Born in Frosinone, Campania, Italy, Silverius was a subdeacon, when, on the death of Pope St. Agapetus, he was named pope in 536 by Ostrogoth King Theodehad of Italy. By the time he was consecrated, he had been formally accepted by the Roman clergy.
Silverius soon incurred the wrath of the Empress Theodora when he refused to accept the heretical monophysites Anthimus of Constantinople and Severus of Antioch who had already been excommunicated and deposed by the previous pope. (The monophysites denied the human nature of Christ.) Silverius knew what it meant to oppose the strong-willed empress and is said to have remarked that by signing the letter of refusal to her request, he was also signing his own death warrant.
In an attempt to save Rome from further destruction by the Ostrogoth General Vitiges, Silverius invited the Byzantine commander Belisaurus into the city. Unfortunately, Belisaurus’ wife Antonina was as much a scheming woman as Theodora, and in order to gain the Empress’s favor, Antonina urged Belisaurus to depose Silverius on the false accusation that he had conspired with the Goths. Silverius was kidnapped and taken to Patara in Lycia, Asia Minor, and Theodora’s favorite, the Archdeacon Vigilius, was wrongly named the new pope.
When the Emperor Justinian received a message from the bishop of Patara telling him what had happened, he immediately gave orders that Silverius be returned to Rome and reinstated in the Holy See. But soon after his return to Italy, Silverius was captured by Vigilius’s supporters and imprisoned on the island of Palmaria. He did not survive long in prison and was either murdered by one of Antonina’s hired assassins or was left to die of starvation. The year was 537, and Silverius had served less than two years in office.
On the death of Silverius, Vigilius was now legitimately named the new pope. But if the Empress Theodora had hopes for her monophysites, the Holy Spirit had other plans: once Vigilius became pope, he ceased to support the heresy and in fact became a strong defender of orthodoxy, condemning the heretics in letters to both the Emperor Justinian and to the Patriarch of Constantinople.
1. The life and death of Pope St. Silverius should encourage all Catholics in the truth of papal infallibility. Despite the irregularities regarding his election and the outright treachery that lead to his death and Vigilius’ subsequent election, both men became firm defenders of the Faith and condemned heresy, despite the cost to themselves. We are reminded of Christ’s words to St. Peter concerning the Church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).
2. Silverius was described as a humble man, a “lamb among wolves” caught in the middle of political ploys and falsely accused of treason. When we find ourselves the victims of false accusations, may we, like St. Silverius, put our trust in the Lord and say with the psalmist: “When evildoers assail me, uttering slanders against me, my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall” (Psalm 27:2).
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photo via Wikimedia Commons