Vitalian, son of Anastasius, was born somewhere between 580 and 600 AD in Segni, Lazio, in central Italy. He appears to have been elevated to cardinal in 655.
Pope Eugene I died on either June 2 or 3, 657. Vitalian was consecrated on July 30, indicating that the popes were no longer asking the emperor for permission. But, in deference to the emperor, Vitalian quickly sent letters to Emperor Constans II and the Patriarch Peter to notify them of his elevation to the papacy.
We imagine that Vitalian wanted to ease the east-west tensions which had been fragile since monothelitism had begun to brew a generation before. The emperor was more than cordial. In a letter back, he confirmed the privileges of the Holy See as the head of the Catholic Church. As a gift to the new pope, Constans sent Vitalian a codex of Gospels, with a cover of gold, ornamented with precious jewels.
Patriarch Peter, a supporter of the monothelite heresy, was somewhat more neutral, leading Vitalian to believe, without quite saying so, that Peter was in accord with him. The split seemed somewhat repaired although the doctrine of Jesus having one will remained. However, in Peter’s defense, Vitalian’s name was added to the diptychs used in eastern worship, for a while.
Constans had become suspicious of his brother, Theodosius, and had him murdered. Loss of several battles, in addition to this last event, caused the people of Constantinople to hate him. Constans moved to Sicily, setting up his court at Syracuse. Meanwhile, a civil war began in northern Italy among two branches of the Lombards. Many were forced to flee. Constans, planning on making Italy the center of his Byzantine Empire, chose this time to try for a takeover of the Lombards.
In 663, Constans left Sicily and became the first emperor in two centuries to step foot on the Italian peninsula. In May, his army was defeated at the battle of Forino. On his way back towards Sicily, on July 5, the pope and his retinue went out to mile marker 6 on the Via Appia and welcomed Constans to Rome. They paraded into Rome. The next Sunday, Constans attended Vitalian’s Mass, at which time the pope was presented with a gold fiber pallium. On the next Saturday, the two had dinner together. It was a very pleasant visit, everyone was cordial. However, on his way out of the city, Constans ordered all bronze statues confiscated, even stripping the Pantheon of its bronze roof tiles. Sacred altar vessels from all over Rome were stolen as well. These items may have been re-utilized in the battle he fought next: the battle of Sicily against the Muslims.
When Constans allowed the new archbishop of Ravenna to be consecrated without approval of Vitalian, the pope excommunicated Bishop Maurus. Maurus, thinking he had independence from Vitalian, excommunicated the pope back. Constans wrote an edict saying that the archbishopric of Ravenna was not under the papal jurisdiction. It took Constans’ death and several years before his son, Constantine IV revoked it and confirmed the rights of the Papal See. Constans was mysteriously murdered in September 668.
After the death of Constans, Vitalian chose to work with his son, Constantine IV to eliminate the monothelite schism completely. Constantine did not want to keep the decree his father had written, the Typus. Vitalian tried to work this angle to take a harder stand on the heresy and convert the new emperor to orthodoxy. It did not work. Due to his insistence, the new Patriarch, Theodore I, took Vitalian’s name off the diptychs.
Although Gregory the Great had sent evangelizers to Britain sixty years before, there was much backsliding of the converted. Anglo-Saxons and British clergymen fought over the religious customs: the date of Easter, the shape of tonsures, the inclusion of pagan customs. At the synod of 664, the king accepted the Roman customs. Then he sent Wighard, a priest, to Rome to be consecrated priest. But he died of the plague before this could be accomplished. Vitalian took it upon himself to find another appropriate bishop. He found him in the person of Theodore of Tarsus, a highly learned man. Theodore became Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church in England.
It is said that it was during Vitalian’s reign that organ music came into churches for the first time.
Vitalian, an old man, died January 27, 672 and was buried in St. Peter’s cathedral.