Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember a contentious Pope at the beginning of the “Dark Ages.”

It is the 7th of June, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Sometimes, in the process of my reading for this show, I come across a name or event that I’m generally aware of, or at least of their contexts and concomitant events, and then, scratching just under the surface of the secondary literature, I find a fight I never knew existed. It’s like seeing a relatively innocuous post on social media only to find hundreds of angry replies underneath it.

Such is the life of Pope Vigilius, who died on this, the 7th of June in 555. And I might suppose that on the history of this show, the 6th century is the one in which we have traveled least. It is the beginning of the so-called “dark ages.” Western Europe- or at least what was the Roman Empire has fallen to various barbarian tribes. But it’s important to remember that this is pre-Islam, so we still have the major centers of Jerusalem and Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople, and Rome, of course, but they were constantly under siege from the so-called Barbarian tribes.

In Constantinople, you had two important leaders- the “Roman Emperor” still seen as Emperor of the Eastern portion of the Empire since the 4th century. And you have the Church leader in Constantinople- the Bishop who goes by the name Patriarch. In Rome, you have a bishop, but he is called the Pope. So, two church leaders but only one emperor who happens to be in the East with the Patriarch.

Now, the position of Bishop of Rome had become contentious. Under Pope Felix IV in 526, the election of Popes had become so mired in scandal he decided that the Pope would call his own successor. And he did, a German named Boniface. This didn’t go over well in the East, and they tried to get a Greek into the Papacy instead. The schisms that culminated in the great schism in 1054 were underway.

Boniface wanted to call our boy, Vigilius, after him but was forced to give control of electing the Pope back to the Emperor and church leaders. After the brief papacy of John II (the first to change his name- he was called Mercury and didn’t want to have a pagan name as Pope), Agapetus became pope. He took Vigilius to Constantinople to meet Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora. Theodora had a soft spot for the monophysites- those who saw Jesus as having a divine/human hybrid nature instead of 2 distinct natures. Sure, it seems pedantic to some, but how Jesus was the God-Man was the question of the early church. And the Patriarch of Constantinople, Anthimus, had been rejected by the Pope for being a so-called “Monophysite.” Theodora promised Vigilius that if he promised to reinstate Anthimus, she would make sure he became the next Pope.

Meanwhile, the Pope was Silverius, who was then accused by a Byzantine general of being in league with the Goths and was deposed. Vigilius was made Pope- but now there were two Popes. What seems new today is, in fact, very old.

But, perhaps Vigilius got a sense of independence from his deal with Theodora. They needed the Eastern churches (who were Monophysite), not him. He would write to leaders in the East and refuse to support the Monophysite Anthimus.

Vigilius would fall afoul of Emperor Justinian and refused his overtures towards pacifying those Eastern Monophysites- he was summoned to Constantinople, where he was put under arrest. While there, Rome was besieged, but after the calling of the Second Council of Constantinople, Vigilius was eventually released- after ten years of captivity. He would die on the trip back.

The debate has raged- how to see this Pope who made a deal with a supposed heretic (even if he reneged) and exiled another Pope- essentially killing him by starvation and then spending a decade in captivity? Was he an “anti-pope”? How do Catholics deal with naughty Popes (a problem many smart Roman Catholics have debated)? As a Protestant, perhaps my takeaway is that 1) your current church mess could be a lot worse… exile and kidnapping and 2) the church truly is more a hospital for sinners instead of a country club for saints.

Nevertheless, today we remember an important and troubled Pope, anti-Pope, double-crosser or repentant Bishop caught in the crosshairs… Pope Vigilius died on this, the 7th of June, in 555.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary and John 14- a short one:

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of June 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who is neither a monophysite nor a monobrow but will wear a monocle like a Monopoly man while riding a monorail. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who knows, sir, there’s nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified six-car monorail- what’d I say? Mono… I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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