Pelagius I - Trouble From The Start

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A dramatic scene illustrates the difficulties faced by Pope Pelagius I. On a solemn occasion before the great General Narses and a large gathering of the Roman people, Pelagius mounted the ambo in St. Peter's and holding above his head a book of Gospels and a cross swore that he was not guilty of plotting evil against Vigilius. The career of Pelagius explains the need for so dramatic a gesture.

Pelagius was a Roman, the son of a high government official. As deacon he had accompanied Pope Agapetus to Constantinople and had remained as the Pope's ambassador. There he became very friendly with Justinian. He returned in 543 and was in Rome when Totila the Goth besieged the city. He did much for the suffering people. He spent lavishly to provide food for them and tried to get a truce from Totila. Here he failed, but he did succeed in getting the Goth to promise to spare the lives of the inhabitants when he finally took the city in December 546. Totila sent him as ambassador to Constantinople to arrange a peace, but Justinian refused, saying that Belisarius was his plenipotentiary for Italy.

Pelagius again went to Constantinople to support Vigilius in the struggle over the Three Chapters. He was a strong influence on the Pope against the Three Chapters. When Vigilius finally did accept them, Pelagius seems to have lost his head for a time and to have defied the Pope. Later thoughts were cooler thoughts, and he came to agree with Pope Vigilius. This change of mind restored him to the favor of Justinian. When Vigilius died, the Emperor strongly urged the candidacy of Pelagius. Ten months after the death of Vigilius, Pelagius was consecrated. But his troubles were many. He had to calm the tempest raised by the Three Chapters, and he had to help his poor flock so distressed by the Gothic War. To calm the Three Chapters tempest was not easy, especially since Pelagius had once attacked them so bitterly. Now he was stormed at and abused as a traitor. Throughout the West there was general uneasiness. Milan and Aquileia refused to return to Catholic unity. Gaul was troubled. Even at Rome Pelagius felt it necessary to make the dramatic gesture described above. Pelagius handled a difficult situation with skill. He used a calm, levelheaded approach. All he asked of angry dissidents was submission to the Holy See without mentioning the irritating Three Chapters. He kept on insisting that neither the Three Chapters nor the Fifth General Council were opposed to Chalcedon. Though he failed to bring back Milan and Aquileia, he did much to calm the West elsewhere. He averted trouble in Gaul by a timely letter to King Childebert and by appointing as his vicar there the excellent Sapandus, archbishop of Arles.

An excellent administrator, Pelagius ran the papal estates or patrimony of Peter with an efficient hand. He was unsparing in his charity to the poor. He used freely the authority given the pope by the Pragmatic Sanction. The city of Rome, so battered by the war, felt his restoring hand. Pelagius I died March 4, 561, a much more popular man than he had been at his accession.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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