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Pope Pelagius, Trying to Right Wrongs

The popes of the early Dark Ages had an uphill battle trying to do anything. Pelagius was no exception. Born, most likely, in the late 400s, Pelagius was the son of a noble Roman family. His father, John, was the vicar of one of two civil districts in Italy. Therefore, Pelagius would have been well versed in politics and, probably, law.

As a middle aged man, Pelagius accompanied Pope Agapitus I to Constantinople, where he was named papal nuncio of the Roman Church in 536. This pope died the same year and Empress Theodora set about playing politics in an attempt to get Monophysitism to be the law of the land. It appears that the next pope, Silverius, was not cooperative with the empress and she had him forcibly deposed and banished by General Belisarius, who had invaded Italy by orders of Emperor Justinian. The emperor was not interested in having the pope be a prisoner and he issued orders that Silverius ox be recalled and, if proven innocent of the trumped up charges, should be reinstated as pope. One historian, Liberatus, says that Theodora convinced Pelagius to race to Italy and prevent Silverius’ return. Whether he did or not, Silverius died before arriving and Virgilius succeeded him.

In the meantime, Pelagius began to influence the emperor. The nuncio selected an orthodox man, Paul, for the See of Alexandria. It did not work out too well and Paul was deposed and replaced within two years.

In 543, the condemnation of Origen became almost a political crisis. At that point, Pelagius returned to Rome after eight years abroad. Emperor Justinian wrote a decree on the “Three Chapters”, condemning three holy writers who had been led astray earlier in their lives. He anathametized the three, claiming they supported Nestorianism, the teaching that Jesus had two separate natures. The theory was that agreeing with the emperor would attract the Oriental Orthodox into accepting the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of Pope Leo.

Pope Virgilius was ordered to Constantinople by the emperor and Pelagius remained in Rome as his representative. The Ostrogothic king, Totila tried to blockade Rome. This meant that the Romans could get no goods, including food and animals, from the countryside. Pelagius used his own fortune to keep the citizens from starving. Then he tried to negotiate with Totila to induce a truce. It failed. However, when Totila declared himself Mast of Rome, in December 546, Pelagius managed to convince Totila to spare the lives of the citizens. Totila sent Pelagius to Constantinople to negotiate a peace with the emperor. The emperor, very accustomed to following a hierarchy, insisted that the General Belisaurius was the one in charge and that he had to negotiate the peace. So, the nuncio was off back to Rome.

Things calmed down in Rome just in time for Pelagius to hear about how poorly the pope was being treated by the emperor, being under house arrest for years in the capital city. Virgilius refused to support the emperor’s “Three Chapters” decree. Finally, in 553, with the support of Pelagius, Virgilius wrote his first Constitution against the decree. In consequence a number of people were imprisoned. Virgilius weakened and wrote a second constitution. The nuncio, Pelagius, changed his mind and supported the new constitution, being politically expedient.

Virgilius died in June 555. Pelagius was elected successor and was consecrated in 556. However, the problem was that the bishops accused him of being responsible for the death of Virgilius and no one would consecrate him. Pelagius had to go to St. Peter’s, and, holding the Gospels and a cross above his head, he had to swear that he had done no harm to Virgilius. Then he was consecrated.

During his five years, the pope tried to overcome the opposition to the fifth Constantinople Council. He denounced simony, the buying and selling of church privileges, like pardons.

During this time, Justinian sent General Narses to Italy to combat and defeat King Totila. The General was successful at getting rid of the Ostrogoths, only to be attacked within a few years by the Franks. Narses spent years reorganizing Italy. Pelagius spent much of his money on repairing damage caused by the war in Italy, and on feeding and assisting the victims of the war and the subsequent famine.

Pelagius died March 3, 561 and was buried in St. Peter’s.

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