Date of birth unknown; d. 27 January, 672. Nothing is known of Vitalian's life before he was raised to the Holy See. According to the "Liber Pontificalis" (ed. Duchesne, I, 343) he was a native of Segni in Campagna, and his father's name was Anastasius. After the death of Pope Eugene I, on 2 or 3 June, 657, Vitalian was elected his successor, and consecrated and enthroned on 30 July. Like his predecessor, Vitalian sought to restore the connection with Constantinople by friendly advances to the Eastern Emperor Constans II (641-668) and to prepare the way for the settlement of the Monothelite controversy. He sent letters (synodica) announcing his elevation by envoys both to the emperor and to Patriarch Peter of Constantinople, who was inclined to Monothelitism. The emperor confirmed the privileges of the Roman Church and sent to St. Peter as a present a codex of the Gospels in a cover of gold richly ornamented with precious stones. The Patriarch Peter also sent an answer, though not a definite one, as to Monothelitism, which he sought to defend. He made it appear that he was of the same opinion as the pope, who in writing to Peter had expounded the Catholic Faith. Thus ecclesiastical intercourse between Rome and Constantinople was restored on the basis of this mutual reserve over the dogmatic question, and Vitalian's name was entered on the diptychs of the Byzantine Church---the only name of a pope so entered between the reign of Honorius I (d. 638) and the Sixth (Ecumenical Council of 680-81). Vitalian also showed the same friendliness to the Emperor Constans II, when the latter, in 663, came to Rome and spent twelve days there during the campaign against the Lombards. On 5 July the pope, accompanied by the Roman clergy, went as far as the sixth milestone to meet the emperor and accompanied him to St. Peter's, where the emperor offered gifts. On the following Sunday Constans went in state to St. Peter's, offered a pallium wrought with gold, and was present during the Mass celebrated by the pope. The emperor dined with the pope on the following Saturday, attended Mass again on Sunday at St. Peter's, and after Mass took leave of the pope. At his departure Constans carried off a large number of bronze works of art from Rome, taking even the bronze tiles from the roof of the Pantheon, which had been dedicated to Christian worship. Constans stopped in Sicily, where he cruelly oppressed the population, and was assassinated at Syracuse in 668. The pope supported his son Constantine IV Pogonatus against a usurper and thus aided him to attain the Byzantine throne. The new emperor had no intention of using force to maintain the Monothelite decree (typus) of his father, and Pope Vitalian probably made use of this inclination to take a more decided stand against Monothelitism and to win the emperor to orthodoxy. In this latter attempt, however, he was not able to succeed. The Monothelite patriarch Theodore of Constantinople (from 678) even removed Vitalian's name from the diptychs. It was not until the Sixth OEcumenical Council (681) that Monothelitism was suppressed, and Vitalian's name was replaced on the diptychs of the Byzantine Church.
Pope Vitalian was very successful in England, where disputes still divided the Anglo-Saxon and the British clergy, respecting various ecclesiastical customs. At the Synod of Streaneshalch (Whitby) King Oswy of Northumberland decided for the general acceptance of the Roman practices in regard to the keeping of Easter, and the shape of the tonsure. Together with King Egbert of Kent, he sent the priest Wighard to Rome, to be consecrated there after the death of Archbishop Deusdedit of Canterbury in 664, but Wighard died at Rome of the pestilence. The pope wrote a letter to King Oswy promising to send a suitable bishop to England as soon as possible. Hadrian, abbot of an abbey near Naples, was selected to go, but he considered himself unworthy to be consecrated bishop. At his recommendation a highly educated monk, Theodore of Tarsus, who understood both Latin and Greek and who was at Rome, was chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury and consecrated on 26 March, 668. Accompanied by Abbot Hadrian, Theodore went to England, where he was recognized as the head of the Church of England by all the clergy, Saxon and British. The pope confirmed to him all the privileges that Gregory the Great had formerly granted to Archbishop Augustine.
The archiepiscopal See of Ravenna was immediately subject to Rome. Archbishop Maurus of Ravenna (648-71) sought to rid himself of this dependence, and make his see autocephalous. When Pope Vitalian called upon him to justify his theological views, he refused to obey and declared himself independent of Rome. The pope excommunicated him, but Maurus did not submit, and even went so far as to excommunicate the pope. The Emperor Constans II sided with the archbishop, issued an edict removing the Archbishop of Ravenna from the patriarchal jurisdiction of Rome, and ordained that the former should receive the pallium from the emperor. The successor of Maurus, Reparatus, was in fact consecrated, in 671, by three of his suffragan bishops and received the pallium from the emperor. It was not until the reign of Pope Leo II (682-83) that the independence of the See of Ravenna was suppressed: Emperor Constantine IV repealed the edict of Constans and confirmed the ancient rights of the Roman See over the See of Ravenna. Vitalian also had occasion to enforce his authority as supreme judge in the Eastern Church. Bishop John of Lappa in Crete, deposed by a synod under the presidency of the Metropolitan Paulus, appealed to the pope, and was imprisoned for so doing. He escaped, however, and went to Rome, where Vitalian held a synod in December, 667, to investigate the matter, basing its action on the records of the metropolitan Synod of Crete, and pronounced John guiltless. Vitalian wrote to the Metropolitan Paulus demanding the restoration of John to his diocese, and the return of the monasteries which had been unjustly taken from him. At the same time the pope directed the metropolitan to remove two deacons who had married after consecration. Vitalian also wrote respecting John to an imperial official and to Bishop George of Syracuse, who had supported the deposed bishop. Some of the letters attributed to this pope are spurious. He was buried at St. Peter's.
Liber Pontificalis, ed. Duchesne, I, 343 sq.; JAFFE, Regesta Rom. Pont., I (2nd ed.), 235-237; MANSI, Conc. Coll., XI, 16 sqq. HEFELE, Konziliengeschichte, III (2nd ed.), 248 sq.; LANGEN, Geschichte de romaischen Kirche, IV (Bonn, 1855), 439-545.
Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett
Dedicated to Pope St. Vitalian