Some All-Too-Human Faces of the Papacy

Gregory VII, the pope who carried the Church through the tumults of the Investiture Contest, was a complex figure, ill-understood in either his own day or ours. Elsewhere, I have cited some evaluations of his character, both pro and con. Here are some more citations, which I have found in the very interesting book by Maria Luisia Ambrosini, The Secret Archives of the Vatican. Describing his frame of mind upon being suddenly, forcibly elected to the papal throne, Gregory wrote:

Suddenly, while the corpse of the Pope was being brought to sepulture in the Church of the Savior at the Lateran, the people went mad and appointed me, so that I must say with the prophet, ‘I have found myself in a high sea and the storm has submerged me.’ I am in bed, very tired, and cannot write. Pray God for me, so that prayer, that should have kept me from danger, may protect me now that I am in danger. [Quoted in Maria Luisa Ambrosini, The Secret Archives of the Vatican (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1969), pg. 92]

Similarly, he wrote elsewhere:

We are weak and without physical or intellectual energy. In this sad time we carry alone the weight of spiritual and temporal preoccupations, and we tremble in fear of not being able to hold up under this weight…” [Ibid., pg. 93]

To one Hugo, he wrote despairingly:

Among the secular princes I do not know one who puts the honor of God and justice ahead of money. And those with whom I am living, the Romans, the Lombards, and the Normans–I often tell them they are worse than the Jews and the pagans. [Ibid., pg. 93]

A final quote shows again the self-perception of Gregory, one of the most powerful popes who has ever lived, as a lone island of barely-standing stability in a turbulent world waiting desperately for redemption:

If I turn to myself, I see myself so crushed under the weight of my mission, and so turn between grief and postponed hope, so shaken by the storm, dying at the same time that I live, that I am expecting Him who tied me with his bonds, to whom I often say, ‘Do not be late!’ [Ibid., pg. 93]

Confronted over having appointed some common laymen to the cardinalate, Pope Pius II (r.) quipped, “If this dignity is to be given only to those who really deserve it, we must look in Heaven for those on whom to confer the red hat. We, however, as being but men, shall elect men, since it is not Heaven and angels but earth and men that we are to govern.” [Ibid., pg. 137]

A very human story is told of Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-1590), who like other reforming popes of his day lived in nearly constant fear of being murdered by his political enemies. One day while visiting a convent

he found a monk sitting on the steps happily eating a bowl of beans. The Pope sat down and joined him, using a wooden spoon and asking for a second bowlful, and commented, “These beans will lengthen my life, for I can eat them without fear. Thank you, Lord, for letting a pope eat in peace for once.” [Ibid., pg. 138]

Alexander VI, known to history as a pope “sepultus in inferno” (“immersed in hell”), is one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and tragic figures of the Renaissance papacy. Among other intrigues of his reign, his son, the Duke of Gandia, was murdered by stabbing. When his body was found in the Tiber, Alexander wrote in grief, “With joy we would give seven kingdoms to have him back in life. Because of our too great love for the world, God has punished us for our sins.” [Ibid., pg. 142]

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