The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church

Biographical Dictionary
Vigilius (537-555)
544 (II)


(1) 1. PELAGIO (?-561)

Birth. (No date found), Rome. Of a noble family. Son of Giovanni, vicar of one of the two districts into which Italy was divided at that time.

Education. (No information found).

Early life. He accompanied Pope Agapetus to Constantinople in 536 and remained there as his apocrisiarius and that of his successor, Pope Vigilius. In 537, he worked with Emperor Justinian to prevent the return of the deposed Pope Silverius to Rome. In 539, he was charged by the emperor to go to the Synod of Gaza, where the bishop of Alexandria, Paulus, was deposed. During the trip back some monks in Jerusalem submitted extracts of the treatises of Origen to have him condemned by Emperor Justinian. In 543, the condemnation was signed by the patriarchs of the East and by Pope Vigilius, but it became the source of the dispute of the "Three Chapters" (1), which lasted more than a decade.

Cardinalate. Deacon cardinalis of the Holy Roman Church in 544. When Pope Vigilius had to leave Rome, Deacon Pelagius acted as his vicar at the time of the siege by Gothic King Totila from the fall of 545 to December 17, 546, when the king succeeded in entering the almost deserted city of Rome. Deacon Pelagius initially attempted to negotiate an armistice, going to king's camp. Then he waited for the monarch at the entrance of St. Peter's basilica and, when he saw the king kneel in prayer at the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, he begged him to spare the lives of the Romans. King Totila aquiesce but the city was pillaged, even though the booty was meager because the opulence of the pagan temples and patrician houses was, by then, no more than a memory. When Deacon Pelagio went back to Constantinople, he used every means to convince Pope Vigilius not to give in to Emperor Justinian over the orthodoxy of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. For this he was imprisoned, but even then he continued to defend his ideas, both in a work of six books on the Three Chapters, opposing the emperor's edict, and at the Council of Constantinople in 553 which condemned them, censuring Pope Vigilius, who had approved the decisions of that council in 554, and accusing him of being unstable and corrupt. After the death of Pope Vigilius the Roman clergy wanted to elect a priest named Marea, but he died in August 555. Once Pope Vigilius died in Sicily, Deacon Pelagius was released from jail and went back to Rome. He then changed his views, condemning the Three Chapters and accepting the decisions of the Council of Constantinople. This abrupt change, which was openly criticized, gained him the support of Emperor Justinian for his nomination to the papacy. It is difficult to say whether this change of opinion was due to his idea that, only by surrendering, could his hopes of becoming pope be realized. Certainly, things had changed by then because, as Pope Vigilius had given his approval to the council of 553, it was ecumenical and universally binding on all Christians. He made a Latin translation of selections of the 5th-century Greek Sayings of the Elders.

Papacy. His consecration had to be postponed until April 16, 556 because no bishop would officiate. It had to be carried out by only two bishops, Giovanni of Perugia and Bono of Ferentino, while a presbyter represented Bishop Andrea of Ostia, normally a papal consecrator. Rumors implicated the new pontiff in Pope Vigilius's death. He was denounced, as the West saw it, for his betrayal of the Three Chapters. After his consecration he solemnly affirmed his loyalty to the first four General (Ecumenical) Councils of the Church, especially that of Chalcedon, and in St Peter's basilica, supported by General Narses, the governor of Italy, and accompanied by the hymns of the acolytes, he went from the basilica of S. Pancrazio to St. Peter's basilica, where holding a cross and the book of the gospels, swore that he had done no harm to Pope Vigilius. Even this act of humility did not dispel suspicion and odium against the new pope, especially in Gaul and northern Italy. Gaul, now the land of the converted Franks, whose king, Childebert, demanded from the pope a declaration of faith in conformity with the principles of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon and the writings of Leo the Great. The pope explained that all the disputes were generated by problems typically "eastern" and not of a nature to impinge upon the unity of the Church. But malicious criticisms continued to circulate and so, in a letter to Archbishop Sapaud of Arles, he defended himself against specific accusations of being a weathercock, trying to explain that his retraction was the result of a closer examination of facts and circumstances. In his letter to the archbishop, the pope pleaded for aid rather than for his episcopal see. Rome was badly depleted, victim of the continuous sacking and incurable famine, and he needed money and clothing for the citizens, he begged, "because the poverty and the misery in the city are such that without pain and anxiety we cannot face people whom we knew once to be noble and rich." Hostility to his condemnation of the Three Chapters was even stronger in northern Italy, where the metropolitan sees of Aquileia and Milan renounced communion with him. To make the schismatics give up the pope put pressure on Governor Narses asking him to use his troops, saying that such measure was allowed by divine law, but the governor did not do so. Yet, his short reign was characterized by works of mercy for the people tested by the Gothic wars, the restoration of churches then wrecked and by the reintegration of the Roman clergy that had been decimated. Before he died, Pope Pelagius I undertook the construction of the a new cruciform church of Ss. Filippo e Giacomo, modeled on Emperor Justinian's Apostoleion at Constantinople and intended to commemorate Narses's triumph over the Goths. The church was completed by his successor, Pope John III, then rebuilt by Pope Clement XI, and dedicated to the Holy Apostles (now Ss. XII Apostoli). During his pontificate he ordained forty eight bishops, twenty six priests and nine deacons.

Death. March 3 or 4, 561, of old age, Rome. Buried on March 5, 561, ante secretarium of St. Peter's basilica, Rome (2). His tomb was destroyed during the demolition of the old basilica and the construction of the new one in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Bibliography. Cardella, Lorenzo. Memorie storiche de' cardinali della Santa Romana Chiesa. Rome : Stamperia Pagliarini, 1792, I, pt. 1, 7 and 15-19; Chacón, Alfonso. Vitæ, et res gestæ Pontificum Romanorum : et S.R.E. Cardinalium ab initio nascentis Ecclesiae usque ad Clementem IX P. O. M. Alphonsi Ciaconii Ord. Praed. & aliorum opera descriptæ : cum uberrimis notis. Ab Augustino Oldoino, Soc. Jesu recognitae, et ad quatuor tomos ingenti ubique rerum accessione productae. Additis Pontificum recentiorum imaginibus, & Cardinalium insignibus, plurimisque aeneis figuris, cum indicibus locupletissimis. Romæ : P. et A. De Rubeis, 1677, I, col. 385-388; Cristofori, Francesco. Cronotasi dei cardinali di Santa Romana Chiesa. Rome : Tipografia de Propaganda Fide, 1888, p. XXXVI; Duchesne, Louis Marie Olivier. "Vigile et Pèlage. Étude sur l'histoire de l'Église Romaine au milieu du Vie siècle", Revue des questions historiques, XXXVI (1884), 371-440; "Essai de liste générale des cardinaux. Les cardinaux des 10 premiers siècles". Annuaire Pontifical Catholique 1926. Paris : Maison de la Bonne Presse, 1927, p. 141, no. 2; Kelly, John Norman Davidson. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 62-64; Le Liber pontificalis. Paris : E. de Boccard, 1981, 1955. 3 v. : facsims. (Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome). Notes: Reprint of the 1955 edition./ Includes indexes./ Vol. 3: "Additions et corrections de L. Duchesne publiées par Cyrille Vogel ... avec L'Histoire du Liber pontificalis dupuis l'édition de L. Duchesne une bibliographie et des tables générales, I, 303-304; Montini, Renzo Uberto. Le tombe dei papi. Roma : Angelo Belardetti, 1957. Note: At head of title: Instituto di studi romani, p. 111, no. 60; Reardon, Wendy J. The deaths of the popes : comprehensive accounts, including funerals, burial places and epitaphs. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2004, p. 45-46; Regesta pontificum Romanorum ab conditio Ecclesia. Ad annum post Christum natum MCXCVIII. Graz : Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1956. 2 v. Reprint. Originally published : Lipsiae : Veit et comp., 1885-1888. Original t.p. included : Regesta pontificum Romanorum ab condita ecclesia : ad annum post Christum natum MCXCVIII. Editionem secundam correctam et auctam edidit Philippus Jaffè ; auspiciis Gulielmi Wattenbach; curaverunt S. Loewenfeld, F. Kaltenbrunner, P. Ewald, I, 124-136; Sotinel, Claire. "Pelagio I." Enciclopedia dei papi. 3 vols. Roma : Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 2000, I, 529-536; Scano, Gaetana. "Pelagio I, papa." Mondo vaticano. Passato e presente. Città del Vaticano : Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995, p. 821-822.

Links. Biography by Horace Mann, in English, The Catholic Encyclopedia; biography, in English, Britannica; his image and biography, in English, Wikipedia; his image and biography, in English, New World Encyclopedia; biography by J. Barmby, in English, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies; biography by Joseph Brusher, S.J, Popes through the Ages; biography by Claire Sotinel, in Italian, Enciclopedia dei papi, Treccani; brief biographical entry, in Italian, Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Treccani; his image and biography, in Italian, Wikipedia; biography, in German, Biographisch-Bibliographischen Kirchenlexikons; his engraving, Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna; his engraving, Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna; his engraving by Cavallieri, Art & AllPosters International B.V.; engravings, Araldica Vaticana; his engraving, Bildarchiv Austria. Die Bildplattform der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek; his engraving, Bildarchiv Austria. Die Bildplattform der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek; his engraving, Bildarchiv Austria. Die Bildplattform der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek; his engraving, from the same source; another engraving, also from the same source; and his effigy on a medal, Numismatic collection of Olomouc archiepiscopate, Czech Republic.

(1) The Three chapters (trîa kephálaia) were propositions anathematizing: (1) the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; (2) certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrus; (3) the letter of Ibas to Maris.
(2) This is the text of his epitaph, which was preserved by Pietro Mallio, ecclesiastical historian of the 12th century, taken from Montini, Le tombe dei papi, p. 111, no. 60:

TERRENVM CORPVS CLAVDANT HAEC FORTE SEPVLCRA
NIL SANCTI MERITIS DEROGATVRA VIRI
VIVIT IN ARCE POLI CELESTI LVCE BEATVS
VIVIT ET HIC CVNCTIS PER PIA FACTA LOCIS
SVRGERE IVDICIO CERTVS DEXTRAMQVE TENENTEM
ANGELICA PARTEM SE RAPIENTE MANV
VIRTVTVM NVMERET TITVLOS ECCLESIA DEI
QVOS VENTVRA VTINAM SAECVLA FERRE
QVEANT RECTOR APOSTOLICAE FIDEI VENERANDA RETEXIT
DOGMATA QVAE CLARI CONSTITVERE PATRES
ELOQVIO CVRANS ERRORVM SCISMATE LAPSOS
VT VERAM TENEANT CORDA PACATA FIDEM
SACRAVIT MVLTOS DIVINA LEGE MINISTROS
NIL PRETIO FACIENS IMMACVLATA MANVS
CAPTIVOS REDIMENS MISERIS SVCCVRRERE PROMPTVS
PAVPERIBVS NVNQVAM PARTA NEGARE SIBI
TRISTIA PARTICIPANS LAETI MODERATOR OPIMVS
ALTERIVS GEMITVS CREDIDIT ESSE SVOS
HIC REQVIESCIT PELAGIVS PP QVI SEDIT AN III M X D XVIII DP IIII NONAS MARTI


    Kelly, in his The Oxford Dicitionary of Popes, p. 63-64, says that his tomb had "an optimistic epitaph attributing to him more success in winning back schismatics than in fact he had."


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