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St Silverius

(536—537)


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(8 June 536–11 Nov. 537: d. 2 Dec. 537)

Born at Frosinone, son of Hormisdas, he was, unprecedentedly, only a subdeacon when, news of Agapitus I's death at Constantinople having reached Rome, Theodahad, last Ostrogothic king of Italy (534–6), terrorized the clergy into electing him pope. One source suggests that Theodahad had been bribed; what seems certain is that, knowing that Agapitus had failed to deflect Emperor Justinian I (527–65) from his plans for the conquest of Italy, he wanted a pro-Gothic pope whom he could trust. Once Silverius had been consecrated, the clergy hostile to his appointment accepted him for the sake of unity. As the imperial troops advanced Theodahad was overthrown and replaced by Witiges, who got the Romans to swear an oath of loyalty to him, took a large number of senators hostage, and withdrew from the city leaving behind a garrison of four thousand men.

The new pope was now caught in a fatal web of intrigue. While in Constantinople, Agapitus I had, to the chagrin of Empress Theodora, brought about the deposition of the monophysite patriarch Anthimus; according to some accounts, when Agapitus died, Theodora, a monophysite herself, made a compact with the Roman deacon Vigilius, apocrisiarius (nuncio) of the holy see, that she would get him appointed pope if he would secure the rehabilitation of Anthimus. Vigilius hastened to Rome, only to find Silverius already installed. Attempts were first made, through Justinian's general Belisarius, who occupied Rome on 10 Dec. 536, to induce Silverius to stand down either in compliance with the empress's wishes or because he was suspected of disloyalty to Constantinople. When he refused, he was called to Belisarius' headquarters and accused, with the aid of forged letters, of having treasonably plotted with the Goths, who were now besieging Rome, to open its gates to them. Although he had in fact, with the object of avoiding bloodshed, joined with the senate in persuading the citizens to surrender the city peacefully to the imperial army, he was bound to be suspect as a pro-Goth, and Belisarius, swayed by his wife Antonina, had him stripped of his pallium, degraded him to the rank of a monk, and then deposed him (11 Mar. 537). A subdeacon announced to the clergy that he was no longer pope.

Silverius was deported to Patara, a seaport in Lycia (south-west Anatolia). The local bishop, however, went to Constantinople to protest on his behalf to Justinian; there were many kings in the world, he declared, but only one pope, and Silverius had been unjustly extruded. Justinian ordered Silverius to be sent back to Rome and given a fair trial: if found guilty, he should be assigned another see; if innocent, restored to his throne. The story is questionable, but he certainly returned to Rome. This was too much for Vigilius, now pope, and when Silverius reached Rome he arranged with Belisarius for him to be delivered into his own hands. Silverius was then dispatched, under guard of two agents of Vigilius, to Palmaria, an island in the Gulf of Gaeta. Here his abdication seems to have been extorted from him (11 Nov. 537), and shortly afterwards he died (probably on 2 Dec.), the victim, it was afterwards claimed, of starvation and the hardships he had suffered. He was buried on the island, his grave becoming the centre of cures and miracles, and from the 11th century he was venerated as a martyr for the orthodox faith. Feast 22 April.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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