With Pope Gregory IV's death on January 11, 844 the Roman common people demanded that a deacon by the name of John be chosen his successor. They siezed the Lateran palace and there enthroned the antipope John. However that same month the Roman aristocracy elected a noble archpriest who they elevated to the papal throne in late January of the same year. He was Pope Sergius II who would rule for three years. Sergius had been made an acolyte by Pope St. Leo III, a subdeacon by Pope St. Stephen IV, a priest by Pope St. Paschal I and an archpriest by Gregory IV. In other words this man who had been personally groomed by four popes was a natural. Soon all of Rome realized this and the opposition supporting the antipope was suppressed. Sergius spared John's death, exiling him to a monastery where John spent the rest of his life in reparation. Because of the situation with the antipope, the Roman nobility had rushed through Sergius' elevation to Pope. This riled Lothair no end and he retaliated by pillaging the papal territories between the Frankish kingdom and Rome. It was the beginning of the end for the Carolingian line and their pact with Rome. Though Sergius sought peace like his predecessor by crowning Lothair's son Louis II King of the Lombards, he stopped short of swearing allegiance to the new king because that would have been akin to submitting the papal states under the rule of the Franks. Sergius' one claim to fame as pope is that he restored the "Holy Stairs" or Pretorium. The rest of his pontificate was questionable. Though he was an ambitious builder, enlarging St. John Lateran and restoring some of the aqueducts, his methods were somewhat suspect as simony permeated the Vatican. Because of his old age, Sergius was not able to manage the day to day affairs of the Vatican and that opened the door for his power-hungry brother Benedict, bishop of Albano, to slither in and taint the entire Vatican, selling bishoprics and church appointments to the highest bidders. This went on unchecked until late 846 when the Saracens, who had been defeated in Africa, rallied and attacked Rome as a wave of Muslim pirates descended on the Vatican from the nearby Tiber. St. Peter's and St. Paul's were both plundered and all the treasures, accrued at these two churches, were carried away. The people cried out in unison in petition to God, believing this invasion was a sign from the Almighty that what had gone on inside the Vatican was the work of the devil and God was meting out His Justice. As the patriarchs tried to calm the people and protect their own valuables, they began to bicker among themselves. One such argument involved the Patriarch of Aquileia - Andrew and Venerius the Patriarch of Grado. In trying to mediate their dispute, Sergius died suddenly on January 27, 847.
Sergius' successor was Pope Saint Leo IV chosen the very day of the previous Pope's death, but not ratified for nine more weeks until April 10, 847. Leo had been made a cardinal by Sergius and was a unanimous selection by all. Like with Sergius' election, Leo's consecration was performed without permission of the Frankish King. The excuse offered was the imminent crisis with the Saracens but it was also a way of distancing Rome from the heavy-handed way Lothair had been dealing with the Church. Leo's first task was to restore all he could and reinforce the walls of the Leonine city and the Vatican against further attacks by the Muslim invaders, all the while reassuring the people that God would provide and to trust in the Almighty. He had borrowed greatly on his predecessor Pope Leo III who had drawn up plans to protect St. Peter's. For some unknown reason those blueprints were never carried out until it was too late. Though it had already happened, Leo IV was determined that from henceforth the Vatican and St. Peter's would forever be protected. This constituted what he called "the Leonine City." He dedicated these new fortresses on June 27, 852 after having organized an armada made up of fleets from Naples, Amalfi and Gaeta which decisively destroyed the Muslim ships near Ostia. Leo rebuilt the Cetumcellae which he renamed "Leopolis" and which today is Civitavecchia, the same area where the weeping statue of Mary has been reported.
Though Leo was diplomatic in matters of state with the Frankish emperors, he stood his ground against any interference in spiritual matters. Within Lothair's camp all kinds of hijinks and shenanigans were going on which sought to undermine the prestige of the Holy See, but which are too innumerable, insufficient and not of consequence to go into here. Suffice it to say, Leo would take no guff. When the Patriarch of Constantinople did not consult Leo regarding a deposed bishop in Sicily in the diocese of Syracuse, Leo rebuked him and summoned both to Rome rather than back the eastern prelate's decision. He was one of the strongest pontiffs in defending papal rights and was energetic in restoring needed Church discipline to a lax clergy. His scolding of Bishop Galerius from Tripoli served notice that the Pope was going to maintain the old-fashion penitential discipline originated by his predecessors. Although his rebuke was necessary, it unfortunately further split the Eastern and Western Church. The heresy of Iconoclasm and the Western Church's alignment with the Frankish Emperor had already distanced East from West because the Eastern Church had become a State Church. In future installments we shall see further how the Schism came to full force.
Leo did not only focus his attention eastward in his discipline. He also denounced or excommunicated many powerful bishops who refused to obey the Papal authority in deference to Frankish rule. He was not afraid to stand up for the true faith and its tenets. For this he accrued many enemies. Yet, while he was tough in strengthening the canon reforms introduced by Pope Eugene II, he was also greatly loved. He won the affection of Venetians by confirming their right to elect the Doge, who was the chief magistrate of Venice. Leo convened an important synod in December 853 in which he instituted the Octave of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At that same synod he not only promoted sacred music as part and parcel of the liturgy, but also is believed to have prophecied that a young man living in Rome by the name of Alfred would be the future king of England. Pope St. Leo IV was called home to Heaven on July 17, 855 just as another antipope, one who Leo had excommunicated, waited in the wings and more troubles would ensue with both the Frankish emperors and the Saracens.
Bibliothecarius Anastasius who had been excommunicated, claimed the papal throne but the people elected Pope Benedict III on September 29, 855. He was beloved by the people due to his great virtue but grew in disfavor with the new Emperor Louis II who had sheltered the deposed Anastasius. Louis, who succeeded Lothair when the latter died in 855, favored Anastasius because he could be controlled whereas Benedict III was the people's choice after their first choice Hadrian, a San Marco cardinal, had refused their offer to be pope. Furthermore, Louis exploited the fact that Benedict, like Leo before him had not been consecrated with the emperor's consent and so they made a public display of disavowing Benedict's election and recognizing Anastasius. But when the people rose up in unison behind Benedict and even many of Anastasius' closest envoys turned against the antipope, Louis II was forced to do a "180" and recognize Benedict III as the true pontiff. The Emperor's only request was to beg leniency for Anastasius and his cohorts in a move to unify his crumbling kingdom and prestige. Benedict, showing his compassion, stripped Anastasius of any papal recognition and assigned him to the monastery of St. Maria in Trastevere. The experience moved the former antipope greatly for Anastasius not only repented and was reinstituted into the Church but went on to become a counselor to the next three pontiffs. Meanwhile Benedict III's short reign was filled with staving off minor skirmishes and attacks on Rome by solo bands of Saracen marauders, but the Pope rallied the people of Italy to successfully fend off these advances and rebuilt quickly any properties that had been destroyed, fortifying fortresses and walls for the sake of protection. This was also necessary to keep the city of Rome from being flooded by frequent floodwaters from the rising Tiber River. Benedict counseled the young Alfred, son of Aethelwulf, King of Wessex who helped restore many of the buildings damaged by floods and Saracen attacks. The King and his son also promised annual contribution of funds from England once they returned to the British Isles.
On April 17, 858 after only three years as the Vicar of Christ, Benedict III died and a week later the saintly Pope Saint Nicholas I was unanimously selected as the hundred and fifth successor of Peter. He had been Benedict's trusted counselor as well as holding tremendous influence at the Lateran as an aide under his predecessors Pope Sergius II and Pope St. Leo IV. Again, the people wanted Hadrian but again the cardinal refused and Nicholas was the choice. This time Louis II totally approved, scurrying to Rome immediately upon hearing of Benedict's death. There in Rome Louis formally approved Nicholas' elevation. Nicholas took charge from the start. Any bishop who did not toe the line was called on the carpet by this dedicated pope. This included many Frankish bishops and left Louis in a ticklish situations when the rebel bishops appealed to the Emperor over an issue of divorce regarding Louis' brother which had been approved by the Synod of Aachen but was quashed by Nicholas who vehemently upheld the sacraments. Louis retaliated by threatening to send his troops to Rome and capturing the Holy Father, but Nicholas took refuge in St. Peter's and after numerous communiques Louis realized he couldn't attack Christ's Vicar on earth and so relented. He blinked first and ordered Lothair to reconcile with his first wife. Nicholas had gained a great moral victory. With things quieted in the West, uprisings occurred in the East. The Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatius had rebuked the Byzantine Emperor Michael III for his acts of violence in persecuting many people and the unsavory life he was leading, so much so that Ignatius refused the Emperor Holy Communion. This so infuriated the Emperor that he had Ignatius deposed and placed a layman in his place by the name of Photius. Without wasting any time the Emperor had Photius receive minor orders, ordination and consecration as bishop in one day. With this accomplished the Emperor turned to Rome for formal approval. But Ignatius had beaten the emperor to the punch, appealing to Pope Nicholas. Nicholas sided with Ignatius' claim and officially excommunicated the new Patriarch at a synod held at the Lateran in August of 863. Michael III would follow suit some years later by deposing Photius, not because of the Pope's actions but because the Patriarch had fallen into disfavor with the Emperor. In fact, the Emperor was furious that the "western papacy" would interfere with matters of state in the East. Despite his protests it eventually became politically expedient for Michael to follow the Pope's lead and depose Photius. It was not, however, the end of Photius as we shall see in the next installment. The stinging reply by Michael III to St. Nicholas I did not deter the pontiff in asserting his authority as evident when the King of Bulgaria Boris I appealed to the Pope to send missionary priests and a missionary bishop to his land even though the land was under the auspices of the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas sent Bishop Formosus from Porto (who would go on to become the 111th pontiff) to Bulgaria where Formosus began immediately to "Latinize" this Byzantine territory. This incensed Photius who retaliated at a synod in Constantinople by excommunicating and deposing Nicholas I. Fortunately it had no teeth in contrast to Nicholas' excommunication of Photius. Unfortunately it was one of the final daggers that contributed to the total separation of the Eastern and Western Church. By the time word reached Rome of Photius' actions God had called Nicholas home for the holy pontiff died on November 13, 867. Nicholas' nine year pontificate was marked with a resurgence of the Papacy as the supreme authority.
A month later the people elected the man they had wanted for years - Pope Hadrian II who finally relented and accepted the papal tiarra. Whether the third time was the charm or he Knew that his time had come, Hadrian ruled for the next five years. He had been weaned by seven popes and was well qualified to follow in Nicholas' capable footsteps. A lesser man might not have been able to withstand the catastrophes that marked the beginning of his pontificate. While Louis II was keeping the Saracens at bay in southern Italy, in central Italy Duke Lambert of Spoleto attacked and pillaged Rome. To add intrigue to the whole affair, Hadrian's own daughter (for he had been married) was raped and murdured along with her mother and Hadrian's wife by none other than Anastasius brother. Though the latter had repented and had been reinstated as a counselor, he immediately became suspect and Hadrian had him deposed and once again excommunicated. A year later it was discovered that Anastasius had no part in the murders and he was reinstated in the Church and regained his old office in the papal chancery as counselor. Hadrian was old even before he was elected and the rigors of the papacy took its toll on the aging Pope. He was unable to keep up the vigor and pace of his predecessor Nicholas and because of this was not quick to discern problems or vasilations in the Church, especially in the Carolingian realms and in the east where Nicholas had staked Rome's claim to Bulgaria. The Eighth General Council of Constantinople or Eighth Ecumenical Council was convened by Hadrian in 869. The Pope sent Anastasius to represent the Church as well as Louis II. The Council officially deposed Photius and by that action seemingly ended the Greek schism. But it was not to be. Though no decree was made at the council regarding Bulgaria, three days after the conclusion of the council the delegates of the Eastern Patriarchs ruled that Bulgaria was under the ecclesiastical rule of Constantinople and not Rome. Immediately all the Latin priests and bishops there were exiled and confusion ran amok as Rome lost Bulgaria forever. However Hadrian was able to make a compromise through the two missionary brothers known as the "Apostles of the Slavs" Saints Cyril and Methodius, the latter who Pope Hadrian had consecrated archbishop of Sirmium (in Yugoslavia) in 867. Hadrian appointed him papal legate to the Slavs and requested that Moravia be retained as part of the Latin rite. Because of Hadrian's actions Serbia is today solidly Eastern Orthodox while Croatia and parts of Bosnia are anchored in the Catholic Faith brought there by Cyril and Methodius. Two kings were crowned by Hadrian - first Alfred the Great, King of England who became the first English sovereign blessed by Rome - and secondly, one of Hadrian's final acts before his death was to recrown Louis II in an elaborate ceremony at St. Peter's on the Feast of Pentecost on May 18, 872. Exactly five years to the day he was elected, Hadrian passed from this world on December 14, 872.
In the next chapter we will deal with the next 25 years at the end of the ninth century and the continuing struggles with the Byzantine Empire in the east, the Saracens in the south, the growing hordes of Vikings in the north, and the crumbling Frankish Empire in the west as five pontiffs, who we will cover, strove to keep Holy Mother Church on the right path.