Pelagius I, Pope
PELAGIUS I, POPE
Pontificate: April 16, 556 to March 4, 561. Pelagius inherited a daunting situation—much of his own making—from his predecessor Vigilius (537–555), and his pontificate was consumed with it. Pelagius was by birth a Roman, son of a civic official named John. He was a deacon under agapetus (535–36) and dealt with diplomatic matters, joining that pope on an embassy to Constantinople to convince the emperor justinian i (527–565) to depose the Monophysite patriarch of Constantinople, Anthimus. He replaced Vigilius as the papal representative in the imperial city when Vigilius returned to Rome to succeed the deposed Silverius (536–537) as pope. Since Vigilius had concurred with the imperial deposition of the pope, Pelagius found himself rumored to have worked against silverius, but that accusation is unproven. He was a success in Constantinople, becoming a confidante of Justinian, whom he convinced to denounce officially the teachings of the long deceased Alexandrian theologian Origen (c. 185–c. 253).
But friendship with the emperor did not deter him from his duties. He was in Rome in 544 when Justinian, to pacify the Monophysites in Egypt, condemned some writings of three Chalcedonian theologians, the famous three chapters. Pelagius promptly requested the theological opinion of the North African Ferrandus of Carthage (d. 546), who opposed the condemnation of three theologians who had died in the peace of the Church. The emperor assumed that Vigilius would agree with the imperial line, but when he balked at the Three Chapters ploy, Justinian's agents kidnapped him in 545. He would never return to Rome. The Romans rejected any imperial appointees as head of the local church, and so Pelagius assumed that role as vicar of Vigilius. When the Goths besieged the city in 547, the vicar used much of his personal wealth to alleviate the sufferings of the people, and after the Goths had captured Rome, he bargained with their king Totila and avoided a massacre. Quite taken by Pelagius, Totila sent him as ambassador to Justinian to try to win a peace in Italy, but the negotiations failed.
In 551 he went again to Constantinople and met with Vigilius who, after six years of captivity, was ready to acquiesce to the emperor's demands. Pelagius stiffened the pope's resolve but only temporarily. When Vigilius capitulated, Pelagius split from him. Justinian had Pelagius imprisoned in a monastery, and from there he wrote a scathing attack on Vigilius. After the pope had attended and approved the fifth ecumenical council, constantinople ii (553), Justinian allowed him to return to Rome. He never made it, dying in Sicily on June 7, 555. The crucial point in Pelagius' life had arrived.
In the absence of both pope and vicar, a priest named Mareas had governed the Roman church and looked to be the next pope. But Justinian wanted Pelagius, a former friend who, even in his most stringent writings against the condemnation of the Three Chapters, had not censured the emperor. Pelagius accepted the offer. Scholars debate whether he saw the opportunity for the papacy and could not resist it or whether he accepted Constantinople II and the condemnation of the Three Chapters as a fact of ecclesiastical life and was reconciled to the emperor. Most likely both motives played a role. When Mareas died in August of 555, the way was open for Pelagius' election in September of that year. But the pope-elect could not become pope because, in the laconic words of the Liber Pontificalis, "there was not a bishop to ordain him." Seven months later, on April 16, 556, two bishops and a priest agreed to do the job, but neither of the bishops were from Ostia, Portus, or Albinum, whose bishop traditionally ordained the pope.
Most Western bishops considered Pelagius an opportunist who had sold out for the papal office, and these included the bishops of suburcarian Italy, the regions around Rome. The new pope had to restore his authority. His imperial patron was eager to help. When the African bishops raised objections to Pelagius, Byzantine troops forced them to recognize him. But this tactic could not work everywhere. The pope sent an embassy to the king of franks, Childebert I, to assure him of his orthodoxy, a dangerous precedent since the popes usually represented orthodoxy and could demand that other bishops assure him of theirs. When the Gallic bishops were slow to acquiesce, Pelagius urged Childebert to force them into agreement. The bishops of northeastern Italy refused communion with the pope, who urged them to come to Rome to judge his orthodoxy for themselves—a remarkable offer. But these bishops remained recalcitrant, so Pelagius asked the Byzantine exarch (ruler of foreign territory) in Ravenna to use troops against them, but the exarch refused. Pelagius was, however, successful in winning over the suburcarian Italian bishops, who accepted not only him as pope but also the authenticity of Constantinople II and the condemnation of the Three Chapters.
Aside from the schism (which lasted in Italy into the next century), Pelagius enjoyed much success. Relations with Byzantium were generally good, and the Goths ceased to menace Rome. The war against the barbarians as well as the decade-long absence of Vigilius from the city had depleted the ranks of the Roman clergy, whose numbers and moral quality Pelagius considerably augmented. The war had also ruined papal finances, and the pope brought in the first lay papal finance minister, a banker named Anastasius. Pelagius was a scholar, a patron of monasticism, and translator into Latin of some sayings of prominent Eastern monks. Few popes have led so full a life or worked against such formidable odds.
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[j. f. kelly]