The strange trial of the good looking pope

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By Tim Rohr

 

By the time you read this we will probably have a new pope. I haven’t been paying much attention to the pre-conclave conversations, not even the twitters from tweeting cardinals. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that the magnitude of the event reduces anything that can be said about it to the mere political chatter.

It’s the sort of thing (I think) that calls for much fear and trembling. And, of course there is much to tremble about. While we can be assured that Pope Benedict’s resignation was divinely motivated, we can also be sure that Benedict was quite aware that “something wicked this way comes,” and that he knew he could best engage the beast, not from the Chair of Peter, but from the contemplative confines of a cloister.

We pray his successor will be up to the task. But he may not be. Fortunately for us, during recent centuries, our church has been guided by mostly good and holy men who were also able leaders. However, in the long history of the church, several successors to the Holy See were less than able men who sometimes served more as a test to Christ’s promise that “the gates of hell will not prevail” than they did as Holy Fathers.

In the wake of “the butler did it” fiasco and the continuing saga of clergy sex abuse, Benedict’s sudden resignation has left some of us feeling unstable and even a bit fearful. However, in this moment of uncertainty we would do well to recall how our church has fared through far more unstable and frightening times.

One such time was what has been called the “iron age of the papacy,” the period between 872 and 965, when the papacy had fallen into the possession of powerful Roman families. As historian Matthew Bunson records in “The Pope’s Encyclopedia”: the papacy, having “fallen into the snakepit of Italian politics … became a ticket to local dominance for which men were prepared to rape, murder, and steal.”

During this 94 year period, there were no less than 24 popes – and during one nine-year stretch (896-904) there were nine popes. Bunson records that during this period, seven of the 24 popes were assassinated or died under suspicious circumstances: John VIII was bludgeoned to death by his own entourage; Stephen VI strangled; Leo V murdered by his successor Sergius III; John X suffocated; Stephen VIII horribly mutilated – having had his eyes gouged out and ears, nose, and hands cut off – died of his injuries; Hadrian III poisoned; and John XII beaten to death.

In his book “Triumph,” author Harry Crocker calls the period “the medieval equivalent of a Mafia gang war between powerful families contesting for the throne.” But the uncontested low point of this low point for the papacy was the macabre trial of a dead pope by another pope known as the Cadaver Synod or, in Latin, as the “synod horrenda.”

In 897, Pope Stephen VI (or VII – the accounts vary) had the body of his immediate predecessor, Pope Formosus, who had been dead for seven months, disinterred, robed in pontifical vestments, propped up on the papal throne, and tried for perjury, coveting the papacy, and violating church canons when he was elected pope.

Stephen allegedly acted as judge, jury and chief prosecutor, and during the trial “screamed and raved and hurled insults at the rotting corpse.” Finding Pope Formosus guilty on all counts, the hysterical Stephen ordered the dead pope’s three fingers on his right hand cut off, the corpse stripped of its vestments and thrown into a common grave.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Formosus was again dug up by Stephen’s allies and his corpse thrown into the Tiber where it later washed ashore and was discovered by a monk. Formosus, whose name means “good looking,” had been a popular pope, and once it was discovered what Stephen had done, the people mobbed the papal palace and imprisoned Stephen where he was later strangled.

But we’re still not done. Two succeeding popes, Theodore II, whose reign only lasted 20 days, and John IX, both held synods nullifying the cadaver synod, and ordered Formosus’ body to be reinterred with papal dignity.

However, two popes later, Sergius III, who had ordered the murder of his predecessor John X, and who also hated Formosus, reversed the decisions of Theodore II and John IX, re-condemned Formosus, and had a laudatory epitaph inscribed onto the tomb of the mad pope, Stephen.

Apparently Sergius never got around to disinterring Formosus’ body a third time since his name is found in St. Peter’s Basilica on an engraved list of popes who are buried there. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting our new pope’s name will not be Formosus II.

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Tim Rohr leads a Catholic Study Group which meets Monday evenings, 6 p.m., at the Cathedral Gift Shop. He can be found online at www.themassneverends.com and “friended” at facebook.com/timrohr.guam His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff and management of the U Matuna Si Yu’os.