Pope St. Agapetus I, “Threats do not terrify me”
Reigned 535-536. Date of birth uncertain; died 22 April, 536. He was the son of Gordianus, a Roman priest who had been slain during the riots in the days of Pope Symmachus.
Meanwhile Belisarius, after the very easy conquest of Sicily, was preparing for an invasion of Italy. The Gothic king, Theodehad as a last resort, begged the aged pontiff to proceed to Constantinople and bring his personal influence to bear on the Emperor Justinian. To defray the costs of the embassy Agapetus was compelled to pledge the sacred vessels of the Church of Rome. He set out in midwinter with five bishops and an imposing retinue. In February, 536, he appeared in the capital of the East and was received with all the honours befitting the head of the Catholic Church. As he no doubt had foreseen, the ostensible object of his visit was doomed to failure. Justinian could not be swerved from his resolve to re-establish the rights of the Empire in Italy. But from the ecclesiastical standpoint, the visit of the Pope in Constantinople issued in a triumph scarcely less memorable than the campaigns of Belisarius. The then occupant of the Byzantine See was a certain Anthimus, who without the authority of the canons had left his episcopal see of Trebizond to join the crypto-Monophysites who, in conjunction with the Empress Theodora were then intriguing to undermine the authority of the Council of Chalcedon. Against the protests of the orthodox, the Empress finally seated Anthimus in the patriarchal chair. No sooner had the Pope arrived than the most prominent of the clergy entered charges against the new patriarch as an intruder and a heretic. Agapetus ordered him to make a written profession of faith and to return to his forsaken see; upon his refusal, he declined to have any relations with him. This vexed the Emperor, who had been deceived by his wife as to the orthodoxy of her favorite, and he went so far as to threaten the Pope with banishment. Agapetus replied with spirit: “With eager longing have I come to gaze upon the Most Christian Emperor Justinian. In his place I find a Diocletian, whose threats, however, terrify me not.” This intrepid language made Justinian pause; and being finally convinced that Anthimus was unsound in faith, he made no objection to the Pope’s exercising the plenitude of his powers in deposing and suspending the intruder and, for the first time in the history of the Church, personally consecrating his legally elected successor, Mennas.
This memorable exercise of the papal prerogative was not soon forgotten by the Orientals, who, together with the Latins, venerate him as a saint. In order to clear himself of every suspicion of abetting heresy, Justinian delivered to the Pope a written confession of faith, which the latter accepted with the judicious proviso that “although he could not admit in a layman the right of teaching religion, yet he observed with pleasure that the zeal of the Emperor was in perfect accord with the decisions of the Fathers”. Shortly afterwards Agapetus fell ill and died, after a glorious reign of ten months. His remains were brought in a leaden coffin to Rome and deposited in St. Peter’s. His memory is kept on 20 September, the day of his deposition. The Greeks commemorate him on 22 April, the day of his death.
Liber Pontificalis (ed. Duchesne), I, 287-289; Cleus in Acta SS., Sept., VI, 163-179; Artaud de Montor, Lives of the Popes (New York, 1867), I, 123, 124.
JAMES F. LOUGHLIN (Catholic Encyclopedia)