First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect
Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original
Make a cross on your abdomen
When in Rome do like a Roman
Ave Maria, gee it’s good to see ya
Gettin’ ecstatic an’ sorta dramatic an’
Doin’ the Vatican Rag
—from The Vatican Rag by Tom Lehrer
Given the upcoming visit by Pope Adolf the 1st, this seems like an opportune moment to consider the Papacy and its pontiffs. Many people regard Pope Adolf (or Cardinal Ratso Rizzo as was) as a particularly egregious example of the breed. A former Vatican enforcer–arrogant, dogmatic, intolerant and unimaginative–he’s no picnic and that’s a fact, but in reality he’s no worse than his predecessor, Pope John Paul George Ringo the Fab IVth.
Pope Ringo was every bit as doctrinaire, dogmatic, intolerant and blinkered. He just seemed like a nice old duffer what with his fondness for kissing airport tarmac, recording albums (the LP, Pope John Paul II Sings at the Festival of Sacrosong sold a million copies) and writing plays (The Jeweler’s Shop, written under a pseudonym in 1960 while he was auxiliary bishop of Krakow, was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Burt Lancaster and Olivia Hussey). And God knows, I could almost love him for bringing us the Popemobile. “Your Holiness! Up in the sky! It’s the Pope-signal!”, “Quick, Cardinal Robin…to the Popemobile!”
But as grim as the last run of pontiffs has been, some of their earlier incarnations leave them kissed-off and frozen against the cushion.
Take Damasus I (366-84), who hired a gang of hit-men to murder his papal rival and all his supporters. Later tried, convicted and sentenced to death for adultery by a synod of 44 bishops, Damasus was acquitted by the emperor Valentinian.
Pope John XII (955-63) AKA ‘John The Bad’, turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. He and his gang of friends delighted in molesting female pilgrims in the basilica of St. Peter. When a cardinal pointed out that this practice was theologically unsound, John had him castrated. John was finally beaten to death by an irate husband wielding a hammer after being caught in flagrante delicto with the man’s wife.
Stephen VI (896-7) had his predecessor Formosus exhumed and put on trial. The so-called ‘Cadaver Synod’ found the rotting corpse guilty and threw it into the Tiber.
John XXI (1276-7) was the only medical doctor to don the shoes of the fisherman. A surviving medical treatise he wrote before elevation recommended pig-dung to stop nose-bleeds. He served as doctor to 3 pontiffs (Gregory X, Innocent V and Adrian V) all of whom died under his care. He was elected in the hope that his medical skills would permit him to live longer than the previous three (although, frankly, their reasoning is lost on me). Alas, within 12 months of his election the roof of his new palace fell on his head, crushing him to death. He was not missed in the Vatican, where many believed him to be the anti-Christ.
Benedict IX (1032-48) served three terms as pontiff, the first when he was 12 years-old. Dante wrote that under Benedict, the papacy plumbed new depths of depravity. Benedict grew up to become a murderer who dabbled in witchcraft, bestiality and Satanism. He eventually sold the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.
The midget pope Gregory VII (1075-85) announced that reading the Bible was undesirable as it led to thought and thought led to heresy.
Anacletus (1130-38) had a prostitute mistress, committed incest with his sister and a few other female relatives and was in the habit of raping nuns.
Boniface VIII (1294-1305) murdered his predecessor Celestine V. Boniface was eventually tried for heresy, rape, sodomy and (perhaps most shockingly) eating meat during Lent. He didn’t attend the trial but went mad and committed suicide. Pope Clement V later had his body exhumed and burned as a heretic.
Clement VI (1342-52) was famously dissolute, described by Petrarch as “an ecclesiastical Dionysus with his obscene and infamous artifices”. When he died, 50 priests said Mass for 50 days for the repose of his soul. It was widely agreed that this wasn’t going to be nearly enough.
John XXIII (1410-15) was a former pirate who became a priest the day before he was crowned pope. After obtaining the papacy by force of arms he went on to reign as a brutal libertine. In 1415, the Council of Constance charged John with 54 offences, including piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest. 16 charges, said to be ‘of indescribable depravity’ , were dropped in the interests of public decency.
Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia 1492-1503) committed his first murder at the age of 12 and astonished people with his sexual voracity. Accidentally poisoned by his son Cesare (the poison was meant for a couple of cardinals they were dining with).
Julius II (1503-13) was a paedophile who spent most of his time with rent-boys.
Paul III (1534-49) is best known for excommunicating Henry VIII. Paul also poisoned several of his relatives, including his mother, to gain control of a family inheritance and enjoyed an incestuous relationship with his daughter. He killed a couple of cardinals and a Polish bishop over a theological point and was the greatest pimp in Rome’s history: he kept a roll of 45,000 prostitutes who paid him a monthly tribute.
Julius III (1550-55) specialised in sodomising young boys, several of whom he made cardinals. He hit a new low by taking his illegitimate son Bertuccino as a bed-mate. Cardinal della Casa’s notorious poem In Praise of Sodomy was dedicated to Julius.
Frankly, after that lot, Pope Adolf seems a bit dull.
Papal poems would be welcome.