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Papal Elections of the Past

My father loved history. He had even majored in history as a college undergrad before entering medical school. We used to call him a â??walking encyclopedia,â? and we would occasionally check his facts with our home encyclopedia. Undaunted, Dad liked to quiz us at dinnertime, you know, that time of the day when families actually used to come together for a meal and real conversation. I think I survived vapid school history courses because of my dad. He made history colorful. His interest in history was about people and their life dramas, their idiosyncrasies, as much as it was concerned with sociopolitical overviews and memorized dates.

I suppose that is why I read with interest yesterday's article, â??Vatican history reveals bloody, corrupt battles for church powerâ? by David Crumm (Knight Ridder Newspapers).

The stately nobility of the election about to unfold at the Vatican - eagerly watched by world leaders and members of other faiths - is all the more amazing because of the centuries of corruption, greed and murder in its past.


One of the most bizarre loose ends was the "cadaver synod" after the election in 896 of the insanely vengeful Pope Stephen VI. He harbored so much anger at a predecessor, Pope Formosus, that he had his corpse exhumed.

Formosus' decomposing body was dressed in papal vestments, propped in a throne and put on trial for crimes against church law, including perjury. Unable to mount a defense, Formosus' ghastly remains were convicted. As punishment, the three fingers Formosus once used to bless the faithful were hacked from his right hand. His body was dragged away and thrown into the Tiber River.

Piling crime upon crime like a modern suspense novel, Stephen soon was thrown into prison himself. Formosus' friends crept into his cell and strangled him.

I also experienced a modicum of disappointment regarding the reticence of some â??professional historiansâ?:

"Even professional historians shy away from this period because these things are so horrifying," said John-Peter Pham, a papal historian at James Madison University in Virginia and the author of the newly released "Heirs of the Fisherman."

Just how horrible did it get? Well, squeamish readers should skip the next three paragraphs.

Phooey to that. Is there even one reader out there who wasnâ??t eager to read further? We humans have this fascination for gory tales. And real ones are all the more alluring.

But these stories have more to offer than a momentary, spine-chilling diversion. These historical vignettes offer us a chance to maintain a bit of perspective. I applaud historians who donâ??t â??shy awayâ? from horrifying happenings.

After all, when some of us get tired of the avalanche of speculation concerning this â??statelyâ? papal election, itâ??s helpful to be reminded that it could have been a lot worse. Bloody worse. Literally.

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