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Adrian VI - A Dutch Pontiff

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Adrian VIAfter Leo's death his cousin Giulio was the dominant figure in the conclave, but unable to control the necessary majority, Giulio proposed a compromise candidate, Cardinal Adrian Florensz, absent in Spain serving as viceroy for Charles V. Cajetan, the famous Thomist, earnestly seconded this proposal; and almost before they knew it, the cardinals elected the grave Dutchman.

Adrian accepted and chose to be called Adrian VI. Adrian was born in Utrecht, on March 2, 1459. His parents, poor and pious, gave him a good religious foundation which was deepened by his early schooling with the Brothers of the Common Life. Helped financially by Margaret of York, dowager duchess of Burgundy, he took his doctorate in theology at Louvain in 1491. He taught theology there and published two books. Among those who came to his lectures was the famous Erasmus. Chancellor of the university, twice rector, councilor of Duchess Margaret, he was chosen by Emperor Maximilian to be tutor to his grandson and heir.

Adrian's work with the young prince paid dividends in the sturdy Catholicism of Emperor Charles V. Sent to Spain on a delicate mission in 1515, he found himself the next year co-viceroy with the great reformer Ximenes. He was made Bishop of Tortosa, a cardinal, and grand inquisitor. After Ximenes died, Adrian carried on as sole viceroy. The election of this Dutchman, this great friend of Charles V, stunned everyone including the cardinals, but by his firm though tactful dealings with Charles, Adrian soon showed that he would be no tool in imperial hands. It was not until late August that Adrian reached Rome, a decidedly hostile Rome. All the pagan humanists, all the swarm of place-hunters and job-buyers, feared the stern theologian. And with reason, for Adrian was determined to reform the Church and to start right in at Rome. Adrian faced a serious situation. In the East the Turks were about to batter their way into Rhodes, in Germany Luther's revolt still blazed, and at home the Church needed reform. Adrian tried to get adequate help for Rhodes, but had to see it fall. Against Luther he tried to get Erasmus to use his golden pen, but that timid humanist still hung back. With rare moral courage Adrian, in his instruction to Chieregati, his nuncio in Germany, fearlessly acknowledged the existence of abuses, abuses he was determined to stamp out. Adrian devoted himself to this task. He ruthlessly slashed the expenses of his court. He suppressed useless offices.

He avoided even the suspicion of favoring his own family. But it takes time to overcome the resistance of vested interests and the inertia of human weakness. And time was running out on the sexagenarian Pope. A fierce outbreak of plague sent the cardinals on the run for a safer climate, and though the indomitable old Dutchman stayed on and survived, he lost six precious months because little could be done in the absence of the cardinals; and then when the plague died down and the cardinals came back, Adrian fell sick. He died September 12, 1523. The frivolous rejoiced at his passing, but it was a tragedy for the Church.


Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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