Popes in a Year
#60 - Pope Pelagius I
Pope from April 16, 556 - March 3, 561 A.D.
Died: 561 A.D.
Give me the scoop on Pelagius I.
Pelagius I was born in Rome to a noble family, where his dad, John, served as grand poobah of one of Italy’s two civil districts. Pelagius first comes on the scene in his journey to Constantinople with Pope Agapetus I (three popes ago), where he was eventually named
, or papal representative, for the Roman Church. During Vigilius’ papacy, Pelagius served in the same role, but instead was placed in Rome while the pope was being detained in the East. He did much to restore church buildings and infrastructure in Rome after it had been under siege in wartime. Pelagius was elected on April 16, 556, nearly a year after Vigilius’ death, and reigned for just under five years. He died on March 3, 561, and was buried the next day in front of the sacristy in St. Peter’s Basilica.
What was he known for?
Unfortunately for Pelagius I, we know him for doing about 50 years-worth of damage to the reputation of the papacy in Italy and the surrounding regions. This came in the form of flip-flopping on whether or not to condemn a series of letters known as the “Three Chapters,” about which a controversy had been brewing since the Church's fifth ecumenical council, the Second Council of Constantinople, in 553.
The problems raised about the
, written by three men who had already been dead for 100 years and who died in the bosom of the Church, centered around the heresy of
, but what to do about them seemed to be a matter of prudential judgment. Pelagius’ problem, though, was being on the emperor’s side -- against condemning the letters to help heal schisms in the East -- prior to being pope, then abruptly switching sides and being in favor of their condemnation after his election. Suffice it to say that this made life hard for the pope and his relations with surrounding regions, apparently causing his successors to work to undo the damage for the next half century.
Pelagius I seems to have simply been caught in a bad situation, because other than the political drama in which he was embroiled, he seems to have been a real stand-up guy. Called the “Father of the poor and of his country,” Pelagius poured out his own fortune to care for the afflicted in the city while it was under siege by the Goths, then did so again after the war had ended, establishing a treasury of money and clothes to give solely to the poor.
What else was going on in the world at the time?
In 559, the first successful human flight -- a manned kite -- was attempted in China. The emperor sponsored the flight, but used a prisoner, Yuan Huangtou, as the unwilling pilot.
Coming Monday....Pope John III
SOURCES (and further reading)
John, E. (1964). The Popes: A concise biographical history. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Pope Pelagius I -
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Sent by Matthew Sewell on Friday, March 24 at 2:00AM