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John XIII - The White Hen

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Mosaic of John XIIIJohn XIII, like John XII, was a member of the house of Theophylactus. But except for name and family he had little in common with his kinsman. John XII might have been called John the Bad; John XIII was called John the Good.

John's father, also named John, had married the younger Theodora, the sister of the famous Marozia. Later he became a bishop. John himself, quite unlike John XII, was brought up strictly and educated at the Lateran with the young clerics. He served in the papal chancery, took part in the condemnation of his relative, John XII, and then in his restoration. With a reputation for learning and virtue he became papal librarian, then bishop of Narni. One homely little detail, all too rare in these early biographies, comes down to us.

John was nicknamed "white hen" on account of his fair hair. John was not the first choice of the Romans. When Leo VIII died the Romans sent to the Emperor, asking him to give them back Benedict V; but before this request could be acted on, Benedict died. Otto sent representatives to Rome to see that his choice was made pope, and the Emperor's choice was John, bishop of Narni, who was duly elected. Otto probably thought that in choosing John he was not only getting a good and reliable pope, but one that would be pleasing to the Romans. After all, John was of the family of Theophylactus, and Otto hoped that this would help to reconcile the sensitive Romans to the imperial yoke. But because he was Otto's choice, the Romans turned against John. A faction led by Rofred, a Campagna count, and Peter, the city prefect, raised the cry: "Out with the foreigners!" They seized John and threw him into the Castle of St. Angelo. Later when he was removed to a castle in the country, John escaped. He fled to Pandulf of Capua, and after an exile of almost a year made his way back to Rome. The Romans, learning that Otto was coming, gave the Pope a grand reception. But Otto was angry, and when he entered the city in August 966, rough German hands administered bloody justice to the Romans. This brought peace, and for the rest of his pontificate John had little trouble with the Romans. He got along well with Otto. On Christmas Day, 967, the Pope crowned his young son Otto II as co- emperor. John assisted Otto in the marriage negotiations which brought to young Otto the hand of the beautiful and remarkably able Theophano, young daughter of the Eastern Emperor Romanus II. John XIII cooperated with the Emperor in forwarding missionary activity on the frontiers. He confirmed the erection of Magdeburg as a metropolitan see. The famous diocese of Posen was established for the Poles in 966. John also backed St. Dunstan in his efforts to reform the Church in England.

John XIII died peacefully at Rome, September 6, 972. Though noticeably under Otto's influence, he was a good pope.  

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

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