The Forced Union of Florence
Episode 1 – Ferrara
According to the memoirs of Sylvester Siropoulos, a participant in all of the sessions*
Sylvester Siropoulos, the Great Ecclesiarch of the Church of Constantinople, is a rare and extremely valuable source, witness and participant of the events that took place in the Italian cities of Ferrara and Florence, related to the attempted union of the Church with the Vatican. Not much is known about the high functionary of the Byzantine Empire. What is known for certain is that Sylvester Siropoulos was in the service of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and reached the high office of Great Ecclesiarch. He came from a clerical family of that city, and was the recipient of a rich and varied theological education, and as such rapidly received promotion in the service of the Patriarch.
The most notable and important of his works is his “Memoirs”, the critical edition of which, prepared by V. Laurent, was published in 1971 in Paris. In older manuscripts one finds this work under the title “History” or “Practica”. These Memoirs are a work of some twelve volumes. Volumes 1-3 describe the events which took place between the two sides and their positions before, as well as the dialogue which took place right up to the beginning of the council itself. Volumes 4-10 are the most important part of the work since they are concerned with the council itself and its deliberations. The final two volumes deal with the return of the delegates from Italy to Constantinople, and to the East in general, as well as with events which resulted from the false union itself in the five or so years it following it. This final section is of great importance since it reveals the reasons why it was impossible to enact the provisions of this infamous gathering in the life of the Church.
The Memoirs have great importance as a valuable and precious primary source especially for the Orthodox. The Great Ecclesiarch of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who from start to finish was intimately informed concerning everything that took place involving this attempt at union, is someone we are to a great extent able to believe. The author, as a theologically prepared and competent witness and participant in the dialogue that took place, is in a position to differentiate between the essential and the peripheral subjects of discussion. He was himself personally involved and highly motivated and interested in most of the discussions, and had the ear of both Patriarch and Emperor.
Following his well-documented exposition even the lay reader will have a clear picture of the events, conditions and atmosphere of this council. This atmosphere was in many ways similar to that of previous attempts, and indeed o falter ones, where the Church is forced into a union with Rome. For this very reason Siorpoulos’ Memoirs are of great importance to Orthodox Christians as tangible evidence of the experience of the Holy Church with the ongoing attempts of the Papacy at forced and false union.
The Memoirs are concerned primarily with personalities, their positions and opinions. An entire gallery of faces parades itself before us, one of them being Siropoulos himself. The writer has captured in his work, in connection with these events, the most notable personalities of the era, not only in the ecclesiastical sphere, but in the political as well. These individuals, in the final days of Byzantium, were attempting to accomplish the Church’s union with the Vatican, which they did not honestly believe to be possible or desirable under such circumstances. One is under the impression that everyone involved in this futile attempt was each in his own way given over to a certain lack of inspiration. That this was indeed the case was soon to be demonstrated. For it is a well established fact that subjects concerning faith as well as life, can be dealt with only in an atmosphere that is devoid of all pressure, and which is conducive to the peaceful and prudent resolution of its object. Needless to say, nothing of this, not the personal good will or interests of the participants, existed at the time of the council. The unrealistic and, in all honesty, misguided and insincere attempt at union at Ferrara-Florence, which took place in the years 1438-39, clearly supports such a conclusion.
The central theme of Siropoulos’ work is, of course, the council. Everything he writes about in the Memoirs exists only to give flesh to the skeleton of that theme. The author is complete and all encompassing in his approach. First of all he concerns himself with the background. What was it that caused the representatives of East and West to even attempt such a union? Four hundred years had passed since the Church had been anathematised by the Pope of Rome (1054-1438), who had continued to build up layer upon layer of innovation and change. Four hundred years of division, and even more of disagreement, were placed on the table to be rectified, perhaps, by the participants of the council. The delegates, however, were the children of the past, and Rome had changed much since 1054.
To be continued.
*This article is taken from Living Water, the publication of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, South Africa, under the jurisdiction of the Old Calendar Church of Greece