chapter twenty eight

poison penetrates the papacy

In this installment we shall close out the ninth century as we treat the last six popes in the 800's beginning with the turbulent reign of Pope Formosus on October 6, 891. As we detailed in the last installment, Formosus became the first pontiff to have been excommunicated and then reinstated. His life was a dichotomy of those times in Church history when spirituality was placed on the back burner and greed, simony and temporal goals ruled the day. Add to this the growing schism between East and West which had stemmed from the excommunication of the Patriarch Photius by Pope Nicholas I in 857. Photius retaliated by declaring a state of schism and attacking Roman orthodoxy in respect to the five customs of their patriarchate, in particular the question of Filioque which means the Holy Spirit proceeds directly from the Father and the Son. He charged that the Latin Church had added this to the creed though the Greek Church had believed the Spirit proceeded only from the Father, not the Son. However, even though Photius was deposed by the 8th Ecumenical Council (Constantinople IV) in 869, he was elected patriarch again in 877 on the death of the Patriarch Ignatius and this time recognized by Rome in the person of Pope John VIII. However, Photius could not leave well enough alone and openly repudiated the Constantinople IV Council which prompted John VIII to have to officially excommunicate Photius again. The latter died in that state in a monastery in 891, the same year that Pope Stephen V died on September 14th.

This left the door open three weeks later for the election of Formosus, who had been excommunicated by Pope John VIII in 878, finally ascended the chair of Peter as many had touted him for the papacy from before the time of John VIII. Because he was a purported threat - a thorn in the side of John VIII, Formosus was put out to pasture. He was readmitted back into the good graces of Holy Mother Church by Pope Marinus I. The Bulgarians owe their faith to Formosus whose greatest crime was crowning Arnulf King of Italy. In subsequent years Arnulf went on to become Emperor of Germany. Born in Ostia just outside of Rome, Formosus was elected Pope even though he was already bishop of another see. This was not held against him until after his death which we shall detail later in this article. With the foundation laid by Alfred the Great, Formosus spent his missionary efforts on England and northern Germany where the Vikings were still wreaking havoc. But Formosus was not a single-minded pope for he also turned his attention to the East where, in 892, he attempted to heal the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, but it was too deep to mend. Formosus possessed great wisdom and intelligence and led a holy life, especially in comparison to some of his predecessors. He also led a strict and austere lifestyle and tried to pass this way on to many within the Vatican. This spawned even more enemies - those who thrived on simony, greed and power. On the temporal side, Formosus was forced to deal with the Duke of Spoleto Guido III who had been crowned Emperor of Italy by Stephen V. Guido threatened rebellion if Formosus not only recrowned him, but also his son Lambert as co-emperor. Because the precedent had already been set by Stephen, Formosus had no choice but realized it was a grave mistake for Guido had his own intinerary and was not requesting the coronation for Church purposes, but rather his own means. They say "all roads lead to Rome" and Guido made a bee-line for the eternal city not to protect it but to rain down tyranny on the people. Formosus appealed to his friend Arnulf who he had crowned king of the Franks. Arnulf responded by freeing Rome of the tyrant and his regime. Guido was killed by his own men as Lambert fled. Formosus recrowned Arnulf in St. Peter's old Basilica in February 896. Together they planned to rid all of Italy of the Spoleto tyranny but Arnulf became paralyzed and was carried back to Germany. Shortly after that, on April 4, 896 Formosus died.

He was succeeded on April 11 by Pope Boniface VI who paled in comparison to Formosus and he contracted gout, passing on fifteen days later on April 26. He had been suspect of many improprieties including immorality before he was elevated and his papacy, though thankfully short, was a black mark on the Church. But those who opposed Formosus pushed his elevation and after his death Boniface was buried with great pomp and circumstance in the portico of popes in St. Peter's - an honor afforded only the greatest of pontiffs - of which Boniface definitely wasn't. By now the papal throne had become nothing but a pawn at the mercy of the great feudal families of Italy. This was made even more evident with the election of another favorite of the enemies of Formosus - Pope Stephen VI who was elected on May 22, 896. He was merely a puppet in their hands and went so far as to allow them to manipulate him in a way that brought great embarassment to the Church and the Chair of Peter. As we mentioned in the previous paragraph Formosus' determination to toe the line spiritually aroused many enemies who not only rejoiced when he died, but went so far as to convince Stephen VI to exhume his decaying body in December 896 and prop it up in a mock trial presided over by Stephen VI himself. To no one's surprise Formosus was declared guilty of perjury and other crimes by this kangaroo court and to add insult to desecration, they not only nullified all the ordinations and acts Formosus had pronounced, but chopped off the three fingers of his right hand which this holy man had used to swear in, crown and bless. They then threw his body into the Tiber river, but a caring hermit fished his body out of the frigid river and re-buried the body. If Stephen VI had any respect upon his elevation, he lost it all after this abomination. Hatred for Formosus so drove this misguided pope that Stephen made it a crusade to invalidate the ordinations of all Formosus had elevated to the priesthood, no matter how good or holy these men were. The head of the Vatican had become a witch-hunter and spirituality was a non-entity. Finally, the truth became known and the people rebelled, stripping Stephen VI of his papal insignia, arresting him and his cohorts and had him thrown in prison where he was strangled by prisoners he had incarcerated sometime in August 897.

With the Church in turmoil there was only one direction to go - up. Pope Romanus was the first step when he was elected in August 897. His first act was to rehabilitate the memory of Pope Formosus and declare all the pronouncements and harassments by Stephen as null and void. There had been many who visited Formosus' grave and claimed miraculous healings and his fame began to spread. As it did, more honors were restored to Formosus. This pleased Romanus who had been a friend of Formosus and grieved greatly over the terrible treatment of his dear friend. However there were still a few enemies of Formosus lurking and one of them, within the Vatican, managed to get to Romanus and poison him while he was at dinner. This occurred less than four months after Romanus had been elected and cut short a promising papacy.

The same fate befell Romanus' successor Pope Theodore II who lasted only 20 days before he, too, was poisoned. Before this dastardly deed this peace-loving pontiff followed through with what Romanus had desired - to have Formosus' body exhumed again, this time from the simple grave provided by the hermit and transfered to the Vatican where Formosus, dressed in pontifical vestments, was given a proper and fitting burial in the tradition of Holy Mother Church. Theodore II's second act was to call a synod together which totally annulled the "cadaver synod" as the mock trial of Formosus had been dubbed. His third act was to effectively accept all ordinations performed by Pope Formosus. He was poisoned in late December 897.

His successor was elected a month later in January 898. He was Pope John IX who would take the Church into the tenth century. However it was not an easy journey as the annals of the papacy documents for the enemies of Formosus elected their own candidate Sergius as pope. However, with the help of Lambert who had returned to Italy, the Formosus contingent elected John, a Benedictine monk who hailed from Tivoli. John continued where Theodore II left off and reaffirmed the annulment of the "cadaver synod" orchestrated by Stephen VI as well as deposing Sergius and those in the inner circle who had manipulated the latter's election. However the most important decree John IX made at a special convened synod was the pronouncement that from henceforth, in order to prevent the travesties that had happened in the last decade, the pope would no longer be elected by the populace but by the bishops and clergy of the Church. He reaffirmed the supremacy of the Church over Rome and its territories. To appease Lambert and avoid the inevitable internal struggles, John IX added the stipulation that the popes could not be consecrated unless there was a royal official or their emissary present. Like Pope Formosus, John sought to heal the widening gap between East and West but he, too, was rebuffed. One of John's final acts before he died just after crossing the threshhold of the tenth century in January 900, was to confirm the privileges granted to the abbey of Monte Cassino, founded by Saint Benedict four hundred years earlier. In the next installment we will examine the early part of the tenth century as the fallout continues over the pro and con Formosus factions which prevented the Church from totally concentrating on the important issues at hand - the spiritual welfare of the world.