Saturday, September 07, 2019

"I am receiving the reward for my deeds" ~ The Miserable Reign of Pope Vigilius, AD 537-555

A 17th century engraving of Pope Vigilius. 
Dark political machinations occur. Huge sums of money change hands. The secular power intrudes upon the domain of the Church, creating a situation whereby the reigning Pope is deposed and another is set up in his place. The deposed Pope is silenced, made a monk and sent into exile. The new Pope is secretly beholden to the secular powers who afforded him his seat. They now expect to see their temporal and ecclesiastical goals supported and advanced by the authority of the Papal office. Indeed, they are willing to coerce the Holy Father if he shows any reticence —and they’ve got a lot of dirt on him.

All of the above has indeed come to pass.

Of course, it came to pass in the 6th century AD.

In the above tale, the deposed Pontiff is Pope Saint Silverius. Born the son of another Pope (Saint Hormisdas), Silverius attained the papal throne in AD 536 following the death of Pope Agapetus who was on a mission in Constantinople when he perished. Silverius’s election was due in large part to the support of the Gothic King of Italy, Theodahad. All this occurred during a tumultuous time when the resurgent Roman Empire under Justinian was attempting to topple the Gothic monarchy and restore Italy to the empire. Shortly after, the feckless Theodahad was killed by his Gothic subjects and the more warlike Vitiges took the throne of Italy in his place. Having to contend with the invasion of Italy by Justinian’s skillful general, Belisarius, the Arian Vitiges left Pope Silverius to rule the Catholic Church in peace.

Thanks in no small part to the good will of Pope Silverius, Belisarius was able to capture Rome from the Goths in AD 537, ending over 60 years of Gothic rule. At about the same time, however, another player arrived on the scene in Italy. This was Vigilius, son of a noble Roman family, who had spent several years as Pope Agapetus’s representative in Constantinople. There, Vigilius had come into contact with the Empress Theodora who had strong sympathies toward the Monophysites.

Monophysitism is the heretical belief that Christ has only one nature, as opposed to the orthodox belief that Christ has two natures (human and divine) joined in a hypostatic union. This argument had been the cause of various schisms since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 450, as well as numerous attempts by religious and political authorities to reconcile the two sides using both the velvet glove and the mailed fist.

When Belisarius invaded Italy in AD 536, Pope Agapetus himself sojourned to Constantinople in an attempt to negotiate a peace treaty between the Goths and the Romans. While there, he discovered that the Patriarch of Constantinople, Anthemius, was a Monophysite heretic and famously deposed him before Justinian and Theodora. Appalled, Justinian demanded that Agapetus rescind his deposition and threatened the Pope with banishment. To this, Agapetus replied: “With eager longing have I come to gaze upon the most Christian emperor, Justinian. In his place I find a Diocletian, whose threats, however, terrify me not.” [Liber Pontificalis, LIX. Agapetus]

At this bold public display of papal authority, Justinian quailed and the deposition of Anthemius stood. But Agapetus perished in Constantinople shortly afterwards, and with the Roman cathedra vacant, the Augusta Theodora sensed a golden opportunity. In his 6th century work known as the Breviarium, the north African archdeacon Liberatus describes what happened next:
Augusta summoned Vigilius, deacon of Agapetus, and asked him secretly to promise her that if he were made pope, he would annul the synod of Chalcedon, where the dual nature of Christ had been maintained, and would write to Theodosius, Anthemius and Severus and in his letters approve their faith, and she offered to give him an order to Belisarius to make him pope and to bestow on him 700 pounds of gold. So Vigilius gladly gave his promise, desiring the bishopric and the gold, and after making his pledge, went to Rome.[Liberatus, Breviarium, 22 – See Liber Pontificalis, LX. Silverius, footnote 1
Having hurried back to Rome, Vigilius bided his time until the military situation stabilized. Once it became clear that Belisarius held the city firmly and that the besieging Gothic army was not able to dislodge him, a conspiracy was hatched. Secret letters were revealed, purporting to be from Silverius to King Vitiges, offering to let the Goths into the city surreptitiously during the night. Pope Silverius protested his innocence, but he was accused of conspiring with the Goths by Belisarius’s own wife, Antonina—herself an agent of Theodora. The Liber Pontificalis describes the scene as follows:
Click for more info.
Silverius went alone with Vigilius into the [Pincian Palace] and Antonina, the patrician, was lying upon a couch and Belisarius, the patrician, was sitting at her feet. When Antonina saw him, she said: “Tell us, Lord Pope Silverius, what we have done to you and to the Romans that you should wish to betray us into the hands of the Goths?”

While she was yet speaking John, the subdeacon of the first district, took the pallium from his neck and carried it into an inner chamber and stripped him of his vestments and put on him a monk’s robe and led him into hiding. [Liber Pontificalis, LX. Silverius]
Immediately thereafter, to no one’s surprise at all, Vigilius was elected Pope. His first act was to send the deposed Silverius into exile at Patara, a city in the east. Given the chaotic situation in Rome and the power of Belisarius and Antonina, few among the clergy or the laity protested his actions or his irregular election. Later, when some friends of Silverius were able to plead his case before Justinian, the emperor took pity and ordered a trial for the deposed Pope in Rome. As a result, Silverius was brought back to Italy, but upon landing, he was seized by Vigilius’s henchmen and exiled to Ponza, a desolate island in the Tuscan sea, where he soon died of starvation.

At this point, Theodora felt that she had achieved a great victory and happily prepared to receive the spoils. According to the Liber Pontificalis, she wrote to Vigilius, saying: “Come fulfill for us what you promised of your own free will concerning our father Anthemius and restore him to his office.”

But if the Augusta expected Vigilius to simply comply, she was in for a surprise. Now safely ensconced in his office far distant from Constantinople, Vigilius gave a most unexpected reply, as recorded in the Liber Pontificalis: “Far be this from me, Lady Augusta. I spoke beforetime wrongly and foolishly. Now I do assuredly refuse to restore a man who is a heretic and under the anathema. Although unworthy, I am the vicar of the blessed Peter, the apostle, as were my predecessors, the most holy Agapetus and Silverius, who condemned him.” [Liber Pontificalis, LXI: Vigilius]

Upon receiving this audacious response, Theodora must have been furious. Seeing that her pawn had gone rogue, the empress began looking for reasons to drag him back to Constantinople. And reasons, like dragon’s teeth sown in the ground, soon erupted everywhere. Vigilius was not popular in Rome as the clergy and the laity seemed to hold a silent grudge against him for his awful treatment of Silverius. Thus, they were more than happy to provide fodder for scandal. One rumor claimed that Vigilius had struck a notary with such force that the man died. Another said that he had ordered the murder of the husband of his niece, Vigilia.

With these accusations in hand, Theodora ordered Vigilius to be seized by her agents and put aboard a ship for Constantinople. As the ship sailed down the Tiber, the Roman people threw sticks and stones after it, crying out: “Your hunger go with you! Your pestilence go with you! You have done evil to the Romans; may you find evil where you go!” [Liber Pontificalis, LXI: Vigilius]

Arriving in Constantinople some months later, Vigilius was greeted by the emperor with a kiss. But the good feelings would not endure. For two years, the imperial court browbeat the Roman Pontiff, attempting to make him compromise on matters of doctrine in an attempt to placate the Monophysite sect. Specifically, Vigilius was asked to condemn a document called The Three Chapters which was particularly offensive to the Monophysites. However, the bishops of the West viewed such an act as the prelude to nullifying the Council of Chalcedon, the true goal the Monophysites had in mind.

Thus, if Vigilius condemned The Three Chapters, the Churches of the West would anathematize him as a heretic. If he did not condemn it, the Emperor and Empress—his one time patrons—would be wroth. As a result, Vigilius walked a tightrope trying desperately to appease the imperial couple while not resorting to concessions that would be seen as heretical in the West.

It is likely during this time that the partisans of Theodora used the scandalous accusations mentioned above as leverage to make Vigilius yield on points of doctrine, threatening to reveal all unless the Pope conceded to their will. But either through sheer obstinance or thanks to a nascent terror at offending God in this way, Vigilius refused to yield, saying to the Emperor and Empress: “Do with me as you will. I am receiving the reward for my deeds.”

Finally, in exasperation, one of the members of court struck Vigilius and flung the scandalous accusations in his face: “Murderer, do you not know to whom you speak? Do you not know that you slew Pope Silverius and killed the son of a widow woman with kicks and blows?” [Liber Pontificalis, LXI: Vigilius]

In terror, Vigilius fled to sanctuary in the church of Saint Peter in Constantinople. There he remained some time while the officers of the imperial court attempted to cajole him to negotiate on the doctrinal questions which the emperor wanted settled. When Vigilius refused to budge from his place of refuge, Justinian lost patience and ordered him removed by force. The imperial officers arrived and attempted to drag Vigilius out, grabbing him by his hair, beard and feet as he clung to the altar. His grip was so tight, however, that the altar itself collapsed and the imperial officers fled.

A fresco of the Second Council of Constantinople from the
Great Lavra of Mount Athos. Pope Vigilius may not be the
figure shown bound and chained in the lower left corner,
but that would be an apt representation of his treatment
during the council.
Vigilius would eventually emerge from sanctuary and into the hands of Justinian. At this point, the sources are contradictory, but the Liber Pontificalis claims that he was held in prison and members of his clergy were sent to toil in the mines. By AD 553, Justinian had prepared an ecumenical council to deal with the matter. He had carefully stacked the deck, however, with bishops from the east whom he was sure would support his position. Realizing this, Vigilius refused to attend the council, which would come to be known as the Second Council of Constantinople. With Vigilius absent, the bishops of the council proceeded to anathematize the Three Chapters as well as their authors.

For a few months more, Vigilius held to his position while serving time in an island exile. Then, finally, worn out and sick from a painful illness, Vigilius capitulated and accepted the acts of the Council. Once he did so, Justinian allowed him to return to Rome. But the Pope never made it. He died in Sicily while on his way home less than a year after knuckling under to Imperial pressure.

While the man he disgracefully deposed--Silverius--became venerated as a saint, Pope Vigilius never did. He remains to this day one of the few early Popes who did not attain sainthood.

For a detailed treatment of this miserable episode in Church history, check out this article entitled “Church and State: The Reign of Justinian” in The American Catholic Quarterly, Volume 37, pages 266-285.

Ironically, Justinian’s victory did little to heal the schism between the orthodox and the Monophysites who yet remained in bitter separation. It did succeed in further alienating the Western Church from the East as the bishops in Italy and Africa viewed the entire affair as sordid and heavily tainted with worldly politics, blackmail and underhanded intrigue.

How this situation relates to the present state of Holy Mother Church and her position vis a vis the dominant political forces in the world today, I leave for the reader to determine as best he can.

1 comment:

Catholic Legal Beagle said...

Great Article about one of the saddest chapters in Church history. The capitulation of Pope Vigilius to the findings of the Council, albeit under duress, later made for an argument against the doctrine of Papal infallibility.