Vigilius - The Unpopular Pontiff

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How Vigilius, a Roman deacon and the son of an honorary consul, intrigued to get the papacy has been described in the life of St. Silverius. After Silverius died; Vigilius was generally recognized as legitimate pope. He had schemed to become pope, but he was to reap more trouble than satisfaction from his ambitious sowing. Though he disappointed his patroness, that actress-theologian Theodora, by continuing the orthodox policy of his predecessors, he was not popular at Rome.

Most of the vexations which made life miserable for Vigilius arose from the Monophysite question. Justinian, himself orthodox, had a politician's preoccupation with placating the Monophysites, so numerous in the East. He also had a preoccupation with dogmatic questions as if his great works of reconquest and reorganization of the empire were not enough. It was suggested that a condemnation of three fifth-century ecclesiastics would go far toward placating the Monophysites. Such a condemnation would be orthodox because Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Ibas had manifested Nestorian tendencies. Yet it would please the Monophysites because the one-nature heresy was the opposite of the Nestorian or twoperson heresy. Justinian, charmed with the idea, issued the famous Three Chapters or lists of condemnations of Theodore, Theodoret, and Ibas. The Three Chapters, however, aroused some opposition in the East and a great deal more in the West, first because they condemned men who had long ago died at peace with the Church, and then because this condemnation, quite wrongly, was regarded as a slap against the Council of Chalcedon. Then too, the Emperor had no right to meddle in matters of doctrine.

Justinian hauled Pope Vigilius off to Constantinople. Though he received the Pope with the greatest honor, he soon put pressure on him to agree to the Three Chapters. Poor Vigilius! Buffeted between the relentless pressure of the Emperor to agree to the Three Chapters, and the angry determination of the Westerners that he should repudiate them, he did not know which way to turn. It must be remembered that as far as doctrine goes, the Three Chapters were orthodox. At first Vigilius agreed to the Three Chapters Western bishops defiantly went into schism. The Westerners in his own retinue gave him gloomy looks and loud arguments. Disconcerted, Vigilius took back his agreement. Justinian's answer was to make him an honored prisoner. The Pope escaped out the window down a rope and fled to Chalcedon. The Emperor coaxed him back and proposed a general council. Vigilius at first boycotted it. However, this council held at Constantinople in 553 is regarded as ecumenical because later Vigilius and other popes acknowledged it. While the council was approving the Three Chapters, the Pope delighted the Westerners by condemning them. But at last he changed his mind again and agreed to the Three Chapters and the council. Justinian had his way. Quite pleased with the Pope now, Justinian sent him back to Rome and gave him that famous Pragmatic Sanction which allows the popes a good share of temporal power in Rome.

Vigilius died at Syracuse on his way back, on June 7, 555. His pontificate was stormy and unhappy. Italy was desolated by the war between Byzantines and Goths. With Milan and Aquilea in schism, Vigilius left a legacy of trouble to his successors.

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

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