Pelagius II, date of whose birth is unknown, seemingly a native of Rome, but of Gothic descent, as his father’s name was Winigild, d. in Rome, February 7, 590. He succeeded Benedict I, when the Lombards were besieging Rome, but his consecration was delayed in the hope of securing the confirmation of the election by the emperor. But the blockade of Rome by the Lombards, and their control of the great thorough-fares was effective and, after four months, he was consecrated (November 26, 579). The most important acts of Pelagius have relation to the Lombards, or to the Istrian schism of the Three Chapters (q.v.). Moved, it would seem, by the words of the new pope, and probably still more by his money and that of the emperor, the Lombards at length drew off from the neighborhood of Rome. Thereupon, Pelagius at once sent an embassy (in which the deacon Gregory was apparently included) to Constantinople to explain the circumstances of his election, and to ask that succour should be sent to save Rome from the barbarians. But not very much in the way of help for Italy was forthcoming at this period from the exhausted Eastern Roman Empire. Emperor Maurice, it is true, sent somewhat later (c. 584) a new official to Italy with the title of exarch, and with combined civil and military authority over the whole peninsula. But, when he came to Ravenna, this new functionary brought with him only an insufficient military force, and meanwhile both emperor and pope had turned to the Franks.
Towards the beginning of his pontificate (October, 580 or 581) Pelagius wrote to Aunacharius (or Aunarius), Bishop of Auxerre, a man of great influence with the different Frankish kings, and begged him to give a practical proof of the zeal he had professed for the Roman Church, by urging them to come to the assistance of Rome. “We believe”, he wrote, “that it has been brought about by a special dispensation of Divine Providence, that the Frankish Princes should profess the orthodox faith; like the Roman Emperors, in order that they may help this city, whence it took its rise…. Persuade them with all earnestness to keep from any friendship and alliance with our most unspeakable enemies, the Lombards.” At length either the prayers of Pelagius, or the political arts of the emperor, induced the Franks to attack the Lombards in Italy. But their zeal for the papal or imperial cause was soon exhausted, and they allowed themselves to be bribed to retire from the peninsula. The distress of the Italians deepened. Pelagius had already sent to Constantinople the ablest of his clergy, the deacon Gregory, afterwards Gregory I, the Great. As the pope’s apocrisiary, or nuncio, the deacon had been commissioned to haunt the imperial palace day and night, never to be absent from it for an hour, and to strain every nerve to induce the emperor to send help to Rome. To him Pelagius now dispatched letter after letter urging him to increased exertion. He also implored the new Exarch of Ravenna, Decius (584), to succour Rome, but was told that he was unable to protect the exarchate, still less Rome.
Failing to get help from Ravenna he sent a fresh embassy to Constantinople and exhorted Gregory to act along with it in endeavoring to obtain the desired help. “Here”, he wrote, “we are in such straits that unless God move the heart of the emperor to have pity on us, and send us a Master of the soldiery (magister militum) and a duke, we shall be entirely at the mercy of our enemies, as most of the district round Rome is without protection; and the army of these most unspeakable people will take possession of the places still held for the empire.” Though no imperial troops came to Rome, the exarch succeeded in concluding a truce with the Lombards. Taking advantage of this “peace and quiet”, Pelagius II renewed the exertions of his namesake to put an end to the schism caused in Italy by the condemnation of the Three Chapters by Vigilius. The deacon Gregory was recalled from Constantinople, and assisted the pope in the correspondence which was forthwith initiated with Bishop Elias of Grado and the bishops of Istria. In one letter after another the pope bade them remember that the faith of Peter could not be crushed nor changed, and that that faith which he held was the faith of the Council of Chalcedon, as well as of the first three general councils; and, in the most touching terms, he exhorted them to hold to that glorious ecclesiastical unity which they were breaking “for the sake of superfluous questions and of defending heretical chapters”. The words of the pope were, however, lost upon the schismatics, and equally without effect was the violence of the Exarch Smaragdus, who seized Severus, the successor of Elias, and, by threats, compelled him to enter into communion with the orthodox bishop, John of Ravenna (588). But as soon as Severus returned to his see, he repudiated what he had done, and the schism continued for some two hundred years longer.
Pelagius was one of the popes who labored to promote the celibacy of the clergy, and he issued such stringent regulations on this matter, with regard to the subdeacons in the island of Sicily, that his successor Gregory I thought them too strict, and modified them to some extent. But if Gregory had to check the zeal of Pelagius in one direction he emulated it in another. The protest of Pelagius against the assumption of the title “ecumenical” by the Patriarch of Constantinople was repeated with added emphasis by his former secretary. Among the works of piety recorded of Pelagius may be noted his adorning of the Shrine of St. Peter, turning his own house into a hospital for the poor, and rebuilding the Church of St. Lawrence, where may still be seen a mosaic (probably executed by Pelagius) depicting St. Lawrence as standing on the right side of Our Lord. Pelagius fell a victim to the terrible plague that devastated Rome at the end of 589 and was buried in St. Peter’s.
HORACE K. MANN