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Pope Saint Silverius is truly a saint for our times. Faced with persecution by the Christian Roman imperial government which insisted that he embrace heresy, he nonetheless held courageously to the truth of the Catholic faith, despite lies, corruption, intimidation and threats to his office and his life.
Almost no one today knows him, but Silverius is a saint that Catholics should invoke when faced with weak leadership in the Church that serves or capitulates to those in political power.
Here is his story.
Made pope under the influence of the Gothic King, Theodahad, Silverius was the son of a previous pope, Saint Hormisdas. He was newly crowned in AD 537, when the Roman imperial couple, Justinian and Theodora, enjoined him to reinstate Anthemius, the monophysite patricarch of Constantinople. Anthemius had previously been deposed as a heretic by Silverius’s immediate predecessor, Pope Saint Agapetus who had died in Constantinople. Events played out as follows, according to the Liber Pontificalis:
At that time the patrician Belisarius [called "Vilisarius" in this source] went to Naples and set it in order and afterwards came to Rome. And he was received graciously by Lord Silverius....
At that time [future Pope] Vigilius the deacon was delegate to Constantinople. And the empress was vexed for the patriarch Anthemius because he had been deposed by the most holy pope, Agapitus, who had found him to be a heretic and had appointed Menas, the servant of God, in his stead. So Augustus took counsel with Vigilius the deacon and sent a letter to Rome to Pope Silverius with the request: "Be not slow to come to us or else fail not to restore Anthemius to his place."
And when the blessed Silverius read the letter he groaned and said, "Now I know that this affair has put an end to my life." But the most blessed Silverius had trust in God and in blessed Peter the apostle and he wrote to the empress Lady Augusta, "I will never do this thing to recall a heretic condemned in his iniquity."
Then Augusta was wroth and she sent instructions to Belisarius the patrician by Vigilius the deacon as follows: "Find some occasion to accuse Pope Silverius and depose him from the bishopric or else send him surely and speedily to us. See you have with you Vigilius the archdeacon and legate our well beloved who has promised us to restore the patriarch Anthemius."
And Belisarius the patrician received the instructions and said "I forsooth will perform these instructions, but as for him who brings about the overthrow of Pope Silverius he shall render an account of his deeds to our Lord Jesus Christ."
And certain false witnesses encouraged by these instructions came forward and said "We have found Pope Silverius sending letters to the king of the Goths saying, 'Come to the gate which is called the Asinaria near the Lateran and I will deliver to you the city.'"
And Belisarius the patrician heard this and did not believe it for he knew that it was spoken out of malice. Nevertheless since many persisted in that same accusation he was afraid. Then he bade Pope Silverius come to him in the Pincian palace and he had all the clergy wait at the first and second portals. And Silverius went alone with Vigilius into the mausoleum, and Antonina the patrician was lying upon a couch and Belisarius the patrician was sitting at her feet. And when Antonina the patrician saw him she said to him, "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. Then Xystus, the subdeacon of the sixth district, when he saw him as a monk went outside and proclaimed to the clergy that the lord pope had been deposed and had become a monk. And when they heard it they all fled. But Vigilius the archdeacon took Silverius as if in his own charge, and sent him into exile to Pontiae and fed him with the bread of tribulation and the water of bitterness. And he fell ill and died a confessor.
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And he was buried in that place June 20 and a multitude of those who were diseased came to his sepulcher and were healed.Silverius knew full well the grave danger of contradicting the will of the emperor and empress. As much as he may have feared them and the fate which they had in store for him, he feared God more. For as our Lord said, "Fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell."
It is interesting to note that the political and military fortunes of Justinian and Belisarius seemed to wax greatest up until the time of Silverius's death. After that, they waned slowly, steadily, almost tragically. As the old saying goes, Qui mange du pape en meurt (Who eats of the Pope, dies of it).
Pope Saint Silverius will be featured prominently in Book III of my series of historical novels on Belisarius, the last great Roman general, now well under way.
As for Belisarius's role in this tragedy, there is a curious story of a good priest who once had a vision of the great general. Belisarius told the priest that he was his ancestor, and that his soul was in need of prayers for the dreadful crime he had committed against Pope Silverius. As a result of that troubling spiritual encounter, the priest changed his name and did penance for the rest of his life to make up for the great sin of his ancestor. This tale may sound apocryphal to you, but I believe it -- because I knew the man. He passed to his eternal reward in December of last year.
In your kindness, please remember the soul of Fr. Constantine Belisarius in your prayers.