Page 7, 26th December 1997

26th December 1997
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Page 7, 26th December 1997 — The Year of the Four Popes
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The Year of the Four Popes

IN AUGUST, I wrote a short "silly season" letter to the Editor of the Catholic Herald, canvassing readers' views as to why the scriptural passage where Jesus says "thou art Peter, etc..." occurs in the course of only one of the three, otherwise similar (synoptic), passages which describe Jesus's meeting with his friends at Caesarea Philippi.

I got some ingenious answers, including the suggestion that the passage in question may have been added some time later to the Matthew account. If so, this would be a good example of the extensive "tidying up", as exegetes call it, that characterises the later editions (or "redactions") of this particular Gospel.

It is chiefly in comparison with the Mark Gospel that the omission of that particular passage is so noticeable. The rest of the story is told in almost identical terms, but the interpolation, if that is what it was, stands out awkwardly and is apparently out of context.

The important thing, however, is that this need in no way disturb our belief that Jesus singled out Peter for a special role. This is evident from his actions and words on other occasions, although he knew that Peter, under pressure, was to deny even knowing him.

Such thoughts make relevant the lessons to be derived from this, the eleven hundredth anniversary of the only year of four popes, namely the year 897, which saw on the papal throne, Popes Stephen VII, Romanus, Theodore II and John IX.

Stephen reigned from May 896 until August 897. He was the implacable foe of a certain

predecessor, Pope Formosus (891-4). The latter had become notable for the alleged irregularities of his pontificate.

For his "crimes", in fact, Formosus was put on trial at what became known as the "cadaver synod", presided over by Pope Stephen himself.

Formosus's disinterred corpse, clad in full papal vestments and propped up on a throne, was solemnly arranged on charges of perjury, illegal translation of bishops and coveting the papacy.

He was "defended" by a deacon but found guilty. All his acts were declared null and void and his body was flung in the Tiber. Thereby annulled was Stephen's own consecration as a "plural" bishop, thus conveniently cancelling any possible objections to his own later elevation to the papacy.

00N, HOWEVER, miracles were reported as being worked by Formosus's humiliated corpse and the Lateran basilica suddenly collapsed.

The frightened Romans took these as signs that something dreadful had been done. Stephen was thereupon deposed, striped of his papal insignia and cast into prison where, shortly afterwards, he was strangled.

His successor, Romanus, reigned for only a month before, it is thought, being deposed by the pro-Formosus faction. He spent his last years confined to a monastery.

Next came Theodore II, but he lasted even less than a month. It was long enough, however, to annul the "cadaver synod". The Pope ordered Formosus's body to be recovered and buried with honour. Almost immediately, he himself, though still very young, died of unknown causes.

John IX is officially recorded as reigning from January 898 to January 900 but his actual election, according to some accounts, took place before the end of 897. Thus, if so, 897 was a unique example of there being four popes in our year.

What are the lessons to be drawn?

Any institution, as has often been said, that can survive such indignities, has a good claim to divine foundation. But there is surely more to it than that.

Indeed, it can be argued that no Pope could commit a worse crime than denying all knowledge of his divine master. And yet, knowing that this is just what Peter would do, Jesus nevertheless chose him as the foundation stone of his community in earth.

Thus put into perspective are the irregularities of those later "bad centuries" with so much unedifying obtrusion of the human element into the works of a sacred mission. The complex and abiding miracle of Christ's Church is arguably encapsulated in this very paradox.

So let us, eleven hundred years later, raise a Christmas glass to that Pope, John IX, who lived long enough to restore the privileges of the great abbey of Monte Cassino, thereby giving it a new lease of life.




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