SAINT SYLVERIUS A.D. 536-538
THE martyr, Saint Sylverius, of Frosinone, was the son of Pope Hormisdas, who had contracted a legitimate marriage before he received holy orders. According to some, this pope was cardinal-priest; according to others, a regionary deacon at Rome. He was created pope the 22d of June, 536; so that the vacancy lasted one month and seventeen days. Anastasius the Librarian writes that Sylverius was named in obedience to the expressed desire of Theodatus, king of the Goths; but authors of that time make mention of no violence against the Roman clergy.
It is known that Vigilius had been accredited to Constantinople as apocrisiarius, or political agent. He is the same Vigilius whom Boniface II named as his successor. The Empress Theodora endeavored by her promises to induce Vigilius to allow himself to be placed in the Holy See. The testimony of Novaes seems to be less reliable than that of Feller, who says: "Belisarius had taken Rome. Theodora determined to avail herself of that opportunity to extend the sect of the Acephali, a branch of Eutychianism. The Acephali set up altars and baptisteries in the private houses of towns and suburbs, and despised everybody, on account of the protection they had from the palace". (Theword Acephali signifies the headless). She endeavored to attach Saint Sylverius to her views, but, failing to do so, she resolved to have him deposed. He was unjustly accused of having improper understanding with the Goths. A letter was produced which he was said to have addressed to the hostile kings; but it was proved to have been forged by an advocate named Marcus; yet this did not prevent Sylverius from being sent into exile to Patara in Lycia, and Vigilius was ordained in his place on the 22d of November, 537. The Bishop of Patara, whose name, unfortunately, has not come down to us, boldly defended Sylverius, went to the Emperor Justinian at Constantinople, and said to him : "There are many kings in the world, but there is only one pope in the universe". Justinian, learning the real state of affairs, ordered that Sylverius should be reinstated in his see. As he returned to Italy he was again arrested by Belisarius, at the solicitation of that general's wife, Antonina, who wished to propitiate the Empress Theodora. The pope, deserted by all, was sent back to the isle of Palmeria, opposite to Terracina, where, according to Liberatus, he died of hunger in the month of June, 538. Feller believes that Vigilius committed no offence either before or after that event.
Novaes has indulged in some severity towards that pope, and believes culpable promises to have seduced him. Novaes founds that belief on the former circumstance of Vigilius consenting to receive from Boniface II the succession to the tiara.
Previous to his exile Saint Sylverius had created, in one ordination in December, nineteen bishops, thirteen priests, and five deacons. He governed the Church two years and a few days, and was interred on the isle on which he died.The Holy See remained vacant six days.
Justinian, under the reign of Saint Agapetus I, published a second and more regular edition of his Code. He had already endeavored to reduce into one body all the most useful works of the ancient jurisconsults. The extracts were arranged under certain titles, and bore the name of Digests, or Pandects; subsequently he composed his Institutes, to serve as an introduction to these books. Trebonius had a large share in those important works. Justinian also promulgated laws enforcing respect to Catholicity. They are all comprised in his Novella, as being newer than the publication of his Code. He recommends the observance of the canons, and forbids the alienation of the property of any of the churches.
VIGILIUS A.D. 538-555
WE have no doubt that Vigilius ardently desired the tiara, for, after being named, probably with his own consent, as successor to the papacy without any election, he afterwards figured as antipope, under Sylverius. But those facts do not justify prejudices, still less do they justify false accusations against him. Let us examine the actual pontifical career of this pope, who on more than one occasion will show himself a courageous soldier of Christ.
He was Roman, the son of John, of a consular family. Boniface II named him apocrisiarius, or political agent, at Constantinople. On the death of Sylverius, Vigilius was legitimately elected. Belicarius, his patron, commanded at Rome, and the clergy desired peace in the Church. More over, the Holy See was occupied by a man distinguished for his talents and for a profound knowledge of public affairs. Suddenly an unexpected change appeared in the inclinations of Vigilius. Had he promised Theodora to admit the communion of the heretics? We shall learn that later. It is of the life, the actions, and the writings of Vigilius that we have now to speak. He will make Theodora aware that he has no intention of acceding to the wishes of the enemies of Catholicity; it will be seen that if he imprudently entered into engagements he will not ratify any such promises, but will confirm the excommunication of Anthymus and his sectaries.
With relation to Anastasius, Vigilius wrote to the empress: "We have spoken wrongly, senselessly; now we will by no means consent to what you require of us. We will not recall an anathematized heretic". Peremptorily ordered to repair to Constantinople, he did not hesitate to order the necessary preparations for the journey, but he did not show extreme haste. It was he who, in 545, named as his primate the Bishop of Arles, a city of the States of Childebert, in France, and sent to him powers similar to those that some of his predecessors had given to the primacy in Spain.
In 546 the Emperor Justinian published an edict in which he ordered the bishops to condemn the three chapters. The first concerned the writings and the person of Theodorus, Bishop of Mopsuestia, accused of Nestorianism; the second formed part of the writings of Theodoret, Bishop of Civo, against the twelve chapters of Saint Cyril; the third consisted of a letter written by Ibas, Bishop of Edessa, to a Persian heretic named Marin. The Holy Father, Vigilius, disapproved of this condemnation by the emperor, and his example was followed by some bishops. They naturally rejected errors opposed to the faith; but they would not condemn the persons to whom those errors were attributed, fearing lest they should in some sort offend against the canons of the Council of Chalcedon. The emperor, influenced by the representations of Theodora, that actress who had become empress and arbitress of the destinies of the empire, demanded also that Anthymus should be reinstated in the see of Constantinople, and repeated his order to Vigilius to repair to that city.
Arriving in Constantinople in January, 547, he was received with great honors. Theodora being dead, the emperor, of his own accord, begged Vigilius to condemn thethree chapters, and obstinately pressed the subject upon him.
Vigilius, having assembled seventy bishops, was told by them that, without prejudice to the Council of Chalcedon, the three chapters might be condemned. Then he condemned them, and sent to Mennas, Bishop of Constantinople, a decree in which he distinctly noted that he did not by that condemnation intend any prejudice to the acts of the Council of Chalcedon.
The pope supposed that he had satisfied both parties : the Greeks, by his condemnation of the three chapters; and the Latins, by accompanying the condemnation with the necessary reservation in favor of the acts of the Council of Chalcedon. But he found that he was mistaken. The East burst out against him as a violator of that council, and some of the African bishops went so far as to cut off the pontiff from their communion. To appease the tumult, the Holy Father revoked the said constitution, and threatened to excommunicate the Greek bishops who should consent to anything concerning the three chapters without the consent of a general council. Justinian, on the request of Theodorus of Caesarea, published another decree against the three chapters. The Holy Father convoked the Greek and Latin bishops in the Placidian palace, and forbade, on pain of excommunication, obedience to the imperial decree. Justinian, irritated, ordered the imprisonment of Vigilius. All appeared to become orderly; but the peace was of no long endurance. Theodorus, Bishop of Caesarea, and even Mennas, Bishop of Constantinople, were excommunicated. At this crisis the conduct of Vigilius was sublime. Compelled to take refuge in a church, he was followed by the praetor and armed soldiers. The pope embraced the pillars that supported the altar; the people compelled the praetor to retire. It was in the midst of this violence that the intrepid pope exclaimed : "We declare to you that, though you hold us captive, you do not hold Saint Peter". Justinian, conquered by so much constancy and so lofty a virtue, revoked his edict; and Vigilius, who had fled towards the city of Chalcedon, returned to Constantinople. It was agreed that, in order to terminate the controversy, it should be referred to a general council consisting of Greek and Latin bishops in equal numbers. But the emperor broke his word, and Vigilius found himself obliged to convene the council on the 5th of May, 553, without waiting for the arrival of the Latin bishops. In the conduct of the emperor there was neither justice, nor dignity, nor respect for the Church. Vigilius would not be present in the council. He published a new Constitutum, in which he protested that such a council, having only one arm, could not condemn the three chapters. Nevertheless, they were condemned by that council, which is called the fifth general council, at which there were present one hundred and sixty-five bishops, among whom were three patriarchs. Vigilius, not wishing to confirm this decree, was sent into exile, nor was he recalled until he had confirmed with his authority the condemnation of the council.
We may add here that it was also confirmed by this pope's successors, Pelagius I, John III, Benedict I, Pelagius II, and Saint Gregory the Great. The confirmation by this last mentioned pontiff explains why Vigilius perceived the necessity of conduct which, far from being contradictory, proved the extreme attention with which the pope watched events, their influence, and their inevitable requirements, and always finished with a skilful act, after having exhausted all the phases of determination backed by the loftiest courage. Novaes, in commenting on this subject, says: "Thus the pontiff changed his views without prejudice to apostolic truth". Novaes adds that in this controversy the question was not of faith but of persons, and that his change of views should not be attributed to inconstancy but to prudence. The emperor allowed Vigilius to depart; but he had scarcely arrived in Sicily when he was attacked by a painful disease, of which he died at Syracuse in 555, after a reign of sixteen years and about six months.
In two ordinations, in the month of December, he ordained eighty-one bishops, sixteen priests (some say fortysix), and sixteen deacons.
The body was transferred to Rome, and interred in the Church of Saint Marcellus, on the Salarian Way. The Holy See remained vacant about three months. A law of Justinian, published under this pontificate, provides that the four general councils of Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon shall always have the force of law, and that the pope is the first of all the bishops. To this law it was added that the general council held at Constantinople in 553 should also be recognized as holy. That fifth council is also known as the second of Constantinople.
Under this pontificate Totila took the city of Rome, plundered it, and threw down the walls, but Belisarius soon appeared and restored them.
PELAGIUS I A.D. 555-560
PELAGIUS I, Roman, son of John Vicarianus, named cardinal-priest by Saint Agapetus, and nuncio to Justinian, as Liberius and Vigilius had been, was created pontiff on the 11th of April, 555. Like Vigilius, he had condemned the three chapters; he was therefore held in some suspicion of being false to the Council of Chalcedon. The populace, in violent tumults, disowned allegiance to Pelagius. Unhappily, religious men and noble citizens both shared and showed the same feeling to such an extent that, though two bishops were prepared to consecrate him, the third one, who was necessary to the canonical fulfilment of the ceremony, could not be found. At length Pelagius was consecrated by the bishops of Perugia and Ferentino, and by Andrew, archpriest of Ostia. Father Berti demonstrates that that consecration was valid, though not in conformity to what usually took place.
When the Romans, besieged by Totila, were suffering from famine, Pelagius had rendered them great service by passing in provisions to them. That bygone benevolence was now remembered, and a desire was shown to establish with the new pope relations of respectful submission. It was also mentioned that once, when he was accused of entertaining factious feelings against Vigilius, he rushed to the preacher's pulpit in Saint Peter's Church, placed the Gospels on his head, and protested his innocence of the crime.
Pelagius confirmed the fifth general council, approved by his predecessor; and to appease the differences which had sprung up among the Western bishops on the subject of the three chapters condemned in the council, he endeavored to get them condemned anew by the African, the Illyrian, and even the Italian bishops. "To that end he employed", says Fleury, "the authority of Narses, and he was pious and fearful of offending against religion. Pelagius, in one of his letters, exhorts him thus: Pay no attention to the vain speeches of people who charge the Church with exciting persecution when she represses crime and labors for the salvation of souls. To persecute is to compel one to do evil; otherwise all the laws, divine and human, which order the punishment of crime, would be deserving of abolition. Now the Scripture and the canons teach us that schism is an evil and that it ought to be suppressed, even by the secular power; and all who separate themselves from the Apostolic See sin, and undoubtedly are schismatics".
During the reign of Pelagius the famous Cassiodorus died in extreme old age. He belonged to the most famous Roman nobility, and was born at Squillacia, in Calabria, about the year 470. He was the principal minister of King Theodoric. After he had retired from public life, he composed, in a monastery that he had founded, Commentaries on the Psalms, and The Institution of the Scriptures. At the age of ninety-two years he wrote several other works, and a treatise on orthography, extracted from twelve authors, the twelfth being Priscian. Cassiodorus always showed a respectful attachment to Pelagius.
The French having declared Pelagius suspected of heresy, he defended himself before them in a profession of faith, which he sent to King Childebert and signed with his own hand the declaration that he condemned and excommunicated those who strayed from the doctrine of the letter of Saint Leo and the acts of the Council of Chalcedon.
The Bishops of Tuscany refused to adhere to the fifth council, and withdrew from the communion of Pelagius. He wrote to them in these remarkable terms: "How can you doubt that you are separated from all Christian communion, when you do not pronounce our name, according to custom, in the holy mysteries, since, however unworthy we person ally may be, it is in us that at present subsists the solidity of the Apostolic See, with the succession of the episcopacy?"
In two ordinations, in the month of December, Pelagius created forty-eight or forty-nine bishops, twenty-five or twenty-six priests, and nine deacons. He died the 28th of February, 560, after governing the Church four years, ten months, and eighteen days.
The Holy See was vacant four months and sixteen days, because at that time it was necessary to await the imperial consent from Constantinople to the pontifical election, although the election had not previously been so long deferred. The right claimed by Justinian to interfere in the election of the popes, which right was subsequently maintained by the successors of that emperor, occasioned vacancies in the see of Rome of much longer duration than before. Nevertheless, from the days of Odoacer the sovereigns of Italy pretended to direct or rather to disturb that election.Shortly before his death Pope Pelagius had begun to build the Church of the Holy Twelve Apostles.