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Benedict III - A Moral Pontiff

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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.

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