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Stephen VI (VII) - Strange Days

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The year 897 opened with the loss of a grand relic of early times. The venerable old Lateran Basilica crashed in ruins. It was a fit beginning for a black year. Stephen VII was a Roman, the son of John, who himself became a priest. Stephen had been consecrated bishop of Anagni by Pope Formosus. The circumstances of his election to the papacy are obscure. Stephen's correspondence with Fulk, archbishop of Rheims, shows that he was interested in synods and that he planned to hold one in September 896, but for some unknown reason he was unable to do so. He did hold a local synod in the early part of 897, the strangest synod ever held and the most gruesome. Although he had been consecrated bishop by Pope Formosus, Stephen seems to have belonged to the opposite faction. But probably the moving spirit in this horrid business was the house of Spoleto.

It will be remembered that Formosus, after crowning young Lambert, had called in Arnulf to become emperor and put down the Spoletans. Driven out of Rome by Arnulf and threatened in Spoleto itself, Lambert was saved by Arnulf's sudden sickness. Then he cleared out Arnulf's officials and took over central Italy. In January 897 Lambert and his mother, the fiery Ageltruda, entered Rome in triumph. But Formosus was beyond vengeance. He was dead and buried with honor as pope. This last fact could still be canceled. Stephen VII herded together some of the Roman clergy into a synod. Terrified and aghast, they watched a grisly scene unfold. The decaying corpse of Pope Formosus was carried into the hall. Clad in pontifical vestments it was seated in a chair.

A quaking deacon stood by the corpse as defense attorney while a series of charges against the late pope were read. The synod then condemned Formosus because he had exercised his functions after having been deposed and because he had left the see of Porto for that of Rome. His ordinations were declared invalid. Then the three fingers used by a Pope in blessing were cut off and the pontifical vestments were torn from the poor corpse. Underneath the ceremonial splendor was found a hair shirt. The body was then buried in a pilgrims' cemetery, but a gang dug it up and threw it into the Tiber. Stephen, by declaring the ordinations of Formosus invalid, defended himself against those who blamed him for leaving the see of Anagni for that of Rome. Since he had been consecrated by Formosus, he had not really been a bishop. He ordered all those ordained by Formosus to turn over to him written resignations of their offices. It looked like a purge of all friends of Formosus. Stephen VII did not survive the shocking synod very long. When Lambert had to leave to fight the marquis of Tuscany, the Romans rose against Stephen. Then he was seized and himself stripped of the pontifical robes. Clad in a monk's habit, he was thrown into a dungeon, and in August, 897, Stephen VII was strangled.

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

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