With the death of Pope Saint Gregory III the conclave elected Calabrian-born Pope Saint Zachary to lead Holy Mother Church on December 10, 741 after an eight month vacancy. He was the 91st in the line of Peter and he wasted no time in taking an active role in directing the Church. He was successful in strongly opposing the Duke of Friuli Rachis, the Lombard ruler who sought to occupy Italy. He continued the policy of his predecessors by fully backing Saint Boniface in his evangelization of Germany. He appointed Boniface his papal legate there in the "Apostle of Germany's" campaign to fulfill Zachary's goal of reforming the Frankish Church. This had begun under King Charles Martel whom St. Gregory III had bestowed the title "Most Christian". In 741 Martel also died and was succeeded by his two sons Carloman and Pepin III, referred by most historians as Pippin in deference to his great grandfather Pepin of Landen who died a century before. The choice of which brother would lead France was made simple when Carloman opted to become a Monk at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Pippin, realizing the relationship with Rome had been warming because of his father's actions, sent a messenger to Pope Zachary requesting he rule on who was the rightful ruler of the Franks. There had been dispute with the Merovingian king who actually had been reduced to only a figurehead since the days of Pepin I when the latter was chief minister to the then Merovingian King Chlothar II. Since that time the Carolingian line had grown under Pepin, his son Pepin I and his son Charles Martel. Now Martel's son Pippin was the natural successor and had more involvement in practical government as Mayor of the Palace. With the Pope as a Temporal Ruler all would adhere to his decision and therefore Pippin was confident Zachary would side with Pippin. He was right and in November 751 King Childeric III, son of Chlothar was deposed. He was the last of the feeble line of Merovingian royalty and with his demise the door was opened for Pippin to be consecrated as King of the Franks and annointed thus by St. Boniface at Soissons. It was the first occurrence in Church History where a pontiff invested a sovereign. The power entrusted to the Pope would prove immensely significant in future relations between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Emperor. During his pontificate St. Zachary moved the papal residence from the Palatine where it had been since Pope John VII's pontificate back in 707, back to the Lateran where he rebuilt the decaying palace and adorned it with many murals and other fineries, including a large dining room for official meetings and private papal audiences. St. Zachary passed away on March 28, 752.
His successor or should we say successors were Pope Stephen II. Confused? So were the people of Rome who elected Stefano II the Pope on March 23, 752. However before he was duly installed and consecrated he suffered a stroke and died. His immediate successor three days later was a Roman aristocrat who had lived in the Lateran. Elected in the Church of St. Mary Major, he took the same name of Stephen II. The people of Rome went from grief to joy and hoisted him on their shoulders as they carried him from St. Mary Major to the Lateran. This was the origin of the sedia gestatoria. Though his papacy lasted only five years it was known for the further bonding of Frank and Roman. With Zachary gone the Lombards menaced Rome. He turned to Eastern Emperor Constantine V for military assistance but was rebuffed, thus he petitioned Pippin for help. He followed this up by traveling over the Alps to France, the first Pope to ever do so. Pippin received him cordially and, through emissaries, tried to enter into discussions with the Lombards on behalf of the Pope but that proved fruitless. Thus he led his army over the Alps ala Hannibal and forced the Lombards to surrender Rome, Ravenna and other cities. Meanwhile Pope Stephen II had contacted a fever over the winter and was forced to stay at the Abbey of St. Denis near Paris. There on July 28, 754, having recovered, he solemnly annointed Pepin on his triumphant return from Rome. This sealed Pippin's family as a dynasty and the legitimate protectors of the Holy See. He then accompanied Stephen back to Rome and once safely there, returned to France. No sooner had he left than the Lombard King Aistulf broke the treaty he had signed with Pippin, attacking Rome again. Pope Stephen II immediately sent word to Pippin of this betrayal and Pippin returned with an even larger army to crush the Lombards. The overwhelming victory and the account of the vast spoils of war soon reached the Byzantine Emperor who protested, fearing his power and influence was slipping away in the west. He was right. Pippin stated he would not hand over any of the conquered lands or holdings because they were not his, but rather the Pope's for whom he fought in allegiance to the Holy See. In turn he did just that, turning over all his holdings from war to the Pope. Working together Stephen and Pippin were able to replace the Gallican liturgy in his regions with the Roman liturgy, further cementing the bond between Rome and France and solidifying a culture that originated with Peter. On June 5, 755 while St. Boniface was preparing to confirm converts at Dokkum in the northern Netherlands, a mob of pagans attacked him and slayed the great "Apostle of Germany." Like the early Christian martyrs it did not deter the march of Christianity but spurred them on to evangelize the faith even stronger. Nearly two years later, when Stephen died on April 26, 757 Rome was a much stronger temporal power and he had greatly enlarged the land holdings of Holy Mother Church.
Two months after Stephen's death the electorate chose Pope Saint Paul I, who happened to be Stephen II's younger brother. Throughout his brother's papacy Paul I had been his right-hand man and chief negotiator so the changing of batons was an easy, smooth transition. Because of this the union between Pippin and the Pope was ever stronger. In fact Pepin asked Paul I to serve as godfather to his new-born daughter. Possibly the only difference between the brothers was that while Stephen had been shunned by the Eastern Emperor and therefore shunned that Church, Paul embraced the idea of reconciling with the Greek Church. This was in great part to prevent further erosion and winning over an enemy rather than having to fight the foe later. St. Paul I was known as "mediator between God and men, the searcher of souls." Paul also visited the prisons and sought to free those prisoners who had been incarcerated because of debts. It was Paul who discovered the remains of Saint Petronilla who, according to tradition, was the actual daughter of St. Peter himself. Paul's pontificate was marked with the struggles to keep the young, vulnerable Papal States unified and protected. The Lombards were notorious for breaking their promises and once again, the new Lombard king Desiderius reneged on the treaty signed with Pippin. Desiderius not only threatened to retake the lands lost to Pippin, but sought a coalition with the Byzantine Empire. Pippin intervened diplomatically and was able to reach an agreement whereby both sides compromised. Though it was not a victory for the Holy See, it did stave off further bloodshed and for that St. Paul I was grateful. In turn, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine sent envoys to Pippin in France to rally his support for iconoclasm but Pippin, a wise king, talked the Empire into a debate to be held at the synod of Gentilly in 767. It was a master ploy and the Roman acceptance of venerating images won out. It was a blow to the Byzantine cause and a triumph for Paul I, but he was unable to celebrate for he died shortly after on June 28, 767 at St. Paul's outside the walls.
Before St. Paul I's true successor was named there were two antipopes who claimed the papal throne. The first was Constantine who assumed the throne on July 5, 767 through the treachery of his brother Duke Toto of Nepi who had plotted Paul I's death but was foiled. Constantine tried to muscle Pippin who was still in mourning over his friend Paul I. When Pippin did not reply Constantine tried to wield even more temporal power. The Lombards retaliated by trying to place their own antipope on the throne which they did on July 31, 768. By this time the hierarchy discovered the subterfuge and had both deposed by legally electing Sicilian-born Pope Stephen III as the 94th successor to the Keys of the Kingdom on August 7, 768. He immediately sent word to Pippin of his election and asked for his blessing and help, but there was no response for six weeks after Stephen III's elevation the great Pippin died on September 24, 768.
With Pippin gone, Desiderius forged his Lombard forces on outlying properties of the Papal States while trying to forge his own appointments in spite of Rome's objections and his behind the back dealings with Pippin's wife Bertrada the queen-mother of the Franks. Stephen III was virtually powerless because of Pippin's void and his pontificate was most ineffectual. Yet Stephen III still held to Pippin's policy and strongly objected to Pippin and Bertrada's son Charles' marriage to Desiderius' daughter. Bertrada was grooming Charles as the successor to her husband's throne. This opposition did not sit well with the Charles and Stephen ultimately became more of a subject to the Lombards and Franks rather than a ruler of the Papal States. Desiderius was a cunning leader who tried to trick Charles into a treaty that would tip the scales heavily in the Lombard king's favor. When Charles discovered the treachery and machinations behind Desiderius' motives, he forever became a mortal enemy of the Lombards, repudiating his Lombard wife. Stephen III died on January 24, 772 and it was left to his successor to forge a new rapport with the Frankish king who would go on to become the first Holy Roman Emperor - Charlemagne.
In the next installment, the 25th we will treat the birth of the Holy Roman Empire late in the 8th Century and the reign of Charlemagne the Great.