Saint Pulcheria: Two Christological Councils Owe Their Success to Her

No doubt one of the greatest women to grace the Church, Empress Saint Pulcheria was born in the year 399. She was the eldest daughter of Emperor Arcadius and assumed the regency for her younger brother, Theodosius II. Pulcheria and her sisters took vows of virginity, which she kept even after marrying a general, named Marcian, who agreed to respect her commitment to God. With the empress and her sisters the palace in Constantinople became a virtual monastery. Providentially, she was very adept at affairs of state and was the brains and gusto behind her less capable younger brother.

Theodosius was weak and later allowed his wife, Eudoxia, to sway him from his allegiance to his sister, especially in the case of the heretical Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople. Nestorius, in a sermon, denied that Our Lady should be honored with the title “Mother of God.” He insisted that Our Lady was the mother of the flesh and not the diviinity of Christ. Hence he divided Our Lord into two Persons, God and Man, thus dissolving the hypostatic unity of the Incarnate Word.

Saint Pulcheria was a friend and supporter of Saint Cyril of Alexandria in his fight against the wicked doctrine of Nestorius. She championed the teaching of the Council of Ephesus (432), the success of which is mainly credited to Cyril and Pulcheria. Theodosius afterwards came around and, thanks to his sister’s influence, promulgated the decrees of Ephesus throughout the empire. Nevertheless, Pulcheria still suffered from the court intrigues of the insidious Eudoxia, and for a time had to retire to a suburb of the city while Eudoxia reigned as the other empress. When Theodosius died in 450, she returned to Constantinople, married the good General Marcian, and was proclaimed sole empress and Marcian became the augustus.

A year before Theodosius II’s death another heresy reared its nefarious head, that of the Monophysites. This heresy alleged that there was only one nature in Christ, the human having been absorbed into the divine. This error was promoted by a monk in Constantinople named Eutyches. Once again Theodosius fell into supporting the heterodox party. They held a synod at Ephesus, the Robber Synod, as it is called in Church history, and Saint Flavian of Constantinople was savagely beaten during the council by the thugs of Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria who favored Eutyches. Flavian died from his wounds three days later as a martyr. Meanwhile Pope Leo the Great, with the help of Saint Pulcheria, called for a new council to be held at Chalcedon in 451. Here, the Monophysites (and Eutyches, Dioscorous, and the Robber Synod) were condemned and the synod fathers read aloud the Letter of Leo (the Tome of Pope Leo I) proclaiming the two natures in Christ in words that seem written in heaven. When the pope’s legate, Hilary, finished reading the text all the bishops, in unison, rose and shouted “Peter has spoken through Leo.” Pope Leo thanked Empress Pulcheria in a letter he wrote to her and testified therein that two councils owed their success to her efforts.

Saint Pulcheria built three church in Constantinople dedicated to the Mother of God. She died in 453. Brother Francis liked to think that when she entered heaven she asked that the Holy Roman empire survive in the East (it had died in the West in 476) for another thousand years. Constantinople fell to the Moslems in 1453. That was the end of the Roman Empire in the East.