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Benedict VIII - Another Reforming Pontiff

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Mosaic of Benedict VIIIWith the accession of Benedict VIII, the house of Tusculum mounts the papal throne. This family, like that of Crescentius, was a branch of the house of Theophylactus which had so frequently dominated Rome in the past century. Now in 1012 the Tusculan branch of the family prevailed over the Crescentian.

Theophylactus, one son of Gregory, count of Tusculum, became Pope Benedict VIII; Romanus, another son, was made senator of all the Romans. The election of Theophylactus was disputed by a certain Gregory. Unable to prevail at Rome, Gregory fled to Henry II for help, but Henry recognized Benedict VIII.

Benedict VIII proved to be an excellent ruler both in spiritual and temporal matters. He welcomed Henry to Italy and on February 14, 1014, he crowned Henry emperor. Benedict's relations with the saintly ruler were always cordial. Benedict quickly showed that he was a strong man who would brook no disobedience from turbulent lords. Crescentius, a cousin of the late Patrician, had seized a castle belonging to the monastery of Farfa. The monks had appealed to Henry and the Emperor asked the Pope to see that justice was done. Crescentius mocked the Pope's invitation to do justice, but when he found Benedict coming after him with an army, he agreed to be reasonable. In tackling the Saracen menace Pope Benedict showed vigorous and competent leadership.

The Saracens had seized Luna in Tuscany and from this base were spreading misery over the land. Benedict attacked them by land and by sea and drove them out of Italy. Furious, the Moslem chief sent the Pope a bag of chestnuts with the threat that he would be back the next summer with a soldier for every chestnut. Benedict, not to be outdone in this war of nerves, sent the Moslem a bag of rice with the warning that he when he came would find a soldier for every grain of rice! The Pope was better than his word. Believing that the best defense is a good offense, Benedict succeeded in getting the Genoese and Pisans to sail against Sardinia, the Moslem base. The combined Heets captured the island. This was a great Christian victory, for the Moslems had held Sardinia for over a century.

Benedict also opposed the aggression of the Eastern Empire in Southern Italy. He made allies of some adventurous Normans, and finally went to Germany to warn Emperor Henry of the danger. While there he consecrated the cathedral of Bamberg and visited the famous monastery of Fulda. Henry gave the Pope a confirmation of the donation of Charlemagne and Otto. Then coming down into Italy, he checked the Greeks. Though much occupied with temporal matters, Benedict also vigorously acted in spiritual matters. He held a Council at Pavia in 1018 which legislated against the prevailing abuses of simony and clerical marriage. The holy Emperor worked closely with the Pope in his reform efforts. Benedict also encouraged the Truce of God, that interesting attempt to limit the private wars of that turbulent period. He also encouraged the Cluniac reform which was still working quietly toward a better day.

Benedict VIII died on April 7, 1028. The first of the Tusculan popes had been a good one.   

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

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