuse the chalice and thus be recognized. Later, with the Manichaeans suppressed, the old normal method of receiving communion under the form of bread alone returned into vogue.

Connected with these pressures for orthodoxy was the definition of what books were to be considered canonical. The fixing of the canon of scripture has traditionally been attributed to Gelasius, who published in a Roman synod (494) his celebrated catalogue of the authentic writings of the Fathers, together with a list of apocryphal and interpolated works, as well as the proscribed books of the heretics (Epistle xlii).

After a brief but dynamic reign, his death (or his interrment) occurred on November 21, 496. Gelasius was the most prolific writer of the early popes. A great mass of correspondence of Gelasius has survived, forty-two letters and fragments of forty-nine others, carefully archived in the Vatican, ceaselessly expounding to Eastern bishops the primacy of the see of Rome. There are extant besides six treatises and the decretal on the canonical and apocryphal books.

Some have questioned the fact that Gelasius was a black African by descent— a black pope— even though the Liber Pontificalis plainly states that he was natione Afer ('African by birthright'). Gelasius' own statement in a letter that he is Romanus natus (Roman-born) is certainly not inconsistent. [1]

Preceded by:
Pope Felix III
List of popes Succeeded by:
Pope Anastasius II


  • Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.
  • Norman F. Cantor, Civilization of the Middle Ages.