Stephen III / IV - A Tumultuous Pontificate

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That the Pope should be king had numerous advantages, but one grave disadvantage was the intense stimulus royal power gave to the ambition of the little lords who infested the area around Rome. One of these, Toto, duke of Nepi, led an armed gang into Rome, held his private election, and declared his brother Constantine pope. That Constantine was a layman did not trouble the duke. But Christopher and his son Sergius, two high officials of the late Pope Paul, managed to get out of the city and fly to the Lombards. They got a Lombard army to come down and throw out the intruder. After a fight in which Toto was killed the way was open for an honest election; but before Christopher could get back to the city, Waldipert, a Lombard priest, staged his private election, and proclaimed Philip, a monk, the next pope. Christopher demanded the removal of this intruder and finally held an open and honest election, from which the priest Stephen emerged pope.

Stephen had come to Rome from Sicily at an early age and had entered the Benedictine monastery of St. Chrysogonus. St. Zachary ordained him priest and used him in the papal service. Stephen remained with the dying Pope Paul while Toto was beginning his intrigues. His early career of goodness and service fits the character given him by his biographer in the Liber Pontificalis, but horrible cruelties took place in his reign. Probably he was not able to control his subordinates. Even before he was consecrated on August 7, 768, the terror began. Antipope Constantine, his brother Passious his official Theodore, the Lombard priest Waldipert--all had their eyes torn out.

In 769 Pope Stephen held a synod at the Lateran at which the eyeless Constantine was ordered to be beaten and cast out of the Church. More constructively, the synod decreed very wise regulations for future papal elections. The pope must be chosen from the cardinals, that is, the more important of the Roman clergy. The clergy are to elect, and only after the election are the Roman army and the people to acclaim the elected pope. Nobles outside the city are to have nothing to do with the election. The synod also upheld the veneration of holy images and condemned Emperor Constantine's image-breaking council of 754.

Christopher, the primicerius, had been the hero of Stephen's election; and he remained the Pope's right-hand man. He tried to get back the territory which Desiderius had promised to restore. And when Desiderius forgot his promises, Christopher had tried to get Charlemagne to intervene. Naturally Desiderius hated Christopher. He paid the Pope's chamberlain, Paul Afiarta, to blacken the character of Christopher and his son Sergius. Then in the Lent of either 770 or 771, he came down to Rome with an army to pray! Christopher manned the walls and refused to let this strange pilgrim inside. But after some obscure intrigues, Christopher and his son Sergius went out to St. Peter's (then outside the walls) to Pope Stephen who had been talking to the Lombards. The Pope went back to the city and Paul Afiarta came out, seized Christopher and Sergius, and put out their eyes.

Pope Stephen died in February 772. His last years like his first were troubled by cruelty. Paul Afiarta, now in power, wreaked vengeance on his enemies.

Stephen is venerated as a saint in certain districts of Sicily but not by the universal church.

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

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