When last I wrote, I mentioned that much of Europe had managed to throw off the shackles of the papacy with the help of Fr. Martin Luther. They had tried to take over the papacy by means of councils, but that having failed, they just decided to dump the whole notion of the papacy resulting in 128 years of war. It started with the German peasants rising up to slaughter the aristocracy, to which Luther responded by telling the aristocracy to “smite the peasants hip and thigh,” which they happily did, slaughtering perhaps 100,000 of them. Eventually about a third of the population of Northern Europe died. What pushed them over the cliff?
A fellow named Alfons de Borja from Torreta, near Valencia Spain, did. He had been a professor of law at the University of Lleida and then a diplomat for the king of Aragon. He was very useful in clearing up the mess at the Council of Basel (1431–1439) in which once again the crowned heads of Europe were trying to make the Catholic Church more “democratic.” For his service to king and church he was made a cardinal.
He was old and feeble and so was elected as a compromise candidate for pope in 1455. This happens when the cardinals can’t figure out whom to elect, so they elect some sick old fellow and start praying the novena to St. Joseph patron of a happy death. Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council was such a compromise candidate, who like Alfons de Borja, who took the name Callistus III, would set events in motion that would change the world. I hope the cardinals have learned that old and dying compromise candidates aren’t always the best choice.
Alfons de Borja changed the world by inviting boatloads of friends and relatives to Rome and giving them high church office. In 1456 Pope Callistus III elevated two of his nephews to the position of cardinal. One was Rodrigo Borgia who later became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He was so straightforward about his corruption and immorality that it is almost refreshing. He was the father of at least four illegitimate children and possibly ten or eleven. He managed to worm his way into the powerful families of Italy by marrying his children off to the powerful. Once again the papacy had become the plaything or the powerful families of Rome and all Italy.
The next pope died after 26 days. Italy and the papacy was squabbled over by the French, the Spanish, the Holy Roman emperor and all the while the Muslim Turks who had conquered the Eastern Empire and taken its capital Constantinople in 1453 were planning to invade Italy in the chaos and take all of Europe. In the midst of the mess, a most remarkable man was elected to the papacy: Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II, the fearsome (Il Terribile). He reconciled the powerful families of Rome to each other, took to the battlefield personally and drove the French across the Alps, began the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, hired Michelangelo to paint the Sistine chapel where the cardinals just met to elect the next pope and all in all he saved Rome and the papacy from the vultures who were trying to devour them. He created the monuments that still draw people to Rome and was marvelously played by Rex Harrison in the movie about Michelangelo, (Charlton Heston) The Agony and the Ecstasy a fun film to watch with the children. The next pope however was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici, elected Leo X, in 1513 wasn’t even a priest when he was elected pope, but he was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence and his mother was an Orsini. The Venetian Ambassador, who didn’t like him said that when he became pope, Leo X said to his brother Giuliano de Medici, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He inadvertently sparked the Protestant revolution by his questionable fund-raising practices for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s. Everybody liked Leo. He had no children that anyone knew about, which caused people to wonder why, but he was a great fellow a real generous type, who spent money lavishly, funded the arts, and promoted the Renaissance. Here’s a fun fact: the King of Portugal gave him a white elephant named Hanno, which was a great favorite of Leo’s. Poor Hanno died when the pope tried to feed him gold to cure poor Hanno’s stomach ache. The papacy was once again the plaything of the powerful.
The next pope came from Holland. The Spanish and the French cardinals were deadlocked, so they thought why not elect a non Italian. So they elected Adrian Florenszoon Boeyens as pope Adrian VI the last non Italian pope until Karol Wotyla in 1978. Adrian had been the Holy Roman Emperor’s tutor. This irritated the French and would have made things even more complicated, but Adrian only lasted about a year. He was succeeded, in 1523, by another Medici, (Pope Clement VII ) Giuliano de' Medici, cousin of the late, fun loving Pope Leo X.
Pope Clement realized what his cousin Leo had not. This German fellow, Luther, was going to be a lot more trouble than cousin Leo had thought. He figured it out the hard way when the troops of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of everywhere from Mexico City to Vienna invaded Italy and his Lutheran army sacked the Vatican and raped and pillaged their way through Rome in the name of religious reform. Clement had to flee for his life down a secret passage to hide out in the Castel Sant’Angelo, a re-configured tomb of a Roman emperor, while the German Lutherans killed most of the Swiss guards. Meanwhile the very Catholic King of England, Henry VIII wanted an annulment in order to dump his Spanish wife Catherine, the aunt of the Holy Roman emperor whose army was occupying Rome. He wanted to marry Ann Boleyn, a bit of a hotsy totsy, who had been raised in the French court. The next time Henry wanted a divorce, he left the Catholic Church and simply cut off Ann’s head. No red tape. This was an era in which religion was a lot more exciting than it is now.
So, in 1527, you have the German Lutherans trashing Rome, the French invading Milan, the Spanish owning Naples, the English joining the anti-Catholic camp and the pope hiding out in a re-habbed tomb. Could things get any worse?
Yes. Much worse.