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Alexander III - A Learned Man And Leader

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Illumination of Alexander IIIRoland Bandinelli, who succeeded Hadrian IV, was a man of great qualities of character and mind. He had taught canon law at Bologna at the very time when Gratian was at work on his monumental decree. Pope Eugene III made him a cardinal and chancellor of the Apostolic See. Much could be expected from such a pope and much was accomplished; but owing to imperial interference, the Pope was not free to devote himself entirely to constructive activity until the last years of his long pontificate.

What happened was this. Hadrian's death had left Rome seething. Most of the cardinals wished to hold the election at Anagni far from the Roman mob, but the Romans quickly stopped that. They refused to allow Hadrian to be buried until all was set for the election. In spite of all the imperialists' efforts, Cardinal Roland Bandinelli was elected by a large majority. Then followed an undignified scene. Cardinal Octavian, the imperialist candidate, tried to tear the papal mantle away from Roland, then produced a mantle of his own, and fighting off the angry cardinals, made his way to the high altar of St. Peter's, where he announced his election as Victor IV.

The imperialists acclaimed him with enthusiasm and forced the real pope to retire to a fortress for safety. Alexander III, as the new pope chose to be called, thus began his pontificate in strife. Emperor Frederick naturally backed Octavian. He called a council at Pavia, and when Alexander refused to have anything to do with it, the council finally proclaimed Octavian or Victor IV true pope. But if the Emperor and his minions backed Octavian, most of Europe rallied to Alexander. Yet for years the fight went on. It was under these circumstances that Henry II of England and St. Thomas of Canterbury fought over the Constitutions of Clarendon, and if Alexander seemed to lack firmness sometimes in dealing with the fierce Plantagenet, his delicate circumstances must be kept in mind. At last Alexander forged the alliance between pope, Normans of Sicily, and Lombard communes which was to check the haughty Frederick. After many vicissitudes Frederick's German chivalry went down before the Italian burghers at Legnano in 1176, and the next year at Venice a truce was signed between Alexander and Frederick which brought peace. Once peace gave him the opportunity, Alexander called the tenth general council, the Third Lateran, to meet in 1179.

At his council many decrees were passed reforming the Church and remedying outstanding social abuses. Tournaments were strictly forbidden, the truce of God reemphasized, and excommunication hurled at those who robbed poor shipwrecked people. Alexander was a great defender of the downtrodden. Jews enjoyed his protection and indeed even occupied positions in the papal service. He took many steps to help the poor and was always quick to praise rulers who did something for their poorer subjects. Even greater was Alexander's contribution to education. He protected masters from undue exactions for the license to teach, he insisted on freedom for those who were competent to teach, he worked to spread free education "so that the poor may rejoice." He has been called Europe's first minister of education. Alexander III died August 31, 1181, at Civita Castellana. The Romans, once more in a state of turmoil, insulted his body, but the North Italian city states have left him an epitaph and a monument in the city which checked Frederick Barbarossa, the city named after the great Pope--Alessandria.


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

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