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Victor III - A Very Reluctant Pontiff

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Victor IIIFew have been more reluctant to accept the papacy than the monk who became Victor III. Dauferius was born of the noble family of the princes of Benevento. Though his family planned a marriage for him, Dauferius was determined to be a monk.

When his father died fighting the Normans, Dauferius escaped the watch of his relatives and entered a monastery. But the enraged relatives hunted him down, tore off his religious habit and hustled the would-be monk home. Dauferius, however, had a mind of his own, and soon escaped again. This time his relatives agreed to let him remain a monk. As a Benedictine monk, he received the name Desiderius. In spite of his aversion to honor and power, his sweet disposition and pronounced ability caught the attention of the reforming Popes. St. Leo IX and Victor II took a great liking to the young Benedictine, and Stephen X made him abbot of Monte Cassino. Desiderius proved to be one of the greatest in the long line of Cassinese abbots. Desiderius found the old abbey in a ruinous state and energetically undertook a wide-scale rebuilding program. Under his leadership there rose a chapter house, an abbots' house, a library, a dormitory, and a great church. From far-off Constantinople he procured artists in mosaic and marble to beautify his church.

Pope Alexander II consecrated it in 1071. No mere bricks-and-mortar abbot, Desiderius took great pains to help his monks advance in the spiritual life. Nor was he neglectful of the abbey's intellectual life. He was zealous to secure manuscripts for his library, among them works of Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil. As abbot of Monte Cassino, Desiderius was a great personage in Southern Italy. This power he used loyally to back the reform popes. Nicholas II made him a cardinal and papal legate. He had great influence with the Normans, and it was he who secured their help for St. Gregory VII in his time of need. It is not surprising that when Gregory VII died, Abbot Desiderius was sought as his successor. But Desiderius simply would not agree to accept the heavy honor. At last on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 1086, the exasperated Cardinals and clergy carried Desiderius to the Church of St. Lucy, and forcibly clothing him with the papal mantle, called him Victor III. But four days later Victor put off the papal insignia and withdrew to Monte Cassino. It was almost a year before he finally consented to serve as pope. At a great council held at Capua in 1087 Victor at last surrendered. When the Normans drove antipope Guibert out of Rome, Victor was solemnly enthroned in St. Peter's May 9, 1087. Much could be hoped for from such a pope as Blessed Victor III; but his health was shattered, and his short pontificate was stormy. Unable or unwilling to maintain himself in Rome against Antipope Guibert, Victor held a council at Benevento which once more excommunicated the antipope and once more condemned lay investiture. After this Victor sank rapidly until on September 16, 1087, the gentle Pope died at Monte Cassino. He was buried in his beloved monastery.

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

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