Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” But what exactly does that mean? If one looks throughout the history of the church it becomes obvious that not every pope has been a saint, and that, in some instances, certain popes seem to have been used as examples by divine providence of just what lengths God will go to in order to protect his Church.
Was Sixtus V struck dead?
Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) decided he wanted to release an entirely new translation of the Bible. To do this, he took it upon himself to re-translate the Latin Vulgate version. The problem was, he was not a Latin language scholar. He went so far as to draft a papal bull declaring that his translation was the infallible and only valid translation of the Bible. However, before either the “new” Vulgate or the papal bull could be published and declared, Pope Sixtus V, who was in perfect health, suddenly died. Upon his death, the “new” translation of the Bible was determined to be full of errors and his drafted papal bull was nullified. Divine intervention? Many believe so.
Putting a dead pope on trial
Pope Stephen VI (sometimes referenced as the VII) ascended the Chair of Peter in A.D. 896 and reigned for one year. After his election, he exhumed and disinterred the body of his predecessor and put the corpse on trial. He provided the deceased pope with his own lawyer, and then proceeded to rant, rave, and hurl insults at the body of the former pope. After the spectacle, he ordered that several fingers of his predecessor be cut off and his body be dragged through the streets of Rome in disgrace. The previous pope’s crime? Allegiance to Stephen’s enemies within the power-hungry Roman curia. Yikes! The next pope denounced the entire act.
The “demon from hell”
Not quite the title one would expect for a pontiff, yet Pope Benedict IX was referred to as just that. He was actually declared pope three separate times, sold the papacy to a priest after sitting in the Chair of Peter for just two months, and was accused by anther pope of the same century as having a life “so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” Among his crimes, according to an 11th century historian, were murder, theft, licentiousness, and other unspeakable acts. We should probably be grateful those acts have been left unspoken.
The pope in Dante’s Inferno
Pope Boniface VIII was so hated (by some Guelph Florentines, among others) that he makes a special cameo appearance in Dante’s 8th circle of hell in the famous “Inferno.” A special envoy from the Iberian King, Aragon, said of Boniface, “the cardinals all desire his death and are weary of his devilries.” That isn’t exactly the sort of legacy most popes hope to leave for posterity. He apparently was in the thick of a personal feud that resulted in his wiping the entire city of Palestrina off the map, and he was entirely full of himself. So of course, he erected statues of his likeness all over Rome. Perhaps his most reprehensible mark on history was his comment that pedophilia should be acceptable. Needless to say, whether because of divine providence, the ambitions of his enemies, or both, he did not reign long.
The pope of the “Dark Century”
Sergius III inaugurated what is known as the “Dark Century” for the papacy. He reigned from 904 to 911. He became pope after murdering his predecessor and then fathered a child with his teenaged mistress, Marozia, who is sometimes referred to as the “first female pope” because of her influence and the fact that several popes were from her bloodline. Sergius and Marozia’s son also became a pope. (And was not much more popular that his father). Sergius was known for auctioning off positions in both the papal court and the Vatican to the highest bidder, and for his propensity towards indulging in every vice possible while sitting in the Chair of St. Peter.
Stuck in Purgatory?
Pope Clement VI was a Pope during the Avignon Papacy (A.D. 1342-1352), and was almost unrivaled for the number of mistresses he had. Apparently, upon his death, fifty priests each offered masses for his soul, for nine consecutive days, but the general consensus was that it was not nearly enough masses necessary to save his soul. This opinion was widely spread in France where there was a rather large gossip-fest after this infamous pope’s passing. Perhaps it would not be a bad idea to offer a prayer for his eternal rest even now.
Good Ol’ Borgia
No list of infamous popes would be complete without mention of Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia. Perhaps the most well known of the popes behaving badly, Pope Alexander VI built an empire for himself by defrocking his own son, who was a cardinal, and making him into a duke, and then marrying his daughter to several princes and dukes (after some untimely but very convenient deaths which made her a widow more than once) in order to gain land and power. He was gregarious and good humored as he was cunning. Accused of incest, theft, murder, and intrigue, and a man so obese that his own funeral needed to be hurried before his bloated body exploded from heat and weight, Pope Alexander’s life has become the stuff of stories, novels, and legends.
The Gates of Hell
It would be of no use to list some of the undoubtedly horrible popes the Church has seen over the centuries without concluding that when Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail, he truly intended to provide for his Church. Jesus didn’t promise that hell would not try to prevail. Only that it would not. Perhaps looking back though history can serve as a reminder to us that the Church, the Bride of Christ on earth and instituted by Christ, is still governed by men. And men, all of us, are sinners. Some publicly and spectacularly so. Yet, the Church, her truths and teachings, and the entire deposit of faith, remain unscathed, unchanged, and as robust and beautiful as ever. If we, the faithful, ever need proof that Christ keeps His promise, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church,” perhaps this is it.