140. Pope John XVII 1003

Pope John XVII

Pope John XVII was only Pope for 5 months and virtually nothing is known of what he did as Pope. What is known is that he’s the Pope that threw off the numbering of Popes named John. Anti-pope John XVI(997-998)was still considered a legitimate Pope at the time so in this numbering confusion the new John became John XVII. The numbering has never been corrected.


139. Pope Sylvester II 999-1003

pope sylvester ii

Yes,I see that I’ve drawn a robot Pope,but we’ll get to that in a moment. Pope Sylvester II was basically the most brilliant man that has ever occupied the Chair of Peter,and that’s saying a lot considering Popes like Pius XII or Benedict XVI. Gerbert of Aurillac was a superstar in the Church before being elected to the Papacy(again,like Benedict XVI). A gifted child,he was raised in a monastery in Spain,where he was taught by the greatest Christian and Arab scientists and scholars. Gerbert became prolific in mathematics,grammar,philosophy,music,astronomy(even astrology)…..you name it,Gerbert not only knew it but he could teach it and probably improve on it. Accompanying the Count of Barcelona to Rome in 969,Gerbert was noticed by Pope John XIII,who soon set the young priest up as a tutor to the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II. Moving up through the ranks of the government and the Church,Gerbert was elected Pope in 999. To set the agenda of his reign and to imitate the close ties of Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine 700 years earlier,Gerbert took the name Sylvester as a symbol of the unity of the Church and the State(now under Otto III). Being our first French Pope,with close ties to a German emperor,He,like his predecessors,ran afoul of Roman nobles,which tied up most of his time. While Pope,he fought against corruption and promoted celibacy amongst the clergy,which,on top of being a foreigner,earned him many enemies.
While his Papacy was anti-climatic,Sylvester’s contribution to the world cannot be overstated. He gave Europe the Abacus and promoted the use of Hindu numerals(1,2,3…..),which made calculating much easier over those clunky Roman numerals. He even built a giant Abacus in the floor of a church and had servants move the balls around while he made calculations looking down from the balcony. Sylvester built an astrolabe and a armillary sphere(a type of fancy globe),which helped him chart the stars and the planets(his measurements of where the equator was were exact and he was nearly exact on the location of the Artic circle). Being a musical genius,he constructed a new type of organ that used mathematics to harmonize notes and on top of that he gave Europe a clock of his own making(a clock!!He invented a clock!)
Due to the fact that he was a genius,he was probably aloof and probably weird and probably over everyone’s head. Making enemies and being weird is where the odd part of his legend comes in. Not knowing what to make of this pious oddball,people started making up stuff to explain how he could be so incredibly smart(never mind hard work..).So apparently he stole secret knowledge from a Islamic wizard(false). He made a deal with a devil(false) He won at a game of dice with the devil to get to be Pope(false)He fell in love with a female demon(false)He could turn invisible(false). My personal favorite legend was that he built a giant brass robotic head that could answer yes or no questions about the future(Kind of like Jim Carrey’s Riddler head in Batman Forever). Oh oh,not to mention that the bones in his crypt will rattle whenever a Pope is about to die(False…and what tha..)
I usually try to keep these things at a paragraph or two,but with Sylvester I could go on for days,he(and his weird legends),are just that fascinating…

138. Pope Gregory V 996-999

Pope Gregory v

Pope Gregory V was our first German Pope(of which there will be 8 total). Holy Roman emperor Otto III of Germany had been notified of the death of Pope John XV and he knew of just the right replacement,which was his cousin,Bruno of Saxony. Aside from the obvious nepotism and the fact that Bruno was only 24 years old,he actually turned out to be an above average Pontiff during his short reign. Once again though,those pesky Roman nobles took to causing trouble for the new “foreigner” Pope. As soon as the emperor left Rome after the coronation,the nobles ran Gregory out of town and placed their own pope(lower case p) in his place(again!). Gregory kept running the Church in exile while waiting for Otto to return to Rome. He banned the buying of Church offices and also banned clergy for campaigning for the office of the Pope while the current Pope was still alive. Gregory also promoted Gerbert of Aurillac(future Pope Sylvester II)to be Archbishop of Ravenna. Emperor Otto marched back into Rome and after violently putting down the anti-pope and his cronies(violently!Many beheadings and many tongues removed),he restored the Pope back to his rightful place…just in time for Gregory to get terribly ill and pass away unexpectedly.

137. Pope John XV 985-996

Pope John XV

Pope John XV was an average Pope,susceptible to bribery and flattery,and generally met with a shoulder shrug from the people of Rome. He settled disputes over Papal authority in France and helped with reforms of various monasteries(ho hum usual Pope stuff).Pope John XV’s main claim to fame is that he is the first Pope to officially canonize a Saint. Usually if a person in the Church was to be declared a Saint,this was reserved for the Bishop of the diocese of where that person lived. Time went on and in order to tighten up this process(and to keep local corruption from creeping in),appeals were made to have the Pope be the final arbiter in the canonization process. Ulrich of Augsburg(890-973)would be the first Saint to be declared under this new rule. Various future Popes would further tighten up the canonization rules throughout the next few hundred years.
Whenever a non-Catholic asks me about what a Saint is,I usually just compare it to the baseball Hall of Fame. This is our Cooperstown. The Church itself isn’t actually creating a Saint,but it’s pointing to this man or woman and declaring to the world that this person has lived a life to emulate,a life centered on Christ. A life that all of us are called to live.

136. Pope John XIV 983-984

Pope John XIV

Pope John XIV was handpicked by Holy Roman emperor Otto II. Otto was German and as we’ve seen from previous Popes,the Italians did not like having their Holy Fathers picked out by foreigners,regardless if the Pope was Italian or not. Because of this,poor John was unpopular from the start and once Otto II passed away(in the Pope’s arms!),the Roman nobles once again plotted to remove the German’s Pope. Enter Anti-pope Boniface VII. Boniface weaseled his way into the Papacy by murdering Pope Benedict VI a decade earlier and he had been on the run avoiding the emperor ever since. Seeing that Pope John was now vulnerable with the emperor dead,Boniface made his move. Marching a militia back into Rome,he threw John into prison and retook his throne as the sham head of the Church. Shortly after,Boniface had John XIV strangled,making this the second Pope that he was responsible for murdering. The non-noble Roman people were disgusted by all of this and most of all disgusted by Boniface. When he passed away a few months later(natural causes? Poison?)the people took his body,stripped it naked and then dragged it through the streets. His corpse came to rest in front of the Lateran Palace,where the angry mob proceeded to mutilate and dismember it. Boy,when Romans decide to turn on you,they didn’t screw around.
Pope John XIV’s real name was Peter,but since that name is forever off limits in honor of our first Pope,he decided to go with John,which to date,has been the most often used Pope name. (I somehow made John look like Bill Murray but he’s Catholic so it’ll work!)

135. Pope Benedict VII 974-983

Pope Benedict vii

Pope Benedict VII was elected as a compromise to appease both Roman nobles and German Holy Roman emperor Otto II. Benedict had a quiet Papacy that was unusually peaceful for the time,given the riots and murders that plagued the reigns of previous Popes. Benedict promoted reforms on monasteries and fought simony in the clergy and he also officially excommunicated anti-pope Boniface VII,who was still lurking in the margins,waiting for his chance to reclaim the Papacy.

134. Pope Benedict VI 973-974

Pope Benedict vi

A monk that was put into the Papacy by Holy Roman emperor Otto I,Pope Benedict would have a short and tragic reign. The nearly year long gap between Popes was because Otto I needed to sign off on Benedict before he could begin his term. Pope Benedict enjoyed the protection of the German emperor against the plotting of Roman nobles,but when Otto I passed away,it left Benedict vulnerable to his enemies. Resentful of German interference of Rome,various noble families seized the opportunity to take power. A militia took the Pope prisoner and locked him away in the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. The new emperor,Otto II,was busy with his own uprising in Germany,so he was of no help to poor Benedict. The rebels in Rome had elected their own Pope(or anti-pope),Boniface VII,so as to have the Church in Roman control again. When Otto II was finally able to send an army to free Benedict,anti-pope Boniface ordered the imprisoned Pontiff to be strangled in his cell while he himself stuffed as much Vatican loot into his pants before he fled for the hills(by hills I mean Constantinople). We have not heard the last of anti-pope Boniface VII,as his sorry tail will make more appearances during the reigns of the next two Popes(one of which ends terribly because of him)

133. Pope John XIII 965-972

Pope John xiii

Following the death of Pope Leo VIII,there was much confusion as to who would be the next Pope. Banished Pope Benedict V was still technically Pope and the Romans wanted him back,but Holy Roman emperor Otto I nixed that idea. After several months of arguing about who the next Pope would be,Bishop John Crescentius was put forward as a compromise to keep both the Romans and the emperor happy. Pope John XIII went to work immediately in curbing the power of Roman nobility,which was exactly the wrong move to make. The indignant nobles raised a militia that soon captured the Pope and imprisoned him in different castles to keep people guessing as to where he was. He soon escaped(!!)and made his way to southern Italy where he was kept safe by a prince named Pandulf Ironhead(which has to be one of the great names of all time. Plus it sounds like a Harley Davidson model…). Emperor Otto I had to march an army back into Rome(again!)to restore Pope John XIII back to his place as head of the Church. Most of the nobles who had plotted against the Pope were executed and the grateful John XIII named emperor Otto a “Liberator and restorer of the Church”. During this time,Pope John met a brilliant man named Gerbert of Aurillac. The Pope was so fascinated by Gerbert that he encouraged the emperor to employ this man as a tutor to his son(future emperor Otto II). Gerbert would one day go on to be Pope Sylvester II,our first French Pope and a genuine genius(I’m looking forward to talking about him!)
Pope John XIII is the 133rd Pope and I am officially at the half-way point of my Pope blog!! I am two years and 8 months into weekly doses of Popes and the Papacy has proven to be far more complicated,challenging,and at times more inspiring than I had ever dreamed of when I started this little art project.

132. Pope Benedict V 964

Pope Benedict v

Pope Benedict V is often listed as an anti-pope due to the mess that was Rome during the time of his Papacy. Rotten Pope John XII had been run out of Rome by Holy Roman emperor Otto I and had been replaced(by the emperor)with Pope Leo VIII. When the emperor went home to Germany,former Pope John raised an army and marched on Rome,causing Leo to flee for the hills. This left the Papacy back in the hands of John,but when he died suddenly,the Romans elected a deacon in high standing who became Benedict V(they had no use for the absent Pope Leo). Emperor Otto had not been notified of Benedict’s election and he was furious that Rome would elect a Pope without his consent(especially since he still considered his Leo to be Pope). Otto and Pope Leo returned to the Vatican with an army in tow to take back the chair of Peter. The Romans hid behind the city walls,refusing to budge and Pope Benedict himself even appeared at the walls to threaten excommunication of Otto and his soldiers,but it was no use. Otto and Leo finally broke through and the displaced Pope Leo resumed his place at the head of the Church. It’s to Benedict’s sterling reputation(and the fact that he had not wanted to be Pope)that he was not put to death immediately. Instead he had his Papal vestments stripped and his staff broken over his head. After pledging his loyalty to the emperor and the Pope,he was allowed to remain a deacon and relocated to Germany. Benedict is said to have died a “happy death”,which is a blessing onto itself during this very cruel and bloody time of the Papacy.

131. Pope Leo VIII 963-965

Pope Leo VIII

Pope Leo VIII has been listed as both the 131st Pope and the 132nd Pope. He is also listed as both an antipope and an official Pope. It’s all very confusing. This mess was started when his predecessor Pope John XII(who was terrible)started plotting against Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Otto marched on Rome and ran John out of town,quickly electing Leo to take his place. Leo wasn’t even a priest,he wasn’t anything really but a layman of the Church(he seems to have been picked out of a crowd randomly). In the span of several hours he was ordained every rank in the Church,from a doorman to a lector to a altar boy to deacon and finally moved up to Bishop of Rome. Once Otto left town,sneaky Pope John XII marched some mercenaries back into Rome and took back his Papacy by force,causing Leo to flee to Otto for help. John was sitting pretty smug on the Chair of Peter when he died suddenly(and scandalously).
With Leo nowhere in sight(and not really missed),the Church elected Benedict V as their new Pope….which infuriated Otto who had planned on having his stooge Leo resume his Papal duties. Leo rode back into the city with Otto and had the Papal vestments stripped off of Benedict and had Benedict’s staff smashed over the poor man’s head. On the bright side,Benedict was allowed to slip off to Hamburg and remain a deacon there for the remainder of his life. Since Benedict and Leo overlap each other,depending on which book you’re checking they could be flipflopped in order.