Sunday, July 17, 2011

Roots of the Reformation XXV: Sylvester II and The Peak of the Ottonian Reformation

The Tomb of Sylvester II
(Gerbert of Aurillac) in the
Basilica of Saint Johnb Lateran
Yesterday we started the story of Gerbert of Aurillac, one of the most intriguing men to become  pope—and one of the more successful reformers of the Church.  Gerbert was anxious to assume his role as imperial tutor to the young Otto II, but realized that while he had learned much of Arabic culture and science during his time in Spain, he was deficient in traditional philosophy and theology.  With Otto’s permission he went to study at the Cathedral School at Reims in France, at that time (late 10th century) the leading intellectual center in Christian Europe.  He quickly moved from being a student to being a professor.  Otto II tried to lure him away from France and appointed him Abbot of Bobbio in northern Italy and also established him as the secular power in that region but Gerbert was not cut out for the military duties involved and the abbey was in great disrepair so he returned to the academic life in Reims to which he was more suited.  It was at this point when he got involved in the political mess when Hugh Capet deposed Archbishop Arnulf and made Gerbert Archbishop only to have John XV send a delegate who deposed Gerbert and restored Arnulf. (See the entry for July 1st.) This is not unlike the mess in China today when Pope and government struggle to name bishops, and Gerbert was—in this case—on the government side, not the pope’s.  One would think that being on the opposite side from the pope in a ecclesiastical/political struggle would destroy a priest’s chances of advancement once and for all, and indeed it probably would have then (and it probably would now) but Gerbert was the favorite of the Emperor and the fiasco over the Archdiocese of Reims was only a blip in his career. 
     Gerbert was brought back to the Imperial Court as the tutor to the young Emperor Otto III even as he had been tutor to Otto’s father, Otto II.  At imperial insistence he was made Archbishop of Ravenna and then in 999—again at imperial insistence—he was made pope.
      Gerbert took Sylvester as his regnal name in tribute to Sylvester I who had been an advisor to the Emperor Constantine even as he intended to be the advisor to the Emperor Otto.  And he was an energetic pope.  As a monk himself, he was determined to enforce clerical celibacy and outlaw the practice of clerical concubinage.  (We have to talk about that in a future entry.)  He also was determined to eliminate simony—the practice of buying and selling church offices.  These reform measures did not endear him to the prelates of the papal court who depended on bribes and payments to support themselves in some style.  (Imagine that!)
       His unpopularity led to many rumors about Sylvester. An ardent scholar and scientist he was given, like a kid with a chemistry kit, to various experiments.  The loud explosions, smell of sulfur, and flashes of light in his apartments led to suspicions that he was a sorcerer or in communication with demons.  There were stories that he had books of spells given him my Islamic magicians during his time in Spain or that he had a demonically possessed large bronze head built which he could consult and which would answer his questions with a “sic”(yes) or “non.”  Despite these rumors, he was not only a capable pope—a very capable pope—but a man of personal integrity and piety.  Though his papacy only lasted four years, it was in his reign that the reform finally began to take hold in the Church and the Church reached a high-water mark of reform that would be surpassed only at the end of the eleventh century in the next reform we will talk about—the Gregorian Reform. 
        One final legend.  In Rome it is said that the tomb of Sylvester—which is in the Basilica of Saint John in the Lateran—“weeps” before the death of a pope.  I happened to be living in Rome during the final days of John Paul II, and went faithfully every day to see if I could verify the tears.  (If such tears ever existed they were probably condensation forming on the outer surface of the tomb.)  Alas, I never found any “tears.”  Nor did I find any condensation—but then it was pleasant April weather—not a time of the year of condensation. 
        An alternative legend derived from some priests’ inept translation of the Latin inscription on the tomb (few priests ever really learn Latin—even those who like to “say Mass” in it, perhaps especially those who like to say/play Mass in it) is that Sylvester’s bones will rattle in the tomb before the death of each of his successors.   But in April 2005 Sylvester rested in peace as his 125th successor drew his final breathes.  Pity, really, these legends give so much color to being Catholic.   

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