DAMASCUS, Syria, MAY 1, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II will be the first reigning pope to visit Syria, when he arrives Saturday to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul the Apostle.
Syria has produced popes. The first known to be Syrian is St. Anicetus, No. 11 in the Church´s history, whose pontificate lasted from 155 to 166. Anicetus arrived in the West from Syria, and joined the Christian community, as Justin´s collaborator, in the struggle against the heresy prevailing in Rome at the time.
In the year 160, Anicetus met St. Polycarp, who was already 80, and the last survivor of the direct disciples of the apostles. They discussed the differences between the Eastern and Western Church on the celebration of Easter.
St. Irenaeus wrote about their meeting: “Neither Anicetus was able to persuade Polycarp to give up the custom that he had always observed with John, Our Lord´s disciple, and with the other Apostles, with whom he had been in relation, nor did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to embrace this tradition, Anicetus having stated that he had to maintain his predecessors´ custom. Despite everything, they remained in communion and, to honor him, Anicetus had Polycarp celebrate Mass in his church, and they separated in peace.”
Many years passed before another Syrian-born Pope, Sergius I, succeeded St. Peter as the 84th Pontiff. His pontificate spanned the years 687 to 701. Highly educated, Pope Sergius was categorically opposed to Byzantine doctrines.
Justinian II tried to arrest Sergius I, but a militia was formed to save him, which was joined by Roman citizens. Zacharias, the emperor´s envoy, who arrived with the imperial order to arrest the Pope, was at a loss in face of the situation, and sought refuge in Pope Sergius I´s own bedroom.
Zacharias got under the Pope´s bed and promptly fainted. Sergius I revived him, told him not to be afraid, and to trust him. The fierce killer became gentle as a lamb.
The episode had negative repercussions in the East and the people themselves, who felt humiliated, turned against Justinian II.
Sisinnius, the 87th Pope, born in Syria, led the Church for only 20 days. He died just before executing a plan to reinforce the walls of the city of Rome.
He was succeeded by another Syrian, Constantine, who was Pontiff from 708 to 715, and who also had to contend with authoritarian Emperor Justinian II. He was obliged to travel to Constantinople to discuss doctrinal questions, and met the Emperor in Nicomedia, where they engaged in long negotiations, which were rather fruitless.
He left Constantinople in 710, this being the last time a Pope visited that city. Twelve and a half centuries later, Pope Paul VI went to Constantinople, in July 1967, to meet with Patriarch Athenagoras.
The 90th Pope was Gregory III, a priest of Syrian origin who was elected unanimously by the clergy and the people. He became Pontiff in 731 and governed the Church for a decade. Gregory III convoked a Council and decreed the excommunication of iconoclasts. He was the Pope who supported Boniface´s work of evangelization in Germany.