Formosus of Rome

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Formosus of Rome was the Pope of Rome from 891 to 896. He served during an era of political in-fighting in Italy. His posthumous trial is one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of the papacy.


Other than that he was born in Ostia about the year 816, little is known of the early life of Formosus. He was appointed Cardinal Bishop of Porto in 864 by Pope Nicholas I, who sent him to promote the conversion of Bulgaria in 866. Popes Adrian I and John VIII sent him on missions to France in 869 and 872. He also persuaded King Charles the Bald of France to be crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope of Rome in 875. He was seen as a candidate for the papal throne as early as 872.

In 872, Formosus left Rome and the court of Pope John VIII due to political complications. John VIII ordered his return or face excommunication under a number of charges that included aspiring to the Bulgarian Archbishopric and the Papal cathedra, deserting his diocese without papal permission, and performing the divine services in spite of an interdict. The sentence of excommunication was withdrawn in 878 after Formosus promised never to return to Rome or exercise his priestly functions. In 883, Formosus was restored to his diocese of Porto by John's successor, Marinus I. John's charges, however, came up again after Formosus' death.

During the papacies of Popes Adrian III and Stephen V, Formosus' influence grew and, on October 6, 89 succeeding Stephen, he was elected pope, into a deteriorating political situation in Italy. After his election, Formosus was forced by supporters of Guy III of Spoleto to crown Guy's son Lambert co-Holy Roman emperor on April 30, 892, which turn Formosus against Guy and into a supporter of Arnulf of Carinthia for the Italian and imperial titles held by Guy.[1]. Persuaded by Formosus, Arnulf took control of Italy after occupying, in 894, the country north of the Po River. Guy died in December 894, and Arnulf, in the autumn of 895, continued his campaign to take all Italy. On February 22, 896, Formosus crowned Arnulf emperor in Rome.

Beside the political wars in Italy, Pope Formosus also faced a number of other issues. In Constantinople emperor Basil I had deposed Patriarch Photius of Constantinople and installed his son Stephen as patriarch. Also, there was a quarrel between the Archbishops of Cologne and Hamburg concerning the Bishopric of Bremen as well as a contest between Count Odo of Paris and Charles the Simple for the French crown in which Formosus sided with Charles.

Formosus died on April 4, 896.

Posthumous trial

After his death, the corpse of Formosus did not remain at rest. The charges made by Pope John VIII were renewed by Pope Stephen VI, successor to Boniface VI, at a council of bishops that has become known as the Cadaver Synod.

To face all the charges of Pope John, Formosus' corpse was disinterred, clad in papal vestments, and seated on a throne before the council. The verdict of the council was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate and that all his measures and acts were annulled. Also, all orders conferred by him were declared invalid. The papal vestments were torn from his corpse, the three fingers from his right hand that he had used in consecrations were cut off, and the corpse was thrown into the Tiber River. These acts further divided Rome politically and provoked Stephen’s imprisonment and his death by strangulation.

After the death of Pope Stephen, Formosus' body, that had been retrieved from the river by a monk, was reinterred in St. Peter's Cathedral. A council under Pope Theodore II also banned further trials against deceased persons and reinstated Formosus’ ordinations. Theodore 's successor Pope John IX condemned Stephen’s synod and burned its acts. However, Pope Sergius III, later, re-instated the decisions against Formosus and further demanded the re-ordination of the bishops consecrated by Formosus. This in turn affected the orders conferred on many other clerics which caused great confusion until the validity of Formosus's work was later reinstated again. Since Formosus' condemnation had little to do with piety and more to do with secular politics, Sergius' decision with respect to Formosus has subsequently been universally disregarded by the Roman Catholic Church.

Succession box:
Formosus of Rome
Preceded by:
Stephen V
Pope of Rome
Succeeded by:
Boniface VI
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