#111 – Pope Formosus

Pope from October 6, 891 – April 4, 896

Lived: 816 – April 4, 896

pronounced: fohr-MOE-suss

Give me the scoop on Formosus.

Likely born in Rome around the year 816, Formosus was a busy churchman prior to being pope. He was appointed a cardinal and bishop of Porto in 864 by Pope St. Nicholas the Great, and in the ensuing decades would travel numerous times as representative of the pope. He was apparently a candidate for the papacy as early as 872, but his personal piety likely wasn’t the reason. Formosus was elected pope in 891, but was quickly met with more bickering and infighting among the Carolingians, the Frankish nobility. Formosus picked sides and eventually crowned the German King Arnulf as emperor just before his death.

Also during his papacy, a petition from the East arrived asking Formosus to rule whether or not clergy ordained and laity baptized by Photius — the “Pho”ny Patriarch of Constantinople — actually received legitimate sacraments. The pope said “no go” to the clergy, but affirmed that the laity’s baptisms were valid. Formosus died April 4, 896 at the age of 80, but wouldn’t stay buried for long.

What was he known for?

Formosus was best known for provoking the anger of popes before him and after him, for a couple of reasons. One had to do with Formosus’ part in a Roman faction opposed to the crowning of Charles the Bald as emperor in 871. The group, along with Formosus, fled Rome in fear that the pope, John VIII, would bring the crozier down hard for their chicanery and opposition. Their fleeing did no good, and John VIII, you’ll recall, thought it best to excommunicate the lot.

Related to his exile was Formosus’ ambition to take over the Bulgarian Church as archbishop there, to say nothing of his hope to ascend to the papacy. Since it was explicitly banned in canon law that bishops change dioceses — including the See of Rome — Formosus’ scheming to do just that wasn’t taken lightly by the popes who dealt with it. He eventually was reconciled to the Church (he otherwise wouldn’t be a legitimate pope), but he wasn’t done being punished.

Fun fact: Formosus is the only pope to have ever been put on trial…after he was dead. You’ll get the full story on Wednesday, but suffice it to say that one of Formosus’ successors was none too pleased with the latter’s disregard for canon law, and even claimed that the late pontiff was never really pope at all.

What else was going on in the world at the time?

Around the year 895, a treatise known as the Musica enchiriadis was written, though no one knows by whom. It’s the oldest surviving document that attempts to lay down guidelines for a musical style known as “polyphony.” Polyphony is present particularly Gregorian chant, where one hears two or more independent melodies being sung simultaneously. Here’s a good example.

SOURCES (and further reading)John, E. (1964). The Popes: A concise biographical history. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Pope Formosus – newadvent.org/cathen/0…
Pope Formosus – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
Polyphony – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphony