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THE ACCESSION of Pope Francis I has been taking place with high ceremony and, given His Holiness’s nature, a sense of humility. But it wasn’t always that way. In the papacy’s two-millennial history, there have been popes and antipopes duking it out for vestments and others who had the Holy See forced upon them.
As author John Julius Norwich notes in the introduction of Absolute Monarchs, there are “countless fascinating and well-authenticated stories and anecdotes which it would have been sad indeed to omit.” I offer two of them here.
Papal brawls were not unknown, and a particularly good one occurred on September 7, 1159, following the death of Pope Hadrian IV. (By the way, he had nothing to do with Hadrian’s Wall separating England from Scotland; that was Roman Emperor Hadrian, a millennium before Pope Hadrian IV.)
There were 30 cardinals charged with choosing Hadrian IV’s successor, and 27 of them elected Cardinal Roland of Siena destined to become Pope Alexander III. However, one of the three dissenters was Cardinal Octavian of Santa Cecilia—and really a poor loser.
The scarlet mantle was brought forward for the investiture. After a customary display of reluctance, Roland bent his head to receive it. But Octavian dived in, snatched the mantle and tried to don it himself. It was wrested away, only to have one of Octavian’s supporters provide another. Octavian got this mantle on—only in his haste, back to front.
Roland’s supporters tried to rip the mantle from his back, only to get the fringe entangled around his neck. Octavian made a mad dash for the papal throne, sat on it and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV.
Roland and his supporters took refuge in St. Peter’s Tower, a fortified corner of the Vatican, and waited things out. Having influential Romans on his side—not to say those 27 votes—Roland received formal consecration as Alexander III two weeks after the fracas.
One of Alexander’s first acts was to excommunicate the antipope. Victor retaliated by excommunicating Alexander.
The Romans, and apparently the rest of Holy Mother the Church, went on with their lives. Eventually Antipope Victor IV died, leaving Pope Alexander III to contend with the likes of England’s King Henry II, from whom he got an apology (ca. 1171) for the murder of Thomas Becket, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, from whom the apology in 1177 had to do with general emperorship.
Interesting times indeed.
A rather more sedate tale comes with Pope Celestine V. An 85-year-old peasant known as Pietro da Morrone was, according to author Norwich, “one of the most unsuitable men ever to occupy, however briefly, the papal throne.”
For more than six decades, Da Morrone had lived as a hermit. His primary claim to fame seems to have been once hanging his outer vestment on a sunbeam.
Celestine took up residence in Naples’ Castel Nuovo, into which, recalling his previous hermitage, he had a small wooden cell installed. Celestine put up with papal folderol for only five months before calling it finito—thus setting a precedent for Benedict XVI’s recent abdication. (These have been the only two “early” retirements in papal history.)
Cardinal Benedetto Caetani played a crucial role in Celestine’s abdication. It’s said he installed a tiny speaking tube into Celestine’s wooden cell, through which in the small hours Caetani would whisper messages from The Almighty. “The flames of hell await your continued papacy,” and the like.
Guess who succeeded Celestine as pope?
Caetani took on the papal mantle as Boniface VIII on January 23, 1295. There are no records indicating any problem of his getting the vestment on front to front. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013