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Paul II - An Enemy Of Humanism

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Medallion with profile Paul IIWhen a young Venetian heard that his uncle had been elected pope, he promptly abandoned his business career for the service of the Church. His foresight was justified. He advanced steadily until he became Pope Paul II.

Pietro Barbo was born in Venice on February 23, 1417, of a wealthy Venetian merchant family. His mother, Polixena Condulmer was the sister of Pope Eugene IV. A very pious woman, she brought up Pietro carefully. Her brother the Pope saw to it that Pietro had the best teachers, once he embraced the ecclesiastical state. Pope Eugene made him a cardinal in 1440.

After Pius II had died at Ancona, the cardinals hurried back to Rome and proceeded to hold an election. The conclave was short; after the first ballot the cardinals elected Pietro Barbo. He wished to take the name Formosus II, but since that name means handsome, the cardinals dissuaded him out of fear that the people would consider it a vulgar allusion to Pietro's striking good looks. He next chose Mark, but since the second evangelist's name was used as a war cry by the armed forces of Venice, the cardinals likewise vetoed it. Finally he chose Paul II. No one objected to the apostle of the gentiles.

Paul II refused to ratify an election capitulation which the cardinals had signed. Indeed, no pope could in justice ratify such a document, for it unduly exalted the power of the cardinals.

Paul's election was popular, and with reason. He was a large-hearted man who loved to do things for the people. He took very good care of Rome itself. He saw to it that adequate provisions reached the city. He made war on robber barons. He tried to stamp out the vendetta which disgraced the section. Other rulers had done as much, but Paul stands out as a pope who provided not only spiritual and temporal care for the people, but even saw to it that they had fun! Pageants, glowing with all the color of the Renaissance, delighted the Romans. Games, races, fun for every class marked the holiday season under this genial pontiff. The Pope himself loved to stand at the window of his palace and watch the merrymaking. But Paul was no playboy pope. Quite alive to the danger from the Moslem, he welcomed the epic Albanian hero Skanderbeg and sent him home to renew the fight, with a blessing and a substantial sum of money. Like his predecessors, Paul tried to arouse Europe to a sense of its danger, but like his predecessors, he failed. He was very good to those poor refugees from the Ottoman onslaught who had come to Rome for a refuge.

Nor was he blind to the need for reform. Though he failed to launch the root-and-branch reform which was needed, he did limit financial abuses.

Yet Paul II had a bad press. And why? Because he dared to clear out some humanists from the papal curia, they gave the pope a bad reputation. His unpopularity with the humanist extremists was heightened when he swooped down on an academy presided over by an eccentric named Pomponio Leto. At this academy, atheism and sedition were discussed--somewhat academically to be sure. Still, the Pope had the Porcaro conspiracy to remember.

Paul also had trouble with some people quite other than pedants--the shrewd Louis XI of France and the cold Venetian oligarchs. George Podiebrad, king of Bohemia, with his Hussite tendencies was also a vexation to Paul II.

Paul II died suddenly of a stroke on July 26, 1471.

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

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