John, born Catelinus, was the son of Anastasius, termed “illustris”, meaning that his father was a high ranking Roman Senator. As a young man, he was raised in Rome, seeing first hand all the difficulties of the time, the invasions and the political intrigue. John may have been the same “John” who made collections of extracts of the Greek Fathers and who completed the translation of Vitae Patrum, which Pope Pelagius I had begun.
John’s pontificate could not begin right away, since the Church had to wait for a letter of confirmation from Emperor Justinian before he could be consecrated. Thus, there was no pope from the death of Pelagius in March 561 until almost five months later, July 16.
Two major events colored John’s occupancy of Peter’s chair. And neither one could he control. The first was the death of Justinian in 565. This emperor had been very involved in the control of the Western part of the empire. His successors, including the very next emperor, Justin II, chose to concentrate on that closer to home, the Balkans, Avars, Persians and Arabs. Italy, at the extreme edge of the empire was not important to them.
By 568, Justin II had examined his new empire. General Narses, the governor of Italy for the empire, had accomplished the goal of reorganizing Italy after the ouster of the Goths. However, this was done at the expense of high taxation, which the Italians claimed was oppressive. The ever-present feminine intrigue in Constantinople claimed that Narses, an old man at this point, was guilty of treason. The general was replaced by Longinus, a man who could bully but not fight.
Apparently, as soon as the Lombards heard that the heroic general Narses was no longer in charge, they invaded northern Italy. These were a Germanic tribe who had already conquered most of what is now Austria and Slovakia. They were wild, cruel and followed the Arian religion. Within three years, they had taken over everything north of the Po River. North and central Italy was soon decimated. There was no ability for the imperial administration to function. Longinus could do nothing with the few Byzantine soldiers and sailors at his command.
Fearing for his people, Pope John went to Naples to find General Narses in the act of preparing to leave Italy. John urged the general to take charge before the Lombards destroyed Rome. Narses agreed and the two returned to Rome in 571.
The members of the court party were angry that Narses had returned. Their anger encompassed John, as well, seeing him as a cohort of Narses. Unrest hit a fever pitch and, although Narses seems to have stayed firm, John escaped to the catacombs along the Via Appia two miles out of town. There he carried on his duties, including ordinations, for almost a year, at which time, Narses died. Then John seemed to have been “forgiven” by the citizens and allowed back to the Lateran.
His sojourn in the catacombs lead John to have a great respect for these and other monuments of the past. He had them repaired and had sacred vessels sent from the city to make sure that Mass could be said there. His love of the monuments also led him to complete the Church of Saints Philip and James, a lovely Byzantinian structure with many mosaics.
One specific recorded act of John did not have good consequences. Bishops Salonius of Embrun and Sagattarius of Gap were condemned at a synod in Lyons in 567. These two succeeded in persuading King Guntram, of Burgundy, that they had been treated unjustly. An appeal was sent to John along with letters from Guntram. John was impressed and restored the two to their respective sees. However, their later deeds caused them to be deposed again at the synod of Chalons in 579. John did not live to see his decision overturned.
For the most part, John was seen as a magnanimous pope, anxious for the welfare of his people. An inscription, now lost, that was still available in the 1400s read “…in the midst of straits, he knew how to be bountiful, and feared not to be crushed amidst a crumbling world.”
Pope John III died July 13, 574 and was buried at St. Peter’s Church