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Reigned 537-55, date of birth unknown; died at Syracuse, 7 June 555. He belonged to a distinguished Roman family; his father Johannes is called consul in the Liber pontificalis (ed. Duchesne, I, 298), having received that title from the emperor. Reparatus, a brother of Vigilius, was a senator (Procopius, De bello gothico, I, 26). Vigilius entered the service of the Roman Church and was a deacon in 531, in which year the Roman clergy agreed to a Decree empowering the pope to determine the succession to the Papal See. Vigilius was chosen by Boniface II as his successor, and presented to the clergy assembled in St. Peter's. The opposition to such a procedure led Boniface in the following year to withdraw his designation of a successor and to burn the Decree respecting it. The second successor of Boniface, Agapetus I (535-36), appointed Vigilius papal representative (Apocrisiary) at Constantinople; Vigilius thus came to the Eastern capital. Empress Theodora sought to win him as a confederate, to revenge the deposition of the Monophysite Patriarch Anthimus of Constantinople by Agapetus and also to gain aid for her efforts in behalf of the Monophysites. Vigilius is said to have agreed to the plans of the intriguing empress who promised him the Papal See and a large sum of money (700 pounds of gold). After Agapetus's death on 22 April, 536, Vigilius return to Rome equipped with letters from the imperial Court and with money. Meanwhile Silverius had been made pope through the influence of the King of the Goths. Soon after this the Byzantine commander Belisarius garrisoned the city of Rome, which was, however, besieged again by the Goths. Vigilius gave Belisarius the letters from the Court of Constantinople, which recommended Vigilius himself for the Papal See. False accusations now led Belisarius to depose Silverius. Owing to the pressure exerted by the Byzantine commander, Vigilius was elected pope in place of Silverius and consecrated and enthroned on 29 March, 537. Vigilius brought it about that the unjustly deposed Silverius was put into his keeping where the late pope soon died from the harsh treatment he received. After the death of this predecessor Vigilius was recognized as pope by all the Roman clergy. Much in these accusations against Vigilius appears to be exaggerated, but the manner of his elevation to the See of Rome was not regular. Empress Theodora, however, saw that she had been deceived. For after the latter had attained the object of his ambition and been made pope he maintained the same position as his predecessor against the Monophysites and the deposed Anthimus. It is true that there is an alleged letter from the pope to the deposed Monophysite patriarchs, Anthimus, Severus, and Theodosius, in which the pope agrees with the views of the Monophysites. This letter, however, is not regarded as genuine by most investigators and bears all the marks of forgery (cf. Duchesne in Revue des quest. histor. (1884), II, 373; Chamard, ibid., I (1885), 557; Grisar in Analecta romana, I, 55 sqq.; Savio in Civilta catt., II (1910), 413-422]. The pope did not restore Anthimus to his office.
It was not until the year 540 that Vigilius felt himself obliged to take a stand in regard to Monophysitism which he did in two letters sent to Constantinople. One of the letters is addressed to Emperor Justinian, the other to the Patriarch Menas. In both letters the pope supports positively the Synods of Ephesus and Chalcedon, also the decisions of his predecessor Leo I, and throughout approves of the deposition of the Patriarch Anthimus. Several other letters written by the pope in the first years of his pontificate, that have been preserved, give information respecting his interposition in the ecclesiastical affairs of various countries. On 6 March, 538, he wrote to Bishop Caesarius of Arles concerning the penance of the Austrasian King Theodobert on account of his marriage with his brother s widow. On 29 June, 538, a decretal was sent to Bishop Profuturus of Braga containing decisions on various questions of church discipline. Bishop Auxanius and his successor, Aurelian of Arles, entered into communication with the pope respecting the granting of the pallium as a mark of the dignity and powers of a papal legate for Gaul; the pope sent suitable letters to the two bishops. In the meantime new dogmatic difficulties had been developing at Constantinople that were to give the pope many hours of bitterness. In 543 Emperor Justinian issued a decree which condemned the various heresies of Origen; this decree was sent for signature both to the Oriental patriarchs and to Vigilius (cf. ORIGEN AND ORIGENISM).
In order to draw Justinian's thoughts from Origenism, Theodore Askidas, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, called his attention to the fact that the condemnation of various representatives of the Antiochene school, who had championed Nestorianism, would make union with the Monophysites much easier. The emperor, who laid much stress upon winning over the Monophysites, agreed to this, and in 543 or 44 he issued a new edict condemning the (see CONSTANTINOPLE, COUNCILS OF). The Oriental patriarchs and bishops signed the condemnation of these Three Chapters. In Western Europe, however, the procedure was considered unjustifiable and dangerous, because it was feared that it would detract from the importance of the Council of Chalcedon. Vigilius refused to acknowledge the imperial edict and was called to Constantinople by Justinian, in order to settle the matter there with a synod. According to the Liber pontificalis on 20 November, while the pope was celebrating the feast of St. Cecilia in the Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, and before the service was fully ended, he was ordered by the imperial official Anthimus to start at once on the journey to Constantinople. The pope was taken immediately to a ship that waited in the Tiber, in order to be carried to the eastern capital, while a part of the populace cursed the pope and threw stones at the ship. Rome was now besieged by the Goths under Totila and the inhabitants fell into the greatest misery. Vigilius sent ships with grain to Rome but these were captured by the enemy. If the story related by the Liber pontificalis is essentially correct, the pope probably left Rome on 22 November, 545. He remained for a long time in Sicily, and reached Constantinople about the end of 546 or in January, 547.
Vigilius sought to persuade the emperor to send aid to the inhabitants of Rome and Italy who were so hard pressed by the Goths. Justinian's chief interest, however, was in the matter of the Three Chapters, and as Vigilius was not ready to make concessions of this point and wavered frequently in his measures, he had much to suffer. The change in his position is to be explained by the fact that the condemnation of the writings mentioned was justifiable essentially, yet appeared inopportune and would lead to disastrous controversies with Western Europe. Finally, Vigilius acknowledged in a letter of 8 Dec., 553, to the Patriarch Eutychius the decisions of the Synod of Constantinople and declared his judgment in detail in a Constitution of 26 February, 554. Thus at the end of a sorrowful residence of eight years at Constantinople the pope was able, after coming to an understanding with the emperor, to start on his return to Rome in the spring of 555. While on the journey he died at Syracuse. His body was brought to Rome and buried in the Basilica of Sylvester over the Catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria.
J. P. KIRSCH