[COLUMN] Catholic Church Has Faced Worse Obstacles


In the wake of the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, there has a been a stream of commentary from American columnists, non-Catholics, telling us how the Church must change if it wants to remain viable.

There is nothing more silly than a 50-something American newspaper columnist telling a 2,000-year-old global institution what it needs to do to survive. The Church is one of the oldest organizations in the world and has played a pivotal role in world history. The Church has survived wars, schisms, persecutions, executions, threat of annihilation by other nations, etc.

So its position on female clergy and same-sex marriages and how it handles child sex abuse scandals, money laundering scandals and the like is really of no consequence when it comes to the long-term outlook of the Catholic Church.

My first reaction was to write a column denouncing these non-Catholic heathens and explaining that the church has neither asked for nor needs their uninformed opinions. However, the only thing more annoying than non-Catholics talking about the Church is a Catholic talking about the Church.

Instead, let’s take a lighter approach.

As a Catholic with a degree in history, I have long loved papal history, and we are certainly seeing some of that this year. So I thought I would share some papal trivia.

Let’s begin with Pope Francis, who, at age 76, became the ninth oldest pope to succeed St. Peter. Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger) was the fifth oldest to be chosen and the fourth oldest when he left the post.

The oldest pope elected was Pope Clement X (Emilio Bonaventura Altieri), who was 86 years old when he was elected in 1670 and he served six years before his death. No pope has ever lived past the age of 93, which was the age of Pope Leo XIII (Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci) when he died in 1903.

Speaking of Pope Leo XIII, he served for 25 years, making him the third-longest serving pope in history. The longest was Pope Leo XIII’s predecessor, Blessed Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Feretti), who served 31 years, and Blessed John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła), who served 26 years. Of course, this ignores St. Peter I, the first pope, who served about 35 years, according to the best estimates.

Perhaps one my favorite papal stories is of Pope Formosus and the Synodus Horrenda, aka Cadaver Synod. Formosus was elected pope in 891 during a tumultuous period in Italian and papal history. There was a string of popes with short reigns. Formosus was pope until his death a few years later in 896.

What is interesting is not his actual papacy but what happened afterward. Pope Boniface VI came next but died two weeks later and Pope Stephen VI (sometimes referred to as Pope Stephen VII because of early confusion of when a papacy began and that regnal numbering did not begin until the 10th century) became pope.

In 897, Pope Stephen VI (VII) had Formosus’ body exhumed and put him on trial with the cadaver present for the proceedings, dressed in his papal robes and propped up on a throne. Pope Formosus was charged with various crimes, including perjury and serving as a bishop while actually a layman. Needless to say, the dead pope lost his case and was found guilty.

Pope Stephen VI (VII) then nullified all of Pope Formosus’ acts and ordinations and had the body thrown into the Tiber River.

This spectacle enraged the people and Pope Stephen VI (VII) was thrown in prison, where he was strangled in the summer of 897. From August to November, Pope Romanus reigned until he was deposed.

In December, Pope Theodore II, during his 20-day reign, had Pope Formosus’ body interred in St. Peter’s Basilica and all his ordinations reinstated. Pope John IX, then confirmed Theodore’s orders and passed a law forbidding posthumous trials. However, Pope Sergius III reinstituted the rulings from the Cadaver Synod and honored Pope Stephen VI (VII).

However, that was reversed again after Pope Sergius III died in 911.

So you see, today’s problems are nothing the Church can’t handle.

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