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.