The death of Pope Nicholas I or the Pope Nicholas the Great saw the departure from the scene of the strongest pope of the 9th century, whose interest went far beyond Italy and the remnants of the Carolingian empire. He spoke with kings and wrote to emperors and patriarchs and dealt with strong archbishops. Bulgars, Slavs and Greeks were part of his vision of his office. His place in history was diminished because of what happened to the papacy in the next century and half.
POPE FORMOSUS (891-896)
Pope Formosus is more remembered today for his posthumous life than his real life. He was dispatched by Pope Nicholas I to Bulgaria as Bishop of Porto. Later, he served as papal adviser until the reign of Pope John VIII.
Formosus was excommunicated by Pope John VIII who removed him as bishop of Porto. As early as 872, he was a candidate for the papacy, but due to political complications, he left Rome and the court of Pope John VIII that year.
John convened a Synod at Troyes, and Formosus was ordered to return or be excommunicated on charges that:
2. He had opposed the emperor and had deserted his diocese without papal permission.
3. He had despoiled the cloisters in Rome.
4. He had performed the divine service in spite of the interdict.
5. He had conspired with certain iniquitous men and women for the destruction of the Papal See.
Formosus was brought before Pope John VIII and swore the he would never attempt to regain his office nor would he ever return to Rome.
In 882, one of Pope John VIII’s relatives attempted to poison the pope but failed and then proceeded to bludgeon him to death with a hammer. Pope Marinus I (882-884) absolved Formosus of the oaths taken at Troyes and restored him as Bishop of Porto.
In 891, there was a sede vacante and and Formosus was chosen apparently by the clergy and people of Rome without any outside influence.
CUSTOM: The custom of the both the East and West held a bishop to be ‘married’ to his bishopric (meaning ‘til death do us part), from which there could be no divorce. The transfer of bishop from one diocese to another was virtually unknown. Formosus’ translation from Porto to Rome became a controversy.
POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT: He was involved in the petty political squabbles in Italy. The dukes of Spoleto had desired the imperial title, and the previous pope had crowned Duke Wido as emperor. The Spoletans wanted to recrown Wido and his son Lambert as co-emperor. Formosus asked Arnulf, the Carolingian King of East Franks (Germany) to delivery Italy from the Spoletans. Formosus was imprisoned by the Spoletans but Arnulf freed him. Formosus crowned Arnulf as emperor, calling him “Caesar Augustus”. On his way, the emperor died and before the news reached Rome, Pope Formosus died as well.
But the story does not end there. In the next 8 years, there were 9 popes. Formosus’ immediate predecessor was Boniface VI (896), a man already twice degraded for immoral behavior, lived only two weeks. He was then succeeded by Stephen VI (896-897). The circumstances of Stephen VI’s election are unclear, but he was sponsored by one of the powerful Roman families, the house of Spoleto, that contested the papacy at the time. He was a puppet of the Spoletans who would like revenge against Formosus even if he was already dead.
Pope Stephen VI ordered the body of Formosus to be exhumed. By then, nine months or so after his death, the body although intact, has indicated corruption. The pope ordered the body to be clad in full papal vesture and set on a chair in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, where a Roman Synod in January 897 sat in judgment. This is called the “Cadaver Synod”.
Two charges were made against him:
1. He had broken the oath taken at Troyes.
2. He illegally moved as bishop from one diocese to another.
Unable to response (of course, because he is dead), an immature deacon represented Formosus, whose argument lacked persuasion. Formosus, or rather the body of Formosus, was condemned, and he was divested of the papal regalia and vestments. The fingers of his right hand used in blessing were hacked off and his body thrown in a common grave.
Grave robbers disturbed the body of Formosus in the hope of finding ding treasures. Instead, they found a mutilated, unadorned rotting body. In disgust, they cast it into the Tiber River. Torrential rains at that night caused the flooding of the Tiber and that the body of Formosus was carried downstream to the shore of Porto. It was said that a monk, following the instructions given him in a vision, found the body and secretly buried it at Porto.
Back in Rome, Stephen VI had been seized by his enemies, put in chains, placed in prison and strangled to death. At about this time, an earthquake caused the roof of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, scene of the trial, to fall in.
Pope Romanus became the new pope but lived only for two months. The next Pope, Theodore II, had even a shorter reign of 20 days but long enough to effect the rehabilitation of Formosus. Pope Theodore learned what happened at Porto and ordered the body to be exhumed again. With reverence and, finally, dignity the body was solemnly returned from Porto to Rome. There it was reclad in papal vestment and, with solemnity, replaced in its original tomb in St. Peter’s, where it still rests.
The title ‘emperor’ ceased to exist and local factions ruled Europe. The local faction that ruled Rome ruled the Papacy. The Crescenzi, the Theophylact and the Tusculani families sought control of Rome. They made popes even from their own families.