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Pope Virgilius, First Byzantinian Pope

Virgilius, born around 500 AD, was the child of an aristocratic Roman family. His father, Johannes, was an emperor-appointed consul, although only an honorific at that point. His brother, Reparatus, was a senator. And one of the senators taken hostage by King Witigis during the Gothic king’s rampages. Reparatus was able to escape before the Ostrogothic king ordered the senators’ execution in 537.

Virgilius was ordained a deacon in 531. This was the same year that the Roman clergy agreed to a decree empowering the pope to determine the succession to the papacy. Today, this is considered invalid. Shortly afterwards, Virgilius was presented formally as the successor to the current pope, Boniface II. Due to the unpopularity of the decision, Boniface withdrew the nomination the next year, even to burning the decree he had written.

Several years later, in 535, Pope Agapetus appointed Virgilius as papal nuncio to Constantinople. The royal couple Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora were continuing their reign. Justinian was trying to come up with a way of smoothing things between East and West. Theodora was plotting to get rid of all references to Karma and reincarnation, which she hated. Despite a neutral position by the Roman Church, she followed the Monophysite heresy, which condemned those ideas. Her goal was to reinstate Patriarch Anthimus of Constantinople, who had been deposed by Agapetus as well as support the heresy. The easiest way was for her to find a puppet pope. Apparently, Virgilius was flexible and accepted 700 pounds of gold after agreeing to her requests.

While Virgilius was still in Constantinople, the pope died. It is said the king of the Goths, Theodoric, pushed another deacon, Silverius, into the papacy. Theodoric was assassinated a month later. Just after Silverius’s consecration, the Byzantine general, Belisaurius, occupied Rome, followed shortly by the siege of Rome by a new Goth king, Witigis. The Byzantine army was so concerned about the siege that they evacuated women, children and unnecessary servants to Naples for safety. Belisaurius then accused the pope of having sold out Rome to the Goths and Silverius was arrested, dressed as a monk and sent to Greece. Some historians have questioned the role Virgilius played at this point.

Virgilius quickly was consecrated on March 29, 537. Once news came of Silverius’ death, the new papacy was accepted.

Contrary to what the Empress planned, Virgilius maintained the same stance as the papal predecessors regarding the Monophysite heresy and the role of the ex-Patriarch, Anthimus. In the early part of his papacy, Virgilius wrote letters, some still extant, discussing specific penances for indiscretions, decisions on church discipline and granting of a pallium as a mark of honor.

In 541, King Witigis was captured by General Belisaurius and carried to Constantinople. King Totilla was now the king of Italy. And the war went on.

Despite all the problems in the empire, the empress was still obsessed with eliminating the terms Karma and reincarnation. Justinian was willing to give his wife anything. In 543, Justinian set up a synod, now referred to as the First Council of Constantinople. His concept was to join the Monophysites and the Orthodox together by condemning a common hated group, the Nestorians. In order to do that, he chose to condemn three dead men, who preached outside orthodoxy for a while before going into communion with Rome. These three were known as The Three Chapters. Virgilius refused. He was taken from a Mass he was celebrating in Rome, put aboard a ship and sent to Sicily. He was detained for a year.

Within a short time, King Totilla and the Goths attacked. Rome was in an uproar. There was no food available. Virgilius tried to send shiploads of grain but they were confiscated by the Goths.

Eventually, Virgilius was brought to Constantinople. He tried to save the people of Italy, but Justinian would only talk about the edict. Since Virgilius did not read Greek well, he could not grasp the exact nature of the proposal and still would not sign it. He was kept in house arrest. The empress died in 548 and after a few more years, the emperor had had enough. He called a second council. To get his way, he invited 165 bishops, 6 from the West and the rest from the East. During the council, no one could comprehend the subject matter due to the chaos of the meetings. Virgilius did not go. No minutes were taken and no preparatory notes written. The edict was presented again. Virgilius again refused to sign.

Six months passed. Justinian was at his end. He went to Virgilius personally and threatened the pope unless he signed. Virgilius, under duress, finally agreed in late 553. His constitution was presented at the end of February, 554, admitting that he agreed with Justinian.

A year later, Virgilius was free to return to Rome. He got as far as Syracuse when he died.

Once Virgilius signed the constitution, not a single dogmatic word was uttered about Karma and reincarnation. Even to this day.

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