Friday, March 15, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #68: Papacy Edition

As you’re no doubt aware by now, last Wednesday, we got a new pope. He’s Pope Francis I, and he’s the first Pope from the New World. I think he looks a lot friendlier than the last pope.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

I was brought up Roman Catholic, and even though I don’t practice anymore, I couldn’t help but be a little excited about the election of a new pope. That’s not why I followed the papal conclave or waited anxiously for the announcement of the papal election. I did those things because my editor at asked me to cover the story.

As a Catholic, I am available to answer all your pope questions. I will, of course, just Google them, but apparently this option never occurs to anyone else. A friend of mine commented on my papal election piece to ask, “How old do you have to be to be elected the pope?” If I had to guess, I’d say at least 105, but if I was in the habit of just guessing things I wouldn't have won first place in my third grade class research contest, so I looked it up.

It would appear that, these days, one must attain a minimum age of 25 to be the pope. Shit, you guys, that’s younger than you need to be to get elected President of the United States. 

In the old days, age wasn't such a big deal. The youngest pope, John XII, ascended to the papacy on 16 December 955 at just 18 years of age. At the time, it was pretty scandalous, considering that young Pope John XII achieved his venerable post by order of his father, Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto and ruler of Rome. John XII was said to be a massive womanizer who allegedly perished in his mistress’s arms.

Here he is pictured at about age 23, probably. He wore his hair like that on purpose.
John XII, who was called Octavianus at birth, was only the second pope to change his name after his election. For the first few centuries of the Church, popes just kept their same old names, just as many of them also kept wives and had children. The first pope to change his name was Mercurius in 533 AD, who let himself be known as John II after assuming the papacy because he felt it would be inappropriate for a Catholic pope to go around being named after the Roman god Mercury. The last pope to keep his birth name was Marcellus II, who ascended to the papacy in 1555. Other popes have taken the names of saints, mentors, predecessors, or family members as they saw fit. 

The most interesting pope was arguably Pope Stephen VI, who became pope on 22 May 896, back when you could become pope basically by appointment. It was, in fact, the Spoleto family (mentioned above) who helped Stephen VI win papal office. Stephen VI reigned as pope for only a little over a year before being strangled in August 897. He is largely remembered for exhuming the body of Pope Formosus and putting it on trial in what is now known as the Cadaver Synod. In the trial, Stephen VI accused the very dead Pope Formosus of not being legally qualified to be pope and of perjury.

Artist's depiction.

Formosus was found guilty as charged, stripped of his vestments, mangled a little bit (they cut off his blessing-fingers), and chucked into the Tiber, because nobody cared about water quality back then. All of Formosus’s ordinations, appointments, decrees and declarations were declared null and void. 

Thankfully, someone fished the ex-Formosus out of the river so that he could be re-buried in the Vatican after the death of Stephen VI. A later pope, Sergius III, declared Formosus’s ordinations, appointments, etc valid again, because of the confusion and panic that occurred when, suddenly, a bunch of people weren't priests anymore and all of their baptisms and weddings and stuff stopped counting.

Perhaps the second most interesting pope was Celestine V, who was canonized in 1313. Celestine was a Benedictine monk who enjoyed a life of solitude and asceticism. I'm not speaking figuratively; he really did enjoy it.

Unfortunately for Celestine, he lived during a long papal interregnum; when Pope Nicholas IV died in 1292, the cardinal electors failed to elect another pope for two years. Rather than keep well out of it like you’d expect a hermit who lived in a freaking cave to do, Celestine, then known as Peter of Marrone, wrote the cardinals a letter, scolding them about the awful wrath of God they would incur if they didn't elect a pope right this minute. The cardinals responded by bestowing the honor upon Celestine himself.

Artist's depiction.

Celestine, who was, you’ll recall, an ascetic hermit who lived in a cave, fled. When he was finally tracked down and cajoled to assume the papacy, he did a terrible job. He was 84 years old, weak, feeble, inexperienced at politics, and uninterested in worldly things. It’s said that he slept on the cold, hard marble floors of the papal palace instead of in its beds, and pleaded daily to be allowed to return to his cave. After five months of being like the worst pope ever, Celestine had a stroke of genius. He used his immense papal power to issue a new decree that popes would henceforth be allowed to resign. He then resigned.

Not everyone liked the idea of papal resignation, so Celestine was captured and once again dragged back to Rome. He ran away a second time, eventually returning to his beloved cave. Again, he was captured, and this time imprisoned until he died ten months later.

I just wanted to go back to my cave, you guys.

Celestine V was not the first pope to resign, but he was the first to institute a streamlined process of papal resignation, which allowed Pope Gargoyle I mean Benedict XVI to resign last month. More importantly, Celestine V re-instated the modern papal conclave system. He is the reason why it didn't take the Vatican two freaking years to elect a pope.

If anyone needs me, I'll be in my cave.