Ever met one of those people who picks and chooses what to listen to when it comes to God’s Commandments and the guidance of the Church? To be honest, we probably all fit into this category in more or less subtle ways. Obedience is one of the surest ways to sanctity, and yet one of the most difficult things to do. April 12 marks 810 years since the Sack of Constantinople and yet it is still so fresh on the minds of many Orthodox Christians that it may be one of the largest obstacles to reunification between the Churches. What happened, and why?
Division and Distrust
Differences in matters of culture, politics, jurisdiction, language and even some elements of doctrine led to a gradual deterioration in the relationship between the Eastern and Western Christian Empires leading to the Eastern Schism of 1054. Despite the split, they continued to work together against external enemies. Unfortunately, the mutual suspicion was the tinder that simply needed a spark.
There were two main events that made conditions ripe for the sack. In 1182, Andronicus Comnenus took over Constantinople and massacred Westerners. When the Western knights came through Orthodox lands in 1188 during the Third Crusade, their leader, Frederick Barbarossa sought permission from the new Eastern Emperor, Isaac II to pass through Eastern lands en route to the Holy Land. Isaac II instead allied with their enemy, Saladin, the famous Muslim hero. Additionally, the Greek Patriarch Dositheus of Constantinople offered unconditional absolution to any Greek killing a Westerner. Despite these hostile actions, the Latins did not attack the Byzantines. This is how the Fourth Crusade should have gone. It did not.
An Unscrupulous Man with Revenge on the Mind
Doge Enrico Dandolo, the elderly Duke of Venice, had a dominating and persuasive personality. He was also handicapped, as the Byzantines had blinded him during a diplomatic mission to Constantinople some years before. Furthermore, over the previous thirty years, thousands of Venetians living in the Eastern Empire had been killed, mutilated, or arrested and held for years in prison with the tacit approval of the Byzantine government. When the organizers of the Fourth Crusade came to him to ask for transport for their army to the Holy Land, he saw this as his opportunity for revenge.
Instead, he manipulated the weak leaders of the crusade into doing his will. When word of their agreement reached Pope Innocent III, he asserted that recovery of Jerusalem was the goal and no Christian shall be harmed in the process. Now, they had a direct and clear order from the Church about what they should do. Had they done this, they might’ve gone down in history as heroes.
The Snake Takes Charge
The Doge placed himself at the helm of the Crusader army and led the fleet to the Christian city of Zara (owned by a rival of his) where they were met with a letter from Pope Innocent III forbidding them from attacking the city under the threat of excommunication. Feeling committed at this point, they sacked the city, even plundering and profaning its churches.
While the Crusaders were wintering in Zara, Prince Alexius, son of Byzantine Emperor Isaac II offered to pay for the Crusade if they would only help him regain the throne. After heated debate the fleet sailed to Constantinople. Shortly after arrival, the Crusaders captured one wall of the city and opened its gates. Emperor Alexius III panicked and fled the city with all the treasure he could take. Not wanting to incite the populace, the Latins withdrew and Prince Alexius took the throne as Alexius IV with his blind and unbalanced father, Isaac II.
The Final Act
After several months it became obvious that Alexius IV could not make good on his promises. The Crusaders renounced him. Without their support, he was quickly overthrown and murdered by another Alexius, the “Shaggy-Browed”, who aggressively expunged the crusaders from the city.
The Crusader leadership met together and decided to attack, splitting the offices and booty. Doge Dandolo would finally get his revenge. On April 12, 1204 they found a weakness in a bricked-up gate and battered it open, swarming in and overwhelming the defenders. For three days, Christian men – wearing the cross – robbed, raped, and destroyed indiscriminately, without mercy, without restraint. A month later, the Latin Empire of Constantinople was established and a letter written to Pope Innocent III declaring victory while glossing over the horrific details. It took a year for the truth to reach him. When he learned the truth, he wrote this:
“You rashly violated the purity of your vows; and, turning your arms not against the Saracens [Muslims] but against Christians, you applied yourselves not to the recovery of Jerusalem, but to seize Constantinople, preferring earthly to heavenly riches….These “soldiers of Christ” who should have turned their swords against the infidel have steeped them in Christian blood, sparing neither religion, nor age, nor sex….They stripped the altars of silver, violated the sanctuaries, robbed icons and crosses and relics….The Latins have given example only of perversity and works of darkness. No wonder the Greeks call them dogs!” – Pope Innocent III after members of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204 A.D.
During a visit to Athens in May 2001, Pope John Paul II offered a formal apology for this event and for other “deep wounds” Catholics have caused to Orthodox over the last millennium. Patriarch Bartholomew gave his “pardon” to Catholics in April of 2004. While forgiveness and open discussion abound between Church leadership, there remains bitterness towards Catholics among Orthodox over this event.
So who were the heroes in this story? Frederick Barbarossa, Pope Innocent III, Pope John Paul II, and Patriarch Bartholomew all conducted themselves virtuously, holding steady to God and not falling to the level of the World. They chose to be obedient to God. Imagine if the Doge had forgiven his enemies, or the Crusaders decided to obey the Pope,, world history would be completely different right now. Instead, they allowed small sins to snowball into larger sins. They succumbed to greed, lust, murder, and pride. While our daily choices may not seem to be as impactful as these men in the story, the point is the same: to be obedient to God and Church keeps us on the road to sanctity whereas disobedience leads to sin and infamy. What areas in our lives are we disobedient? How can we be more obedient in our daily lives to God and Church?
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