In the early days of the Church,over thirty Popes were put to death by the Roman government,martyrs for their faith,the last being Pope Martin in 655. Pope John VIII has the dubious achievement of being the first Pope to ever be murdered. The details of the assassination of John VIII are clouded in murky details. John excommunicated disloyal clergy,mediated between feuding Kings,tried in vain to organize leaders of southern Italy against Muslim invasions and also asserted his authority in matters of liturgy abuses in Germany. Any one of these situations made John many enemies but it’s actually rumored that one of his own family members was behind his death. Supposedly a relative of the Pope wanted to seize some treasures of the Vatican so he poisoned John,and when the poison acted too slowly,struck the Pope in the head with a hammer. John VIII is buried in St Peter’s Basilica.
Pope Saint Nicholas the Great is the perfect symbol of what a Pope should be to our world. He is our final arbiter in matters of faith and morals. The spiritual buck stops with the Holy Father and Nicholas was more than ready to fulfill these duties even against the threat of death. King Lothair II of Lotharingia(basically what is now parts of Germany,France and Belgium)wanted to abandon his queen and marry some new tramp he picked up at a renaissance fair somewhere. Local councils were called to address the legality of this and the indifferent Bishops of the region signed off on the divorce and sent the new couple on their way. When the Bishops reported what they had done to Pope Nicholas,he excommunicated them on the spot for supporting bigamy. He excommunicated the bishops,he excommunicated all who took part in the council and he excommunicated the King and his new “wife”. What God has joined together,let no one separate and it’s the Pope’s job to make sure that this commandment holds strong. King Lothair was furious and he pleaded with his brother,Holy Royal emperor Louis II,to march into Rome and make the Pope heel. Nicholas barricaded himself behind Vatican defenses as imperial troops stormed Rome. He would not wavier in his decision and Louis knew he would have to kill the Pope in order for his brother to remarry,which was just not an option(nor was his brother worth the trouble). The emperor stood down and ordered his brother to honor his commitment before God and stay married to his queen. Pope Nicholas was adamant that no secular ruler,no matter who he was,had any authority over the Church or her doctrines and he was prepared for whatever came his way in defense of this position.
Pope Nicholas I is also famous for wanting an image of a rooster placed on every church,whether as a weather vane or on a steeple. The rooster serves as a reminder of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and to remind the clergy to stay vigilant at all times in their faith.
Benedict III was a native Roman and Cardinal unanimously voted into the Papacy following the death of Pope Leo IV. Holy Roman emperor Louis II did not like this choice and instead wanted an excommunicated priest named Anastasius to be the new Pope. He decided to install his man by force. Imperial troops marched into Rome,arrested Benedict and had him imprisoned while Anastasius took his position on the chair of Peter. The Roman people,who all favored Benedict,reacted immediately by attacking the troops and instigating bloody riots throughout the city. Roman Bishops even bravely refused to consecrate Anastasius as their new Pope. All of this mess forced Louis II to concede his attempt to steal the Papacy. Benedict was released on the condition that he be merciful on Anastastius and any others who plotted against him. This whole incident further weakened the hold the Holy emperor had on the Pope and the elections that choose him.
Pope Benedict III had a busy three years as Pope. He mediated between squabbling Kings,restored damaged Churches and reasserted his primacy over the Churches in Constantinople. Benedict even hosted the young prince of England and gave the boy a grand tour of the Vatican. The young prince went on to be King Alfred the Great,who put down two Viking invasions of England and was instrumental in keeping the British isles Christian against that pagan menace.
Battle Pope!! Rome was besieged by Muslim sea invaders,and while previous Pope Sergius II hid while the pirates pillaged St.Peter’s and terrorized Italians,Pope Leo IV was not about to take things lying down. A new Pope was in charge and he wasted no time putting a stop to this ongoing threat. Leo quickly organized the mariner towns of Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi and together they forged a league to destroy the Saracen invaders. An awesome fleet was pulled together and Pope Leo put Cesarius of Naples in command. Leo charged him with the task of complete and utter annihilation of the marauders and the ensuing Battle of Ostia completely destroyed the invading fleet in one of the most one sided naval fights in history. Leo further fortified the walls of the Vatican and of Rome and restored the damage done to St.Peter’s and St.Paul’s. The Battle of Ostia was one of the major events of the middle ages and it helped drive invading Muslims out of the area for good. The blessing of the fleet by Pope Leo IV was later painted by Raphael on the walls of the Vatican palace.
Pope Severinus was elected within three days of the death of Pope Honorius,but was not installed as Pope for nearly two years after that. During this time,a newly elected Pope had to get confirmation from the emperor of Constantinople. The current emperor was on the Monothelitism bandwagon believing that Jesus had two natures(human and divine),but one will(Divine). This is in direct opposition to the Church’s belief that Jesus has both human and Divine natures and two distinct wills. Severinus refused to even consider this belief so a battle of wills then began between the two cities. The emperor sent his agents to apply pressure on Rome,first by inciting a mob of Roman soldiers to storm the Vatican and steal their pay(which had been late in coming),then another group came in,ran the soldiers off,and stole all the loot they wanted(with a share for the emperor,of course). All the while Severinus and his clergy had barricaded themselves in the Lateran palace,refusing to compromise(or even come outside to meet the various angry mobs). Finally,after all of this childishness from Constantinople,and with the emperor dying,time was running out for him to get his way. Not much could get done without an official Pope and delegates for Severinus had convinced the emperor that he would at least consider the nature of Christ if he was approved as Pope(they were of course lying,or at least fudging the truth. Severinus would not be budged). This convinced the emperor(who was tired of talking about all of this). He confirmed Severinus as our 71st Pope. Severius officially reigned for all of two months before passing away due to natural causes,which looks bad on paper……but the guy put in the time,holding the line on the one Truth of which our Church was built. He was outstanding.
Pope Miltiades was our second Pope that came from Africa. He arrived after a period of sede vacante of the Papacy,or in simpler terms,the Pope’s seat was empty. Rome was a mess. There was Emperor Maxentius and then he had co-emperors that constantly fought with each other. One of the co-emperors named Constantine challenged Maxentius for the rule of Rome,and after defeating him,issued a edict of toleration for all Christians. Why? Before his battle with Maxentius,Constantine had a vision of a cross and heard the words “In this sign will thy conquer”. His soldiers,many still pagan,went into battle with crosses on their shields and they were victorious despite being outnumbered. Constantine then returned houses,shrines and other Church property that had been taken away by earlier emperors and on top of that,he gifted to Pope Miltiades the Lateran Palace to live in. I’m sure Miltiades spent his first night there checking behind all the doors and curtains,expecting Roman soldiers to jump out and martyr him at any minute. The other shoe never dropped. The Bishop of Rome would call this home for the next thousand years and Christianity would soon become the primary religion of Rome. Our next Pope would even baptize the Roman emperor! The horrible Roman persecutions that constantly threatened to destroy Christianity for 300 years were basically over. Early Christians had seen the worst that humanity could throw at them and triumphed. All suffering and setbacks and misery endured out of a fire for Jesus Christ that could never be extinguished. On a final note,I’m glad to finally not have to write about Popes being murdered every week.
Born in Greece,Eleuterus had been a deacon of the Church since Pope Anicetus. He issued(or rather,re-issued),a decree that no food should be despised by Christians. Being that was there was no Cracker Barrel two thousand years ago,he would have not known of the dreaded Hashbrown Casserole,for he surely would have banned any sane person from eating this. The food decree was in response to various heretical Christian groups,such as the gnostics and montanists,limiting what their followers could and could not eat. Legend has it that he sent the first Christian missionaries to the British Isles,but there is much debate over whether this is true or not. The date of his death is the first concrete date in the history of the Papacy. He was first buried on Vatican Hill,then moved near the Pantheon,and finally,in 1591,his remains were moved again to the Church of St. Susanna. His feast day is May 26th,which will always be easy to remember because it is my wife’s birthday!
St. Teleshorus was a anchorite before journeying into Rome. I know,I had to look up the word “anchorite” too; it means recluse or hermit. The discipline he learned as a religious recluse no doubt contributed to his issuing a keeping of a seven week lent before Easter. He was one of the first priests to celebrate Easter on a Sunday and the tradition of Midnight Mass was also believed to be started under his Pontificate. He was martyred instead of paying tribute under law to the pagan gods of Rome and he was buried on Vatican Hill close to St. Peter. He is the patron saint of The Order of Carmelites because he was believed to have lived as a hermit on Mt. Carmel in Israel. Giving up chocolate for Lent? Just remember the name Telesphorus,because you’re most likely using your smart (tele)phone to gaze longingly at pictures of cake.