Spirituality for Today – November 2015 – Volume 20, Issue 4

The 111th Pope

An image of Pope Formosus, the 111th PopePope Formosus, the 111th Pope

Pope Formosus (891–896) – This aged pope would have a remarkable life and an even more remarkable experience after death. In his earlier career, he held almost heroic status as a missionary to Bulgaria. King Boris of Bulgaria begged two succeeding popes to make Formosus the metropolitan of the Church in Bulgaria. There was, however, a prohibition in Canon Law regarding the moving of a bishop between dioceses. Formosus continued his prominent career as a leading ambassador and consultant. Then, Formosus and Pope John VIII, ever sensitive to a political threat, had a falling out. The pope believed that Formosus coveted the papacy and had abandoned his diocese – two charges that we want to keep in mind. Pope John excommunicated and exiled Formosus. Formosus acquiesced to the charges and promised to remain in exile and thus was allowed communion. After Pope John VIII's death, Pope Marinus I rehabilitated and restored Formosus as a bishop. After the death of Pope Formosus V, Formosus was elected pope. For some unknown cause, the supposed violation of Canon Law of bringing Formosus from one diocese to another did not matter – until later.

Pope Formosus kept cordial relations with Constantinople and employed his giftedness as a missionary to expand and strength the Church in northern Europe and in England. At home, the duke of Spoleto was a great cause for concern. The pope turned to Arnulf, the Frankish king who came to his aid but illness caused him to discontinue any military help.

There is no question that Pope Formosus was an extremely talented and holy man, but he also had the ability of making enemies. Unfortunately, one of them would be the next pope. Pope Formosus died at age eighty. In a paraphrase of Betty Davis' famous line form the movie, All About Eve, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride." The post-mortem experiences of Pope Formosus are unbelievable.

Imperial anger directed at the late pope, compels Pope Formosus VI to exhume the body of Pope Formosus and put the dead pontiff on trial. What has been called the Cadaver Synod subjected the fully vested corpse of Pope Formosus to an ersatz trial in which the pope was declared guilty of coveting the papacy, perjury, and violation of Canon Law. His decisions as pope were nullified and three fingers from his right hand (used to swear an oath) were cut off. The pope was reburied. It isn't over folks. Once again, the pope was exhumed and his body was cast into the Tiber River. His body was retrieved and reburied. Finally, Pope Theodore II exhumed the body and Pope Formosus was put to rest, at last, in the Basilica of Saint Peter.

Habemus papam