Post-classical history



Few people during the Middle Ages possessed mechanical clocks. Very few ever even glimpsed one. Tolling bells tended to mark the time in and around a village. Still there was an understanding that time was connected to destiny. In that sense, Peter Morrone’s letter arrived at what seemed to be a divinely appointed moment.

Everyone had something to say to the Sacred College. On the table where the mail was kept, correspondence from King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, or Edward I the King of England, or a warning note from the Grand Master of the Knights Templar about the election of a new sultan in Egypt—all would have looked vital. As would a handwritten letter from the famous octogenarian hermit of Mount Morrone, delivered on July 5, 1294.

Cardinal Latino Malabranca was a doctor of law as well as theology. Pope Nicholas III had been his uncle. In addition to his role as leader of the Sacred College, Malabranca was a fiery Dominican who also served as the Inquisitor General, the leader of all papal inquisitions, until his death just one month after Peter’s letter arrived.

Malabranca first read the letter quietly to himself. Soon afterward he announced to the others that he had received an important communiqué from one of the most holy men of the Church. He told them of its contents without naming the author.

It was well known among the members of the Sacred College that Malabranca had an affection for the teachings and personality of Peter Morrone. The annals tell us that the first cardinal in the room to respond to the letter was Cardinal Gaetani. He looked at Malabranca, smiled with a bit of a sneer, and said sarcastically, “I suppose this is one of your Peter of Morrone’s visions.”

There ensued some discussion of Peter the man, his views, and his reputation, until Cardinal Malabranca loudly interrupted the din to proclaim, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect Brother Peter of Morrone!”

In what happened next it seems that, despite the twenty-seven months that had passed without the election of a holy father, some of the eleven remaining cardinals (one had died of old age) must have retained hope that a good man, a truly spiritual man, could once again occupy the chair of St. Peter. There were those who said there hadn’t been a holy pope since Saint Gregory the Great (590–604 C.E.), or an effective one since Innocent III (1198–1216 C.E.). Perhaps a righteous man could unite the spiritual and the temporal, bringing balance and peace to the world.

Even the cardinals of the Sacred College, men who had seen all kinds of intrigue in the halls of imperial and religious power during the past few decades, were prepared to be inspired. That is what happened at that moment when Malabranca called out: the process of electing a pope by inspiration.

The Latin phrase quasi ex inspiratione literally means “from inspiration”; in that era it was an acceptable method of electing a pope. It consisted of a vocal acclamation, usually expressed in the form of a shout, just as Latino Malabranca had done. Although it was an acceptable method, it wasn’t commonly used, so the dean’s shout probably took the other cardinals by surprise.

When we think of papal elections, we think of balloting, the most common method, with the required two-thirds majority to finally settle upon a name. This first and most common way of election was most often called “scrutiny”—secret balloting until a consensus was reached on one candidate. Ballots would be passed around and names written down. The slips of paper from a balloting would never be seen by anyone outside the room where the election was held, and the cardinal-electors would keep balloting until the necessary majority was reached.

Second, there was the delegated compromise method. A sort of electoral college would be nominated by the larger group of cardinals, and this group of representatives would meet to choose the man. And then there was the third and last method, the one that Latino Malabranca used in the summer of 1294: popular consensus that begins with one man’s inspired vocal acclamation. In the thirteenth century a saint was also sometimes declared this way, quasi ex inspiratione. There were not then the involved procedures for making saints that there are now. Saints were often made more spontaneously.

Not long before, in the early springtime of 1294, Charles II of Naples had addressed the eleven cardinals in the papal palace in Perugia. The days were drawing longer, the nights were getting shorter, but they spent little time outside in the sun. The silk curtains hung heavily to the floor in the high-ceilinged library where they were gathered, and the beeswax candles glowed without a flicker. Charles addressed them in measured tones. He knew every man in the room personally. Some were his friends, some not. Charles was impatiently waiting to take full control of the Kingdom of Sicily, which he had lost twelve years earlier, but which had then been granted to Charles by papal decree. Now he hoped to have a new pope’s assistance in order to truly take control of the island. The Sacred College must act, he told them. The continued survival of Mother Church and the security of the world—tied up as it was with the Church—depended on their wisdom and speed. Before the end of the evening, Charles clashed in fierce argument with Cardinal Gaetani, who felt that Charles was really pitching a candidate of his own choosing. Charles left dissatisfied.1

It was two months later that Peter wrote the letter that changed everything. He knew a few of the men meeting in the palace library and was a personal friend to at least one of them, Malabranca. The others knew him only by reputation, as the founder of a religious order, and not in the ways that they knew other powerful men—from shared days at university or casual contact in papal palaces or meetings in Rome. A hermit like Peter would rarely get to know other men in the ways that men of the world would. And he wasn’t known for making public statements. But in his letter Peter told the cardinals in no uncertain terms that God could bring vengeance down upon the Church, and perhaps their houses, if they didn’t act. Peter’s argument convinced them whereas Charles II’s had not.

Even the mostly cynical cardinals couldn’t ignore that what Peter had written might be a genuine locution. These were days when God seemed to speak more freely to holy men and women in mountains or monasteries or convents than he did to others. Is this why Latino Malabranca cried out as he did?

What caused Malabranca to suggest Peter is something we will never know. Perhaps it was the Spirit of God. At least one scholar suggests that Malabranca’s inspiration might have been the result of a dream he’d had, more than a response to an actual letter that he received.2 Another offers that a general weariness and the manipulations of Charles would have reduced the cardinal-electors “to a mood susceptible to inspiration.”3 We know only that the cardinals unanimously ratified their dean’s seemingly desperate suggestion. An acclamation quasi ex inspiratione was supposed to be ratified unanimously in order to be deemed truly inspired.

A decision by inspiration was also, by definition, unballoted. There were no actual ballots to be counted. The process was supposed to proceed like a rush of wind. We can imagine the shouts of acclamation that came forth from one cardinal after another. Cardinal Latino Malabranca called out, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect Brother Peter of Morrone!” Five of the others immediately agreed, repeating the name of Peter Morrone. Je suis d’accord. Aio, Pietro di Morrone! These included John Boccamazza, a cousin of Pope Honorius IV (1285–87); Gerard of Parma, the eldest member; Peter Peregrosso, the former protector of the Humiliati; Hugo Aycelin, a French Dominican; Matthew d’Acquasparta, a Franciscan philosopher; and Benedict Gaetani, who perhaps instinctively knew how this selection would displease the Colonnas.

For their part, James Colonna and his nephew Peter Colonna wanted to pause to consider the idea, leaving this instance of quasi ex inspiratione short of the ideal. The Colonnas had aligned themselves with Philip the Fair, the king of France, and were seeking a pope who would unify the interests of France, Italy, and the Papal States.4 Could the enigmatic Peter Morrone be expected to do such things? It is unclear precisely how long the dissenters held out, but it couldn’t have been more than forty-eight hours.

The Spirit and the Process

It was the late-thirteenth-century theologian Giles of Rome who said that a pope either comes to the chair of St. Peter already a saint or else occupying it makes him one. But the Catholic Church has never claimed that the Holy Spirit infallibly guides the choosing of popes. If they did, they’d have to explain how God selected several men in history who even the most faithful (especially the most faithful) historians of the Church would call lechers, fornicators, even murderers. There are several easy examples: Pope Stephen VI (896–97), for instance, who had his predecessor’s rotting corpse exhumed and put on trial; Pope John XII (955–64), who ordered the killing of people, turned the most sacred Apostolic Palace of the Lateran into a brothel, and was ultimately murdered by the husband of his mistress; and the eleventh-century Benedict IX, who sold the papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI, only to change his mind and come back and try to reclaim it.

There have been a variety of explanations over the centuries for these election mistakes. One comes from Saint James of the Marches (1391–1476), a renowned Franciscan preacher and inquisitor. He once reproached a heretic who was accused of criticizing past and present popes by saying:

Although certain Supreme Pontiffs have died without faith, you will never find that, when one pope died in heresy, a right Catholic Pope didn’t immediately succeed him. It cannot be found, in the whole series of the list of Supreme Pontiffs, that any two popes were successively and immediately heretics. Thus it cannot be said that faith has ever failed without qualification in the order of popes, since our Lord said to St. Peter, “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail” [Lk. 22:32]—and he said it not only for him but for the whole Church.5

The expectations were lower then than they are today. Apparently every other pope was good, and that wasn’t all that bad during the Middle Ages.

The ideal of guidance by the Holy Spirit was best described in 1978 by an Italian bishop in the days leading up to the conclave that elected John Paul I: “The real protagonist [in the room] is the Other, whose presence and involvement transform the event completely and make it a community act of the Church.”6 In 1294, although there was less of this sort of idealism, in the minds of the people the answer was unequivocally yes: the Holy Spirit had guided the election of Peter Morrone. And after Peter several other popes were elected quasi ex inspiratione. Nearly four centuries after Celestine V there would be two successive examples. The first was Cardinal Emilio Altieri, who was elected Pope Clement X in 1670 as he was about to turn eighty. The people outside the conclave began to chant “Altieri Papa!” and the cardinals inside assented, having spent four months without coming to a decision by scrutiny or consensus. Six years later, upon Clement X’s death, his successor was also elected by inspired acclamation. It is said that every member of that conclave kissed Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi’s hand, and he became Pope Innocent XI. He ruled for thirteen years fairly successfully.

Pope John Paul II put an end to this method in 1996, when he set out to define anew the exact election procedures or “lawful apostolic succession” for a future pope. He titled these rules Universi Dominici Gregis, a Latin phrase that means “Of the Lord’s Whole Flock.”7 He specifically cited the need to avoid any situation like the one that resulted in Celestine V’s election seven hundred years ago: “I have thus considered it fitting not to retain election by acclamation quasi ex inspiratione, judging that it is no longer an apt means of interpreting the thought of an electoral college so great in number and so diverse in origin.” He also did away with election per compromissum, the consensus method. There would be no more elections in which a sort of electoral college from among the Sacred College would be delegated the task of choosing a new pope:

I have therefore decided that the only form by which the electors can manifest their vote in the election of the Roman Pontiff is by secret ballot.… This form offers the greatest guarantee of clarity, straightforwardness, simplicity, openness and, above all, an effective and fruitful participation on the part of the Cardinals who, individually and as a group, are called to make up the assembly which elects the Successor of Peter.

John Paul II then stipulated that a true conclave would always entail the cardinal-electors remaining within Vatican City throughout the duration, ensuring their privacy and ability to concentrate. In contrast to the commotions of elections past, he went on to say: “I decree that the election will continue to take place in the Sistine Chapel, where everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God.”8 No more heading for the hills, from Rome to Rieti, from Rieti to Perugia.

Secrecy would be maintained. To ensure the integrity of the process and the election, the cardinal-electors would each take an oath to refrain from all written communication and from consulting any media whatsoever during the conclave. Knowing well the history of medieval papal elections, John Paul II even stipulates: “In a special way, careful and stringent checks must be made, with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability, in order to ensure that no audiovisual equipment has been secretly installed in these areas for recording and transmission to the outside.” This doesn’t mean that cardinals are unable or unwilling to leak tidbits to the media, immediately before and after conclaves. It happens regardless of the rules, as inevitably there are quotes, portions of diaries, and comments made to drivers and housekeepers from anonymous cardinals and their aides that then find their way into the Italian newspapers.9

The effect of all of the papal election reforms that have been instituted since the summer of 1294 has been to ensure that the circumstances that conspired to elect Peter Morrone would never happen again.

Nonetheless, John Paul II made one final change that surprised observers. To the delight of some, Universi Dominici Gregis left open one large door of opportunity—to elect a man who shares at least one quality with our hermit pope: “Having before their eyes solely the glory of God and the good of the Church, and having prayed for divine assistance, [the cardinal-electors] shall give their vote to the person, even outside the College of Cardinals, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way.”

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