Hadrian I - The Quiet Pontiff

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The stormy pontificate of Stephen IV had been not the beginning but only the forerunner of a time of troubles for the papacy. On Stephen's death, there was a speedy quiet, unanimous election of the holy priest Hadrian. Hadrian, a Roman of noble family, had been known for his austere piety even before he became a cleric. Now as pope his first act was one of justice to recall the exiled victims of Paul Afiarta.

The Lombard menace still loomed over Rome. Desiderius, after a deal of ravaging, marched on Rome as a pilgrim--he said. Hadrian, not at all reassured by the Lombard's pilgrim staff, mobilized his army and forbade Desiderius to enter Rome under pain of excommunication. Though the Lombard turned back, his continued depredations forced Hadrian to appeal to Charlemagne. Charlemagne, after a vain try at diplomacy, marched into Italy, defeated Desiderius, and blockaded him in Pavia. While the siege was in progress, Charlemagne hurried to Rome to pay the Pope a visit. Hadrian, at first a little suspicious, was delighted to find in his powerful protector a true friend. Charlemagne confirmed Pippin's donation. Then having captured Pavia, he put Desiderius in a monastery and made himself king of the Lombards.

Hadrian found a new version of an old heresy arising in Spain. Elipandus, bishop of Toledo, and Felix, bishop of Urgel, taught that the Second Person of the Trinity did not really become Man but only adopted human nature in such a way that Jesus Christ the Man is only an adopted Son of God. The Pope wrote to the Spanish bishops to condemn this Neo-Nestorianism, and Charlemagne had a council at Ratisbon in 785 and another at Frankfort in 794 echo the Pope's condemnation.

Ever since the iconoclast or image-breaking heresy had separated Constantinople from Catholic unity, the popes had not ceased to urge the emperors to repent. Now at last a ruler arose who would listen. When Leo IV died in 780, he left a beautiful wife, Irene, who ruled for her little son Constantine VI. Empress Irene at once allowed the veneration of images, and soon she listened to the Pope's plea for a general council. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in 787 under the legates of Pope Hadrian, reaffirmed Catholic belief in the proper veneration of images. Both Empress Irene and Patriarch Tarasius accepted the decrees and ended the iconoclast schism. Once more Constantinople returned to Catholic unity and orthodoxy.

Hadrian was delighted, but he was annoyed because the imperial government refused to return the estates of the patrimony confiscated by Leo the Isaurian, and refused also to return to the Western patriarchate jurisdiction over Illyricum.

The Pope was embarrassed to find the Franks attacking the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The Caroline Books were a bitter and stupid attack on the council, and the Council of Frankfort had the boldness to censure the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This Frankish furor seems to have been caused by a misunderstanding and perhaps a mistranslation of the acts of the Nicaea council. Hadrian was patient. He contented himself with gently reminding Charlemagne that after all it was to St. Peter and his successors that Christ left the government of the Church. He explained the true meaning of the decrees of Nicaea.

Hadrian was a great builder, who did much for Rome. Above all, he was a true father to his people. Not content with giving help to the needy and distressed, he visited them personally.

Hadrian died on Christmas Day 795. He had been a great leader for the Church.

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

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