John V - Unlucky 13

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Medieval Rome was scarcely a health resort, but even so the extreme shortness of so many seventh-century pontificates does seem to indicate that venerable old age was one of the things the electors looked for in a pope. John V was another example of this; he ruled the Church for just over a year.

John V was a Syrian from the neighborhood of Antioch. By 680 he must have been well established in the Roman clergy, for Pope St. Agatho sent him as legate to the Sixth Ecumenical Council. From Constantinople he brought back the account of the proceedings of the council and also some imperial decrees. John was elected in a return to the ancient manner by the generality, that is, by the clergy and laity of Rome in the Lateran basilica. He was consecrated at once in July 685. It is not clear just what the author of John's biography in the Liber Pontificalis means by the return to the ancient manner. Popes before and after John V were elected by the generality in the Lateran basilica. Duchesne supposes that the expression refers to the new imperial regulations of Constantine the Bearded. These regulations, whether they merely permitted the exarch of Ravenna to confirm the election or allowed complete freedom certainly marked a change. They did away with excessive intervals between election and consecration which had been due to the necessity of sending all the way to Constantinople for imperial confirmation.

This Syrian Pope was a man of energy and learning, but his health was not equal to the strain. Not long after his election he fell ill, and though he lingered on for a time, he could not get much accomplished. He had the misfortune to lose the best friend the papacy had had on the imperial throne for some time. Constantine IV, the Bearded, died in 685. While still legate, John had secured from this friendly emperor a decree lowering the taxes the popes paid on their estates of the patrimony of Peter. Constantine had left the empire more united religiously and stronger politically than he had received it from his father Constans II. Under his clever and vigorous leadership, Constantinople had returned to Catholic unity and orthodoxy. The Sixth Ecumenical Council had condemned the Monothelites. The fierce onslaught of the Saracens had been checked before the walls of Constantinople, and if Egypt and Syria were gone, the remaining provinces were protected by a better organization.

John V settled a jurisdictional squabble over Sardinia. Citonatus, archbishop of Cagliari, had presumed to consecrate Novellus bishop of Torres without so much as a by-your-leave of the Pope. John V held a council at Rome and decided to place Torres under his direct supervision.

John V died in the summer of 686 and was buried in St. Peter's on August 2.

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

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