Friday, August 18, 2023

The Year of the Four Popes

The Church has on several occasions seen “a year of three Popes”, when a Pope died shortly after his election, and another was then chosen. The most recent such year was 1978, when John Paul I died on the 33rd day of his papacy, making him the twelfth shortest-reigning Pope in history. There has also been one “year of four Popes”, 1276, when two Popes died after very brief reigns, the second of them on August 18th. (Three other Popes, St Sixtus III (432-40), Alexander VI (1492-1503) and Paul IV (1555-59) also died on this day.)

Gregory X was elected on September 1, 1271, at the end of the longest papal conclave in history, which lasted for 33 months. His reign was brief, though not unusually so for his era, less than four and half years, but highly important. In 1272, he convened the Fourteenth Ecumenical Council, the second to be held in the French city of Lyon, which took place in six sessions in the summer of 1274. This council brought about a reunion of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, although sadly, this only lasted for a short time. Plans were also put forth for a renewal of the Crusades, and, in the wake of the absurdly long recent conclave, a new set of rules for the Papal elections was promulgated. These rules were made definitive in 1298; the constitutions that govern Papal elections have been modified in many ways since then, but the basic principles given in Gregory X’s bull Ubi periculum are still essentially in force to this day.

The tomb of Pope Bl. Gregory X, in the cathedral of Arezzo, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0.
His relics are now kept in a chapel dedicated to Pope St Silvester I. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0.
Following his death on January 10, 1276, a cardinal who had been one of his close collaborators, Peter of Tarantaise, was unanimously elected to succeed him on the first ballot, taking the name Innocent V. Born ca. 1225, he joined the Dominican Order as a teenager, and became one of its most prominent members. (He is the first of four Dominican Popes.) Together with Ss Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, he helped to establish the Dominican “ratio studiorum – program of study”, which would build the Order’s well-deserved reputation for learning. He also held one of the two chairs of theology that were reserved for Dominicans at the University of Paris, the most important center for theological study in the later Middle Ages. Gregory X appointed him archbishop of Lyon and made him a cardinal; as such, he became the host of the ecumenical council. When St Bonaventure, the first Franciscan cardinal and also a well-respected theologian, died during the council, it was Peter who celebrated his funeral.

St Bonaventure Lying in State at the Second Council of Lyon, 1629, by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Bl. Gregory X is speaking to King James I of Aragon; Peter of Tarantaise is standing behind him. 
By the time of Innocent’s election, Gregory X had been so taken up with the affairs of the council that he had not been to Rome for 3½ years. Innocent therefore decided to be crowned there; after a month’s travel from France, the ceremony took place on February 22, the feast of St Peter’s Chair, in the Lateran basilica. However, he died almost exactly 5 months into his reign. The Church now honors both him and Gregory X as Blesseds.

A fresco of Bl Pope Innocent V, painted ca. 1350 by Tommaso da Modena in the chapter room of the former Dominican convent of St Nicholas in Treviso, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Risorto Celebrano, CC BY 3.0.
Three weeks later, the Cardinals elected Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, who was roughly seventy years old, a member of an old noble Genovese family. His uncle, Pope Innocent IV (1243-54), had made him cardinal deacon of the Roman church of St Adrian in 1251; in that role, he had done several important jobs for the Church, and participated in five previous conclaves. In the 1260s, he served as Papal legate to England, and had great success in bringing peace between King Henry III and his rebellious barons. On his election, he chose the name Adrian in honor of Adrian IV, the only English Pope (1154-59), and in honor of the Saint of his cardinalitial church.

This conclave took place with much duress inflicted upon the cardinals by its “guardian”, the powerful king of Naples, Charles of Anjou, who was trying to force the election of a Pope favorable to his interests. (Many of the later changes to the papal election rules were designed to exclude this kind of undue external influence.) Adrian was deliberately chosen as a transitional Pope, so that the cardinals could leave the conclave and escape from both Charles’ control and the Roman summer heat. It is not clear if they understood just how transitional he would prove to be; after moving the court to the city of Viterbo, about 50 miles north of Rome, he died on the 39th day of his papacy, August 18th, without being crowned, or even ordained a priest.

The third conclave of the year was held three weeks later, and elected the one and only Portuguese Pope. By a strange error, Cardinal Pedro Julião Rebolo chose the name “John XXI”, even though there was never a John XX. Like many of his recent predecessors, he spent most of his reign in Viterbo. He added a large studio and bedroom to the papal palace in that city. Eight months after his election, the ceiling of this room collapsed in the middle of the night, severely injuring him; he died ten days later.

The cathedral of St Lawrence in Viterbo, seen from the loggia of the former Papal palace. Four Popes of the 13th century are buried in the city, two in the cathedral (Alexander IV (1254-61) and John XXI), and two in the basilica of St Francis, (Clement IV (1265-68) and Adrian V). Image from Wikimedia Commons by Jean-Pierra Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0.)

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