A brief review of the first nine popes who have borne the name Benedict. From Benedict I (575-579), who adopted it a few years after the death of the saint of Norcia, down to Benedict IX. They were all Romans
by Lorenzo Cappelletti
A brief review of the popes who have borne the name Benedict must perforce group them by some criterion. The chronological one seems the most objective. So let us start, beginning with this article, with the earliest in the series, the first nine or ten popes and antipopes (then we’ll look at the reason for the uncertainty about the number and the kind), who reigned between the 6th and 11th century, that is during the Early Middle Ages. We’ll go on with those who reigned at the beginning of the modern period, and close with the two pontiffs called Benedict in the 18th century. Reserving for Benedict XV a special episode. Even if brief, the review turns out to be fascinating because it will introduce us into a history, that of the Church, that is the paradigm of history itself. It is in fact guided, according to his promise, by the Lord, the following of whose workings is the most fascinating and educational thing there is.
Above, the central nave of the cathedral of Siena with the busts of the supreme pontiffs in high relief; the busts of popes of the name Benedict reproduced in these pages are taken from here
Precisely for that reason, however, one needs to keep oneself from thinking that it is the name that establishes a continuity of direction and leadership. If one applied that criterion the outcome arrived at would not be historical but cabbalistic. And yet, subjected to pure historical examination, the name Benedict already says something. First of all because, not appearing before the last quarter of the 6th century, when it was adopted for the first time, in 575, it was evidently adopted in reference to Saint Benedict of Norcia, who died around 547. Furthermore because one finds that before the “ epoca nova”, that is the early modern period, it is linked exclusively to representatives of the Roman clergy, loyal for that matter, in general, to the emperors; and often men of worth, although the only one of the popes that bore the name to have the title of saint is the second Benedict, if one excludes the blessed Benedict XI (1303-1304) who comes just at the preamble of the early modern period as immediate successor of Pope Boniface VIII.
Of the first Pope Benedict (575-579) the Liber Pontificalis (the most important source for the biography of the popes of antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited at the end of the nineteenth century by Louis Duchesne, the great French scholar accused at the time of Modernism) records that he was «natione romanus» and that he lived and died in the middle of the convulsion brought to Italy by the barbarian incursions of the 6th century, the same sort that Saint Benedict experienced in life, at the hands of the Goths, and then after his death, when Montecassino was plundered precisely in the years of the pontificate of Benedict I by the Longobards of Zotone (and several more times, in succession, right up to the years close to us of the 20th century, as we know).
The second Benedict reigned, more than a century after the first, for not even a year (from June 684 to May 685), and the time that passed, after his election, in expectation of a confirmation that had to come from Byzantium (from July 3 683 to June 26 684) was longer than his effective reign. Precisely for that reason he asked and was granted by the Byzantine emperor, with whom he was in excellent relations, that the election of the pope might be confirmed by the exarch in Ravenna, the Byzantine plenipotentiary for Italy.
Benedict II was not only «natione romanus» but, according to the Liber Pontificalis, he had spent his whole career among the Roman clergy, from being an “altarboy”: the regular career that, as Fr. Baix writes in the Dictionnaire d’Histoire et de Géographie ecclésiastique (DHGE VIII, col. 10), «was for the Roman clergy the juridical ideal». Following which he became saint.
With him starts «the difficult dialogue, lasting more than a millennium between the Roman pontiffs and the national Churches» (Dictionnaire historique de la papauté, dir. Ph. Levillain, p. 199). For us who were born much after the end of the regime of Christendom, in which the Church coincided with the nation and was subject to the sovereign (this is what is meant by the historiographical category of “national Churches”), it’s not easy to understand to what degree that dialogue was problematic and full of snares. Perhaps that’s the reason why some people are nostalgic for that period.
The biographical information that the Liber Pontificalis devotes to Benedict III (855-858) is very ample, covering all his controversial ascent to the throne. Louis Duchesne, reporting the information, writes: «Two parties faced off; the party of the dead Pope, contrary to the worsening of the protectorate, and the imperial party. The latter had Anastasius as candidate» (Les premiers temps de l’État pontifical...). The librarian Anastasius had been a controversial and influential character in the decades prior, and more so in those following, the pontificate of Benedict III. Anastasius had been excommunicated in his time by Leo IV because he aspired too much to the papacy. Now, strong in his cultural baggage and above all from the support of the Carolingian emperor Ludwig II, he manage to take office in the Lateran, despite the fact that Benedict already had been canonically elected, even if not yet consecrated. Benedict finally won through because, on the one hand, the clergy and the Roman people gathered in Saint Mary Major elected him again, and on the other because it happened with the nihil obstat of the emperor. Crushing victories, different than what might seem, are not always victories. Victories that arise from compromise permitted by favorable circumstances, that among other thing, crush nobody, are such. What Fr. Baix writes in commentary to the information in the Liber pontificalis is interesting: «Everyone, friends and foes, and the foes with more zeal than the friends, threw themselves at Benedict’s feet, touched by the opportunity of grace» (DHGE VIII, col. 16). Benedict treated Anastasias himself with magnanimity.
But there is more. Even the Constantinopolitan patriarch Photius spoke in flattering terms of our Benedict III and the reason is that this pope, in the wake of his precursor Leo IV, maintained the custom in Rome of reciting the Creed in Greek in its ancient version. Photius writes of him thus in his Liber de Spiritus Sancti mystagogia: «This did not only Leo IV do during his pontificate, but also the renowned Benedict, mild and meek, illustrious in ascetic practice, successor to him in the pontifical see» (Patrologia Graeca 102, col. 377). As we know from other sources also, these two popes set up in good view in the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul the ancient silver shields on which was carved the Creed in both the Greek and Latin versions. The matter has been masterly dealt with in depth and breadth by Vittorio Peri, Da Oriente e da Occidente. Le Chiese cristiane dall’Impero romano all’Europa moderna.
In the 10th century there were all of four Pope Benedicts, with reigns rather troubled, as was that clashing century, even if at times its cruelty is overemphasized. All four Romans. Benedict IV (900-903) reigned in years marked by the struggle among Formosians and anti-Formosians, that is between those who believed they could not invalidate the acts, in particular the orderings in sacris, of Pope Formosus and those instead who wanted to cancel even the memory of that pope. But no one, not even the pope, is allowed to dispose as he likes of the sacraments. No matter how negative their judgment on the earlier pope, how in fact, could they cancel valid priestly and episcopal ordinations? Benedict was in this sense a Formosian. His epitaph praises his generosity and goodness also, to the extent that one reads: «he sustained neglected widows and poor children as if they were his sons».
Benedict V, after hardly two months rule (May-June 964), precisely because he was Roman and elected by the people of Rome in total, impossible autonomy, was declared deposed at the end of June in a Synod at the Lateran presided over by Pope Leo VIII hand in hand with the emperor Otto I. The Saxon emperor claimed the ancient imperial right on pontifical election that had belonged to the Carolingians and still earlier to the Byzantine emperors and he already exerted it precisely by getting Leo elected the year before, after having deposed John XII. So, at the end of 964, Benedict was conducted to German territory by Otto. Though no longer as pope, he was greeted with great respect in Hamburg – there’s no need to think that grand-guignol situations were always re-enacted just because we’re in the Early Middle Ages – where he lived in such exemplary fashion that he was considered as a possible successor of his competitor Leo, on the latter’s death in 965.
On the subject of Leo VIII and Benedict V one reads, not in any old publication but in the Annuario pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook) itself, that, in their case, «since, about the mid 11th century, it is a matter of elections on which, by reason of the difficulties in matching the historical and theological-canonical criteria, it is impossible to decide in peremptory fashion where legitimacy lay, that, existing in facto, assures the legitimate continuation of the successors of Saint Peter» (p. 12*, note 19). And so, «if Leo VIII was a legitimate pope… Benedict V is an anti-pope» (p. 13*, note 20). Most interesting notes, capable of deflecting the overweening curiositas of would-be scholars of the genre of history who claim to know more on the history of the popes than the devil himself. What counts for the apostolic succession is the succession in facto. The rest should never be stressed. As instead it is by them, thus obscuring and mystifying the essential more or less knowingly.
Some years after Benedict V, Benedict VI (972-974), he, too, a Roman, took the throne of Peter on the basis of an agreement with the emperor Otto I but, after the latter’s death, after being imprisoned was strangled in Castel Sant’Angelo. New local powers, in fact, represented by the Crescenzi family, undoubtedly backed by Byzantium, at the moment of the passage from Otto I to Otto II aimed at recovering Rome and the papacy. Benedict V «was replaced with a “national” pope » writes Duchesne (I primi tempi dello Stato pontificio, p. 150), «the deacon Francone, son of Ferruccio», “a Roman of Rome”, but not by that necessarily part of the citizenry of God present at that moment in Rome. Saint Augustine docet.
A brief reign of one, two or three years at the maximum, then, for the first six Benedicts. If that says nothing in itself, because often in the Middle Ages pontificates were brief, it is significant instead that the first Benedict to have a pontificate of considerable duration was Benedict VII. In fact that pontificate was not by chance marked by close and trusting collaboration with the emperor Otto II, whose reign coincides exactly with the pontificate of Benedict VII (973-983). It’s interesting that during his pontificate Benedict VII encouraged the foundation on the Aventine of a form of a monastic life named after Saints Boniface and Alexius composed of Benedictine and Basilian monks, that is Latin and Greek, evidence that still at the end of the 10th century in Rome, the Christian West was not foreign to the East. There, among other things, the Crescenzio who had been the ringleader of the “national” insurgency in the years between the ’seventies and ’eighties was to die after taking the monastic habit («ut tandem scelerum veniam mereatur habere» says his epitaph). The citizenship of God can always be regained.
With Benedict VIII (1012-1024) the fateful threshold of the year thousand is already crossed, either side of which had reigned the somewhat disquieting figure of Silvester II. Benedict VIII, though also coming from the “province” of Rome (from the notorious - not always for good reason - Tuscolani family), was no pawn of special interests and set up relations of peace and collaboration with the imperial authority, in its turn capable of resisting special pleading. He thus had a pontificate longer again (1012-1024) than the previous Benedict and, a coincidence also in his case not without significance, the reign of the emperor Henry II, with whom the pope had fruitfully collaborated on the reform of the Church, ended in the same 1024, a few months after the death of the pope. Almost as if to consolidate the reform in the temporal sphere, Benedict had also sought a military alliance with the emperor for the subjugation of the south of Italy. But in that his plans, as those of other saintly popes afterwards, had no great success. A sign?
And we come to Benedict IX, whose history is more complex than that of all the early Benedicts. If we go by the Annuario pontificio, in fact, the same Benedict IX was pope three times. Let’s try to see why.
He, too, was called Theophilactus and came from the Tuscolani family exactly like his uncle Benedict VIII. He was elected in 1032. He was very young but probably not a child, as claimed by the sources that depict him as a scandalous puppet. Though the choice had fallen on him also because of his connection to a powerful house and one not ill-viewed by the emperor (a fact, for that matter, that occurred often enough, not to say always, in the history of the pontificate and that in itself should not make one marvel), «knew how to lead the Church with a shrewd hand during his [first!] twelve years of pontificate». He was, among other things, capable of operating in the territory south of Rome, in so much more effective a fashion than his precursors that he could favor «the monastery of Montecassino, restored to its freedom», and «lay the foundations for a vast ecclesiastical reorganization». He maintained «contacts with reforming circles» and acquired «great prestige» in France, where he worked for peace, extending the so-called tregua Dei, that is that suspension in some periods of the year of any warring that had been one of the long-sighted initiatives of Cluny. (All the quotations come from the above-mentioned Dictionnaire historique de la papauté cité plus haut, p. 203-204, but any text that considers the set of sources with attention can only say the same).
But at a certain point, and it’s well to repeat it, after twelve years of pontificate, Benedict IX was forced to flee Rome in September 1044 because of an uprising probably incited. In fact the recognition of patriarchal prerogatives to Grado (Venice) against the wished of the emperor seems to have alienated the latter’s protection. The Romans, or those at least who had driven him out, elected (the election was not yet restricted, because the College of Cardinals didn’t exist as such), a certain John bishop of Sabina with the name of Silvester III. Benedict succeeded, however, in retaking Rome manu militari in March 1045. Shortly after, however, he decided to cede the pontificate, with a true and proper deed of transfer and with compensation, to John de’Graziani who took the name of Gregory VI. The situation was tangled. In December, though their titles of legitimacy were not all of the same worth (Silvester is considered by all the sources and also by the Annuario pontificio as an intruder), a synod in Sutri, presided by the emperor, deposed Benedict IX, Sylvester III and Gregory VI. Their elected replacement, Clement II, is considered the first German pope, though in absolute fact he wasn’t.
With all this, Benedict IX, Silvester III and Gregory VI, whose dates of pontificate interweave rather than succeed each other, all figure tranquilly in the list of the popes, and Benedict IX for all of three times, because after the death of Clement II, on October 9 1047, he was helped for the second time by his people to reinstall himself in Rome. And it required another German pope, Damasus II, and then still another, Saint Leo IX, before Benedict in the end agreed to retire in the monastery of Grottaferrata, where he ended his days between 1055 and 1056.
Something remains to be said of Benedict X. He, too, a Roman, perhaps a nephew of Benedict IX, and elected by the Romans, he reigned in fact between the April and December of 1058. Officially, however, he is counted among the anti-popes because of the solemn judgment of deposition pronounced on him by his successor Nicholas II, in 1060. However, Benedict X had an important maieutic function, because his pontificate determined the decision, that was then to prove definitive, to reserve pontifical election to the cardinals: «his pontificate… furnished the occasion for the decree on pontifical election of 1059, whereby the group of reformers assured itself of a decisive influence on the election itself and were above all concerned to decree the election of Nicholas II legitimate, done in a fashion that could hardly be considered canonical according to the rules in force beforehand» (Dictionnaire de la papauté, p. 206).
Almost as posthumous compensation, the ordinal numbers of the pope Benedicts takes Benedict X into account. In fact the pope who after two and a half centuries was to take that name is by all recorded as Benedict XI, the blessed Benedict XI of whom we shall speak in the next episode.