When Gregory resigned, Nectarius was praetor of Constantinople. An elderly man born at Tarsus in Cilicia of a noble family, he was widely known for his admirable character, but was still only a catechumen.
Preparing for a journey to Tarsus, he called on the Bishop of Tarsus, Diodore, who was attending the First Council of Constantinople (one of the ecumenical councils), to ask if he could take letters for him; his appearance and manners struck Diodorus so forcibly that he at once determined that he should be advanced as a candidate for Bishop; making an excuse of attending to some other business, he took Nectarius to see the bishop of Antioch, who asked Nectarius to put off his journey a short time.
His unexpected appointment
When the Emperor Theodosius I wanted the Bishops at the Council to suggest new candidates and reserving to himself the right of making the choice, the Bishop of Antioch put at the bottom of his list, Nectarius' name. The Emperor having read the lists, declared Nectarius to be his choice.
This choice caused some amazement amongst the Fathers who wanted to know - who and what was this Nectarius? He was not even baptized! There was much astonishment at the emperor's unexpected choice, but the people of Constantinople were delighted at the news as was the whole council.
Nectarius ruled the church for upwards of 16 years, and is thought of as having been a good prelate. His name heads the 150 signatures to the canons of the Second Ecumenical Council. The 3rd canon declares that, "...the Bishop of Constantinople shall hold the first rank after the bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is the new Rome." However, it was not until 1439 that the Council of Florence admitted the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Unfortunately the Bishops of the West opposed the election result and asked for a common synod of East and West to settle the succession and so the Emperor Theodosius, soon after the close of the second council, summoned the Imperial Bishops to a fresh synod at Constantinople; nearly all of the same bishops who had attended the earlier second council were assembled again in early summer of 382. On arrival they received a letter from the synod of Milan, inviting them to a great general council at Rome; however they indicated that they must remain where they were, because they had not made any preparations for such long a journey. However, they sent three --Syriacus, Eusebius and Priscian -- with a synodal letter to Pope Damasus I, archbishop Saint Ambrose and the other bishops assembled in the council at Rome.
The Roman synod to which this letter was addressed was the fifth under Damasus. No formal account remains of its proceedings, nor of how its members treated the question of Nectarius. Theodosius, did however, send commissaries to Rome in support of his synod.
Six letters from Nectarius remain extant in the files of his predecessor Gregory Nazianzus. In the first he expresses his hearty good wishes for his episcopate. The last is of great importance, urging him not to be too liberal in tolerating the Apollinarians.
In 383 a third synod at Constantinople was held. In spite of the decrees of bishops and emperor, the Arians and Pneumatomachians continued to spread their doctrines. Theodosius summoned all parties to the Imperial city for a great discussion in June, hoping to reconcile all differences. Before this he had sent for the Archbishop and told him that all questions should be fully debated.
After this, Nectarius returned home, full of anxiety and consulted the Novatianist Bishop Agelius, who felt himself unsuited to arbitrate on such a controversy. However he did have a reader, Sisinnius, a philosopher and theologian, to whom he referred the argument with the Arians. Sisinnius suggested that they should produce the testimonies of the old Fathers of the Church on the doctrine of the Son, and first ask the heads of the several parties whether they accepted these authorities or desired to anathematize them.
Both the Archbishop and the Emperor agreed to this suggestion and when the Bishops met, the Emperor asked whether they respected "...the teachers who lived before the Arian division?" They confirmed that they did and he then asked if they acknowledged, "...them sound and trustworthy witnesses of the true Christian doctrine?"
This question however produced divisions and so the emperor ordered each party to draw up a written confession of its doctrine. When this was done, the Bishops were summoned to the Imperial palace, where the emperor received them with kindness and retired to his study with their written confessions. Theodosius however rejected and destroyed all except that of the orthodox, because he felt that the others introduced a division into the Holy Trinity.
Towards the close of his episcopate, Nectarius abolished the office of presbyter penitentiary, whose duty appears to have been to receive confessions before communion. His example was followed by nearly all other Bishops. The presbyter penitentiary was added to the ecclesiastical roll about the time of the Novatianist schism, when that party declined to communicate with those who had lapsed in the Decian persecution. Gradually there were fewer lapsed to reconcile, and his duties became more closely connected with preparation for communion. A disgraceful occurrence induced Nectarius to leave the participation in holy communion entirely to individual consciences and abolish the office.
Nectarius died in office in 397 or 398 and was succeeded by Saint John Chrysostom.
- Hefele, Hist. Christ. Councils, tr. Oxenham (Edinb. 1876), vol. ii. pp. 344, 347, 378, 380, 382, etc.
- Nectarii Arch. CP. Enarratio in Patr. Gk. xxxix. p. 1821;
- J. D. Mansi, Concil. t. iii. p. 521, 599, 633, 643, 694, etc. ;
- Socrates Scholasticus H. E. v. viii. etc.;
- Sozomenus H. E. vii. viii. etc.;
- Theodoret H. E. v. viii. etc.;
- Theophilus Chronogr. 59. etc.;
- This article uses text from A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace.
Gregory I Nazianzus the Theologian
|Patriarch of Constantinople|
| Succeeded by|
John I Chrysostom