From ........... National Catholic Reporter

November 4, 1994

page 19

By - Fr. Richard McBrien, teacher of theology, Notre Dame.


Pope John XXIII, a historian by training, was fond of saying that history is the great teacher of life. Unfortunately, it is a teacher with too few students willing to listen and learn from it.

Many younger African-Americans, for example, have no personal knowledge of the contributions to human rights made by Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and so many others who suffered verbal abuse, physical violence and imprisonment in the cause of freedom and justice.

The same could undoubtedly be said of many younger women with regard to the pioneers of the women's liberation movement, the extraordinary gains they achieved against overwhelming odds and the personal price they paid in achieving those gains.

And the same could be said of younger Catholics who have little or no idea of the difficulties and opposition faced by pre-Vatican II Catholic reformers - of the liturgy, of religious orders, of theological and biblical scholarship.

The limitations of historical knowledge also color many Catholics' understanding of the papacy. We think that because the popes of our lifetimes - from Pius XI to John Paul II - were respected and even revered figures, that all or at least the overwhelming majority of popes enjoyed similarly positive pubic images.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the popes knows that not to be the case. Which is not to say that we should become cynical about the matter. On the contrary, the many bleak chapters in papal history should make us even more appreciative of modern popes like John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II.

If anyone, however, still needs a healthy dose of historical reality to bring their otherwise romantic views of the papacy down to earth, one can find no better, more vivid example than the unbelievably tragic figure of Formosus, pope from 891 to 896.

Historians tell us he was a gifted and well-educated man who had a brilliant missionary career in Bulgaria and as a papal legate in France and Germany. As bishop of Porto, Italy, he was a consecrator of Pope Stephen V in 885. Although already older than 75, he was elected as Stephen's successor six years later. But in order to become the bishop of Rome, he had to leave his Porto diocese. The idea of transferring from one diocese to another was not yet customary as it is today, and that fact would later be used against Formosus in a heretofore unimaginable way.

As pope he strengthened the church in England and north Germany and maintained friendly relations with Constantinople, the major see of Eastern Catholicism. Unfortunately, he became entangled in political conflicts closer to home - entanglements that would plague him even beyond the grave.

Formosus died after only four and a half years in office, but his troubles were just beginning.

Nine months after his death, his decaying corpse was exhumed, propped up on a throne in full pontifical vestments and solemnly arraigned in a mock trial [known as the "cadaver synod"] presided over by none other than Pope Stephen VI. A deacon stood by Formosus' corpse, answering the charges on the dead pope's behalf. Formosus was found guilty of perjury, of having coveted the papal throne and of having violated the canons of the church that forbade the transfer of bishops from one diocese to another.

All his acts and ordinations as pope were declared null and void. The three fingers of his right hand which he had used to swear and to bless were hacked off and his body was reburied in a common grave.

The body was then dug up a second time and flung into the Tiber River. A hermit found the corpse and reburied it.

A more sympathetic successor in the Petrine office, Pope Theodore II, ordered Formosus' body dug up a third time, had it re-clothed in pontifical vestments and buried - a fourth time - in its original grave in St Peter's. He also nullified Pope Stephen VI's order and declared that all of Formosus' ordinations had been valid.

But another successor, Pope Sergius III, reversed Theodore's action and declared once again that all of Formosus' ordinations had been invalid. The church was thrown into total confusion because Formosus had ordained many bishops and they, in turn, had ordained many more priests, some of whom later became bishops themselves.

If history is "the great teacher of life," we should have something to learn from the story of Pope Formosus and the grotesque way he was treated by two later popes.

If it is always the case that the successor of Peter guarantees a sure path to unity and truth, what is to be said of this situation?

After all, Popes Stephen VI and Sergius III were as much "successors of Peter" as Pope John Paul II is. Footnote: There has never been a Pope Formosus II. Is anyone surprised?