Spirituality for Today – July 2011 – Volume 15, Issue 12

The 59th Pope

Pope Vigilius (537 – 555)
To attempt to grasp the pontificate of Vigilius, one must wade into a world of political intrigue, heresy, duplicity, the impact of the Council of Chalcedon, and something known as the "Three Chapters."

An image of Vigilius the 59th PopeVigilius the 59th Pope

The Council of Chalcedon had condemned the heresy of Monophysitism- the belief that Jesus Christ possessed a divine nature, but not a human nature. In Constantinople, the emperor Justinian stood by the decrees of the Council, while the empress Theodora favored the position of the Monophsites. At the time of his meeting with the empress, Vigilius was the papal nuncio. A "backroom deal" was struck between the two. Theodora would throw her support behind Vigilius as the next pope and Vigilius would restore the deposed Monophysite patriarch to the See of Constantinople. Back in Rome, Silverius had already been elected pope. Through plotting and political force, Pope Siverius soon found himself in exile and forced to abdicate. Later, his death occurred under some questionable circumstances. Vigilius ascends to the Chair of Peter and fashioned a very dubious legacy.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyprus, and Ibas of Edessa produced writings that were condemned by the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople. These works were known as the "Three Chapters" that contained errors concerning the unity of the divine and the human in Christ. Pope Vigilius was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Theodora's arrangement with the then papal nuncio Vigilius was expected to be in force now that Vigilius was pope. Acting in a duplicitous manner, Vigilius had vowed to the emperor Justinian that he was opposed to restoration of Monophysite clergy and the Three Chapters. Pope Vigilius produced documents once in favor of the empress Theodora and then in favor of the orthodoxy of Justinian. The whole regrettable affair consumed the pontificate of Vigilius. He finally upheld the work of the councils and died on his journey back to Rome.

The disdain of the clergy and laity held for Pope Vigilius occasioned his burial to be in a local cemetery rather than in Saint Peter's.

Habemus papam