After the death of Pope Eugene I on 2 or 3 June 657, Vitalian was elected his successor, and was consecrated and enthroned on 30 July. He kept his baptismal name as pope. Like Eugene, Vitalian tried to restore the connection with Constantinople by making friendly advances to the Eastern Roman Emperor Constans II and to prepare the way for the settlement of the Monothelite controversy. He sent letters (synodica) announcing his elevation to the Emperor and to Patriarch Peter of Constantinople, who was inclined to Monothelitism. The Emperor confirmed the privileges of the Holy See as head of the Catholic Church and sent to Rome a codex of the Gospels in a cover of gold richly ornamented with precious stones as a good-will gesture.
The Patriarch Peter also replied, although his answer was somewhat noncommittal as to Monothelitism, a belief he defended. In his letter, he gave the impression of being in accord with the pope, whose letter to Peter had expounded the Catholic Faith. Thus ecclesiastical intercourse between Rome and Constantinople was restored, but the mutual reserve over the dogmatic question of Monothelitism remained. Vitalian's name was entered on the diptychs of the churches in Byzantium—the only name of a pope so entered between the reign of Honorius I (d. 638) and the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680–81. The inclusion of Vitalian's name on the diptych was seen by some as being too conciliatory towards heresy, but that charge was unfounded.
Vitalian showed reciprocity toward Constans when the latter came to Rome in 663 to spend twelve days there during a campaign against the Lombards. On 5 July, the pope and members of the Roman clergy met the Emperor at the sixth milestone and accompanied him to St. Peter's Basilica, where the Emperor offered gifts. 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. On his departure Constans removed a large number of bronze artworks, including the bronze tiles from the roof of the Pantheon, which had been dedicated to Christian worship.
Constans then moved on to Sicily, oppressed the population, and was assassinated at Syracuse in 668. Vitalian supported Constans' son Constantine IV against the usurper Mezezius and thus helped him attain the throne. As Constantine had no desire to maintain the Monothelite decree of his father, Pope Vitalian made use of this inclination to take a more decided stand against Monothelitism and to win the Emperor over to orthodoxy. In this latter attempt, however, he did not succeed. The Monothelite Patriarch Theodore I of Constantinople removed Vitalian's name from the diptychs. It was not until the Sixth Ecumenical Council (681) that Monothelitism was suppressed and Vitalian's name was replaced on the diptychs of the churches in Byzantium.
Relations with England
Pope Vitalian was successful in improving relations with England, where the Anglo-Saxon and British clergies were divided regarding various ecclesiastical customs. At the Synod of Whitby, King Oswy of Northumberland accepted Roman practices regarding the keeping of Easter and the shape of the tonsure. Together with King Ecgberht 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 plague.
Vitalian wrote to King Oswy promising to send a suitable bishop to England as soon as possible. Hadrian, abbot of a Neapolitan abbey, was selected, but he considered himself unworthy to be bishop. At his recommendation a highly educated monk, Theodore of Tarsus, who understood both Latin and Greek, 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.
The archiepiscopal See of Ravenna reported directly to Rome. Archbishop
Maurus (644–71) sought to end this dependence, and thus 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, thus becoming a schismatic. The pope excommunicated him, but Maurus did not submit, and even went so far as to declare the pope excommunicated.
Emperor Constans II sided with the archbishop and issued an edict removing the Archbishop of Ravenna from the patriarchal jurisdiction of Rome. He ordained that the former should receive the pallium from the emperor. The successor of Maurus,
Reparatus, was in fact consecrated in 671. 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 revoked the edict of Constans and confirmed the ancient rights of the Roman See over the See of Ravenna.
Authority over Eastern Church
Vitalian enforced his authority as supreme pontiff in the Eastern regions of the Church. Bishop John of Lappa had been deposed by a synod under the presidency of the Metropolitan Paulus. John appealed to the pope and was imprisoned by Paulus for so doing. He escaped, however, and went to Rome, where Vitalian held a synod in December 667 to investigate the matter and pronounced John guiltless. He then wrote to 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.
The introduction of church organ music is traditionally believed to date from the time of Vitalian's papacy.
Vitalian died on January 27, 672. Venerated as a saint by the Catholic church, his feast day is celebrated each year on January 27.