In spite of the comparative length of John's pontificate, not too much is
known about it. This ignorance is probably due to the Lombard invasions
which began during John's reign. The reconquest of Italy by the Empire had
brought little happiness and less peace to the Italians. Belisarius and
Narses had indeed destroyed the Ostrogoth power, but their less capable
successors proved unable to protect Italy from barbarians far more
destructive than the Goths, the ferocious Lombards. Then too Rome had been
badly hurt by the repeated sieges undergone in the Gothic war. With the
population scattered and the aqueducts broken, Rome was but the shadow
of the bustling city of the Caesars. It is at this time that the ancient
Senate disappears from history, while more and more the popes are forced
to take up the burden of political responsibility. It is a true transition
period from ancient to early medieval times.
John III was a Roman, the son of a nobleman, Anastasius. He was consecrated
in mid-July 561. The main features of John's pontificate are his relations
with General Narses, his ill advised reinstatement of two Gallic bishops,
and his care for the monuments of Christian antiquity.
Narses, the famous eunuch and general who completed the conquest of Italy
from the Goths, continued to protect the country in the first years of
John's pontificate. He destroyed several armies of assorted barbarians, to
the great relief of the threatened Italians. But he was accused before the
Emperor Justin II of disloyalty and recalled. The whole matter is quite
confused. According to the "Liber Pontificalis," Narses had gone down to
Naples when Pope John, realizing how necessary he was for the country's
safety, went to Naples and pleaded with him to return. After Narses had
asked what mischief he had done to the Romans, Pope John replied that he
himself would sooner leave Rome than have Narses abandon the city. The
great general returned; but some trouble evidently arose, for Pope John
retired from the city to the Church of Sts. Tiburtius and Valerian in the
Catacomb of Praetextatus on the Appian Way. Narses was accused of inviting
the Lombards into Italy, but this is far from certain. His removal,
however, did invite them, for it created a power vacuum which these
Northern wild men were quick to fill.
John III does not seem to have been well advised in his handling of an
appeal from two Gallic bishops. Salonius of Embrum and Sagittarius of Gap
had been deposed by a synod at Lyons on serious charges. With the favor
of Guntram, King of Burgundy, they appealed to the Pope. John quashed the
decision of the synod and ordered the bishops reinstated. This was a
mistake, for later on they had to be deposed again by the second synod of
Chalons in 579.
In spite of the troubled times, John finished the Church of Sts. Philip and
James, a grand structure in the Byzantine manner, gleaming with mosaics,
warm with color. He also did much for the catacombs. It is scarcely an
exaggeration to say that by his regulations the catacombs were preserved.
John III died July 13, 574, and was buried in St. Peter's.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.