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Sergius II - The Cranky Pontiff

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Sergius II presents a puzzle to the historian. His early career so successful, his actions in many cases so wise and prudent, conflict violently with the character given him by one manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis. This manuscript, after describing the Pope most favorably in the usual way of an official biographer, suddenly changes tone completely.

Sergius was an irritable old man tormented with gout who left all business to his brother, Benedict. And Benedict carried matters with a high hand. Simony (the buying and selling of sacred things) became the order of the day, and extortion was practiced on a wide scale. At any rate, there must have been some grounds for so severe an indictment. But since there are no other sources to confirm or deny the guilt of Pope Sergius, the historian must be cautious. Sergius was a Roman of the same noble family as Stephen V. Orphaned at twelve, Sergius was placed by Leo III in the School for Sacred Music. Here he did well, and when he became Pope he remembered his happy school days and rebuilt the school on a grander scale. The talented young man was favored by all the popes from Leo III to Gregory IV. Made cardinal priest of Sts. Silvester and Mark by Paschal, he was made archpriest by Gregory IV. When Gregory died, Sergius was put forward as the candidate of the nobility. At first it looked as if he would be elected easily, but suddenly a mob proclaimed the deacon John pope and by force took over the Lateran Palace.

The nobility, furious, rallied and drove the mob out. It would have gone hard with John had not Sergius interceded for him. Sergius was consecrated without waiting for imperial confirmation. When Emperor Lothair heard of this, he sent an army led by his son Louis to teach the Romans manners. Though the army approached Rome burning and ravaging, Pope Sergius went out to meet Louis and succeeded in calming him. The Pope would not allow Louis to enter St. Peter's until he had given assurance of his good will. And even then, he firmly refused to allow the destructive army inside the walls. Pope Sergius crowned Louis King of Italy, but he refused to allow the Romans to swear allegiance to him. Only to the Emperor Lothair would Pope and Romans swear allegiance. Warnings had been coming in that the Saracens might strike at Rome. In 846 a Saracen fleet sailed up the Tiber, took Ostia and Portus, and defeated all relief forces. The city itself was saved by its old walls, but St. Peter's was outside the walls, and to the horror of Christendom the Moslems pillaged the venerable basilica which housed the Apostles' body. It is estimated that they carried off from the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls three tons of gold and thirty of silver. Christendom rose up in horror, and the next year the Saracens were driven from Italy for the time being. Sergius died suddenly on January 27, 847.

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

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