In 1012,a war broke out in the Papal States,with many noble families fighting for control. The emerging victor was Alberic,the head of the powerful Tusculum family. His brother,Theophylact,soon became Pope Benedict VIII. Benedict was one the rare instances where a Church layman became Pope(he was ordained after his election). While being more a politician than spiritual man,Benedict was nonetheless a great reformer and while his brother handled government,Benedict took care of the Church. He also was a Pope of action,as he took part and even led forces to suppress in-fighting in the Papal States and personally helped liberate Sardinia(by land and by sea!)from Muslim rule. In 1014,Benedict crowned King Henry II(future Saint)of Germany as the new Holy Roman emperor. Being a reformer,Benedict argued against marriage for the clergy,his reasons being more practical than religious as he was worried Church territories(or property)could be claimed by wives or offspring of clergy. Benedict VIII would be succeeded by his younger brother,who was also a layman,John XIX. Their nephew would go on to follow them both as Pope Benedict IX. Pope Benedict VIII seems like he would have been an imposing figure so I based his look on Sean Connery.
Pope Sergius grew up with perhaps one of the most unfortunate nicknames a kid could be saddled with,”Buccaporci”,which translates to “pig-snout”(poor kid). During Sergius’ reign,Muslims destroyed The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This Church was built on the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus and of his empty tomb. A document drawn up by Pope Sergius called for Muslims to be expelled from the Holy City for this shocking crime,but it’s not for certain if this document was authentic,or if it was a later forgery that appeared 80 years later around the time of the first Crusades.
Pope John XVIII was a major reformer and a stickler for making sure the clergy followed the rules of proper conduct. John flexed his Papal muscle during a dispute between three Bishops in France. Two Bishops refused to acknowledge Papal privileges given to the third and Pope John was not having this at all. He demanded an explanation and when the offending Bishops refused,he gave one of the most ballsy ultimatums in Church history. Either the Bishops settle their differences,or there would be no more more Church services in France. Period!(Holy Le Cow) The childish Bishops quickly backed down,on order of the King of France.
Pope John XVIII improved relations between Western and Eastern Churches,to the point of being revered in Constantinople. He is one of the few Popes to retire voluntarily and he lived out his last few years in a monastery.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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)