Many things about the Vatican are difficult to understand. Some of it is due to intentional secrecy. Some require a deeper understanding of the history of the papacy or the traditions of the Holy See before they can be fully appreciated. Other things are difficult to understand because they simply don’t make sense to us today. It is in that last category that we assign the curious case of Pope Formosa, whose body was disinterred by a successor, dressed in papal robes, and put on trial a year after the poor man’s death.
In an attempt to understand what could have prompted such a bizarre turn of events, let us take a look at the deceased defendant in this maudlin mishap of justice. Formosus was born sometime around A.D. 816. He became Cardinal Bishop of Porto in 864, and his future in the Church seemed promising.
All of this took an abrupt about-face when Formosus fell into disfavor with Pope John VIII. The Pope summoned Formosus to Rome in 875, and when Formosus failed to appear, the Pope stripped him of his status as a member of the clergy and excommunicated him from the Church. The Pope also suspected that people were plotting against him and charged Formosus with conspiracy to overthrow the Holy See.
As they saying goes, just because a fellow is paranoid doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone isn’t out to get him. In John VIII’s case, he was spot on about conspiracies. In 882 he was murdered by his own clerics in a manner that is a story in and of itself. The conspirators first poisoned the pontiff, but John was taking too long to succumb to the deadly brew, so his killers bashed his head in with a hammer, significantly speeding up his passing from this mortal coil.
The untimely passing of John VIII opened the door to a succession of popes, many of whom remained in office barely long enough to change the letterhead. From 882 to 903, 11 men held the title of Pope, with an average tenure of under two years, and two of them holding office for less than 20 days. John VIII’s successor, Marinus I, served for less than a year and a half, but among his few acts as Pope was a decree to reinstate Formosus as bishop.
Skip ahead 7 years and two more popes. Stephen V’s death meant there was once again a vacancy in the office of Bishop of Rome. When the College of Cardinals counted the votes for Stephen’s successor, the unanimous choice for the job was our old friend, Formosus.
Having finally stuck it in the eyes of his detractors, Pope Formosus rolled up his sleeves and got to work. His tenure was turbulent, to say the least. He spent a significant amount of time and energy getting involved in various disputes with the Eastern Orthodox Church, the question of who should rule the French, and sundry political squabbles throughout Europe.
After five turbulent years, Formosus died from a stroke, and his body was interred at St. Peter’s Basilica. As mourners left his funeral, most assumed Pope Formosus was enjoying a well-earned rest, from which he would not be disturbed. They were wrong.
The Cadaver Synod
The College of Cardinals settled on an unusual choice for Formosus’ successor: Boniface VI. The choice was controversial, given that he had been defrocked not once, but twice before, for “immoral conduct.” As it turned out, his critics did not have to put up with the choice for long. Fifteen days after becoming Pope, Boniface VI was dead — probably by poisoning.
The story of Pope Formosus might have ended there, but for the man who was elected to be the 124th Pope: Pope Stephen VI. Stephen took office with a grudge against Formosus. One might find that curious, given that Pope Formosus appointed Stephen to the position of Bishop of Anagni. There is some evidence to suggest, however, that Formosus did so against Stephen’s will. Stephen’s papacy lasted a mere 449 days, but what he did during that brief time earned him lasting — and unwelcome — fame.
The new pope believed Formosus had not fully answered for the crimes for which John VIII had excommunicated him. To rectify this miscarriage of justice, he ordered that Formosus be disinterred from his grave and put on trial.
If you are looking for a rational reason for Stephen VI’s decision, it may have something to do with his own circumstances. One of John VIII’s allegations against Formosus was that he held the position of bishop of two places simultaneously — a big no-no in church law. As it turns out, Stephen VI found himself in a similar situation; it was while he was Bishop of Anagni that he become Pope, a position that brought with it the title of Bishop of Rome. Logically, if Stephen could succeed in proving Formosus was guilty of this offense, he could nullify Formosus’ papacy. If Formosus had never truly been Pope, then Stephen would never have actually been Bishop of Anagni, and therefore cleared of any concern about his own simultaneous bishoprics.
If that rationale seems unnecessarily convoluted, you aren’t imagining things. There were other ways to address any potential problems for Stephen. The fact that he chose to desecrate Formosus’ corpse gives you a clue as to his grasp of sanity.
January 897 found Rome in the grips of Formosus’ trial, officially classified as the Synodus Horrenda, or Cadaver Synod. Formosus, whose name, ironically, means “beautiful,” looked anything but beautiful when he was hauled out of his grave, dressed in papal robes, and propped up in a chair at San Giovanni Laterano.
So the corpse of Formosus was dragged out, dressed in papal robes, and propped up in a chair at San Giovanni Laterano. The pope accused his predecessor of perjury and illegal assumption of the papacy. Throughout the trial, the accused, deceased pontiff remained silent, offering no defense on his own behalf. At the end of the proceedings, Formosus was found guilty on all counts. His punishment (because the death penalty was rather moot at this point) was to be stripped of his vestments and to have the three fingers of his right hand that he used for administering blessings chopped off. All of Formosus’ ordinations were annulled, and Stephen declared that Formosus had never officially been pope.
Stephen ordered Formosus’ corpse reburied — this time on an obscure plot of land. Before grass could begin to grow over the fresh grave, the pope decided the new burial place was too good for his disgraced predecessor and ordered his body to be dug up once more so it could be thrown into the Tiber River. This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as the public was concerned. While a faithful monk waded into the Tiber to retrieve Formosus’ soggy and abused body, a mob arrested Pope Stephen and imprisoned him. The pope met his end in that prison a short time later when he was strangled to death.
With Stephen VI out of the way, things finally started to look up for Formosus. Theodore II became Pope in 897. Although he reigned for only twenty days, he took the time to reinstate all of Formosus’ ordinations and to have his body re-interred in St. Peter’s. Theodore’s successor, John IX, served for 717 days before dying in office, but he also took the time to give Formosus the credit due him. John IX officially condemned Stephen VI’s Cadaver Synod and had all of its decrees burned.
Lest there be any doubt as to the official position of the Vatican on this matter, a monument at St. Peter’s lists the names of the popes who are buried there. Pope Formosus’ name appears, as if in final rebuke to the grisly days of the Cadaver Synod.