3 African popes hidden in world history archives

Contemporary drawing of Pope Victor I shows him to be unmistakably African in features. By DeBorah Green Zackery

ebruary is Black History Month. This is the first of four columns on the contributions and history of black people to America and the world.

Every racial or ethnic group gathers a deeper sense of self by learning the history of their ancestors. For African-Americans the search is a long one because many historians have tried to separate the achievement from the fact that the contributor was a member of the black race.

Hidden in the archives of world history is the fact that there have been three African popes of the Catholic Church. The history of African popes is hidden from common knowledge because over the years artists created images of them with European features.

St. Victor I became the 14th pope after St. Peter in 189 A.D. and served 10 years. At the time he became pope, Easter was celebrated at different times throughout the Christian world. One set of Christians would be observing Lent and another would be celebrating Christ's resurrection on the same day.


Pope Victor I wanted unity in the observance of Easter. He held the first Roman synod on record and discussed when the Easter festival should be held. The majority of the bishops reported they celebrated the Easter festival on Sunday. Pope Victor I called for all Christians to celebrate Easter on Sunday. Although there was disagreement within the church over his decision over the years, it became standard practice to celebrate Easter on Sunday.

Pope Victor I was also the first to celebrate Mass in Latin. It is because of him the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church is Latin.

In Roman church history, he is remembered in the canon of Amrosian Mass. Vererated as a martyr, his feast day is July 28. He died in 199 A.D. of unknown causes and was buried in the Vatican.

St. Miltiades became the 32nd pope after St. Peter in 311 A.D. Although his pontificate lasted only three years it was a turning point in religious history. During his pontificate, peace came to the church. Edicts he obtained from political rulers of the Christian world put an end to the persecution of Christians. They were released from prisons and mines and allowed to practice their religion freely. They were also free to come out of the catacombs they had been forced to live in.

Another turning point in church history that occurred under Pope Miltiades was the conversion of Emperior Constantine to Christianity. Constantine later defeated the army of Maxentius in Rome on Oct. 27, 312, freeing all Roman Christians.

Constantine presented the Roman Church the Lateran Palace, which became the papal residence and the administration center of the Roman Catholic Church. The basilica became the Cathedral of Rome. Pope Militiades died Jan. 10 or 11, 314 A.D. He was later canonized. The Dec. 10 liturgy is held in commemoration of him.

Gelasius I became pope in 492 A.D. He was an eloquent speaker who spoke highly of the need for the church to be independent.

Pope Gelasius is remembered for saving Rome from famine and insisting that bishops use one-fourth of their revenue for charity. He is quoted as saying, ``Nothing is more becoming to the priestly office than the protection of the poor and the weak.''


He is credited with replacing the Lupercalia with the Feast of Purification. The Lupercalia was a pagan practice in which youths dressed in skins would run around the city with whips to chase away bad luck. Whenever they passed a woman they struck her with a whip to ``confer fertility.''

The Feast of Purification, Feb. 2, commemorates the purification of the Blessed Virgin in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is also called Candlemas, because of the candles that are blessed and carried in a procession on that day.

Pope Gelasius I arranged the standard Mass-book, composed hymns, prefaces and collects. He died Nov. 19, 496 A.D. He was canonized and his feast day is held on Nov. 21.

It is natural to wonder how long this information has been available. The copyright dates for my references begin in 1952 which means this information has been available for at least 40 years.

To learn more about this interesting gem of black history, the following books may be of interest: ``The Saints Go Marching In'' by Robert Holtzclaw, Keeble Press, 1980; ``Popes Through the Ages'' by Jospeh Brusher, Princeton, 1959; ``No Green Pastures'' by Roi Ottley, John Murray, 1952; or consult the ``New Catholic Encyclopedia,'' Volumes VI, IX and XIV, McGraw-Hill, 1967. DeBorah Green Zackery is a learning disabilities teacher in the Rochester public school system.p

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