It is between St. Leo IV and Benedict III that the medieval
gossips put the marvelous and fabulous Pope Joan. For this odd story of a woman
pope there is not the slightest historical justification. Dark as was the age,
there is enough light on the election of Benedict III to show that there is no
room for any pope or popess between Benedict and Leo. And there was enough
excitement and scandal too in the daring attempt of the excommunicated priest
Anastasius to steal the papacy without the old wives' tale of Pope Joan.
After Leo's death, Benedict, a Roman, the cardinal-priest of St.
Calixtus, was elected pope. Legates were sent to the Emperor with notice of the
election. Then came trouble. Arsenius, bishop of Horta, an ambitious man, got
hold of the legates and persuaded them somehow to betray Benedict and get the
Emperor to put in his son Anastasius instead. That Anastasius had been
excommunicated under St. Leo IV seemed not to have bothered him at all. When the
legates returned to Rome with the imperial envoys, they brought Anastasius to
Rome in triumph. He smashed the notices of his excommunication and took over the
Lateran Palace. Benedict was stripped of his vestments and kept a prisoner. But
the Frankish envoys and the Roman plotters did not reckon with public opinion.
At a new election the crowd boldly cried that Anastasius was excommunicated. The
Frankish envoys, impressed by the determination of the Romans to have Benedict,
gave in. Out went Anastasius and Benedict returned in triumph to the Lateran. He
used his victory mercifully, even restoring Anastasius to lay communion and
making him an abbot. Benedict was a man who as a young student had soaked up
knowledge like a sponge.
Under St. Leo IV he had become
cardinal-priest of St. Calixtus. Though he was a mild man, Benedict could take
vigorous action when it was necessary in the interest of good morals. He was
horrified by the distressing state of affairs in the Frankish realms. Under
Charlemagne's incapable descendants anarchy grew and disorders multiplied.
Benedict wrote to the bishops of France rebuking them for not speaking out
against the mushrooming evils. He also rebuked Emperor Lothair II for sheltering
Ingeltrude, the runaway wife of the Italian, Count Boso. This Ingeltrude was an
international scandal, and the Pope had her excommunicated. A more consoling
event was the visit of King Ethelwulf of the West Saxons with his young son
Alfred. He brought the Pope many presents from England. Benedict made a
regulation that the pope and all the clergy must attend the funeral of a priest.
He worked to repair the damage done by the Saracens to St. Peter's and St.
Paul's, but his time was short. He died on April 17, 858.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.