When Hadrian III died on his way to Worms, Rome was suffering
from famine and drought. The people, hoping God would bless them under a holy
pope, cried out for Stephen, cardinal-priest of the Four-Crowned Martyrs. All
agreed on Stephen, and he was consecrated the next Sunday without waiting for
any imperial confirmation. Emperor Charles the Fat was angry when he heard of
this, but when he discovered how universal was the desire for Stephen, he let
the matter rest.
Stephen was the son of Hadrian, a noble, living in the
upper-class Via Lata district. Hadrian, a man of good life, had his son educated
by Zachary, bishop of Anagni and papal librarian. Then he entered the Lateran
and was made cardinal-priest of the Four-Crowned Martyrs by Marinus I. Stephen
deserved the reputation he enjoyed for holiness. But he was also a practical
man. He took the people around the papal treasury and showed them how empty it
was. Then he helped them as best he could. To fight the plague of locusts which
was then desolating Rome, he offered a reward for every pint of locusts brought
in. When this failed to make an appreciable dent in the millions of insects,
Stephen, after prayer, blessed holy water and gave it to the people to sprinkle
on their fields. The plague ended. Stephen did what he could to adorn the
churches, but above all he was interested in souls.
He preached frequently. He denounced magical and superstitious
practices; above all, he was good to the poor. A lover of justice, he personally
consecrated Teutbold, bishop of Langres when his metropolitan tried to override
the people's will. He checked the impudence of Frothar who had usurped the see
of Poitiers, and rebuked the archbishop of Ravenna for uncanonical conduct. When
Photius was removed from the patriarchate of Constantinople to make way for
Emperor Leo's brother Stephen, the Pope refused to acknowledge Stephen until he
had been assured that Photius had resigned. At the beginning of his pontificate
he had found a letter addressed to Hadrian from Emperor Basil which denounced
the Roman Church for allowing Marinus, already a bishop, to become pope. Stephen
defended the act of the Roman See in a dignified and skillful manner. The sad
condition of the Western Empire presented the Pope with a vexing problem.
Charles the Fat, deposed in 887, had died the following year. The old empire of
Charlemagne was now broken up into five or six pieces. Shadowy as was the
imperial title, there was heated competition for it. Stephen crowned Guido, duke
of Spoleto, emperor on February 21, 891. The turbulent dukes of Spoleto had been
thorns in papal sides, but Stephen seems to have got along well with Guido.
However, the title did not mean much because Guido could not control Italy, much
less the territories beyond the Alps. In the midst of gathering gloom, in
September 891, the saintly Stephen died.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.