Thomas MacDonald, over at God and the Machine, tries to calm down the anti-Francis crowd, and in doing so mentions an episode from the early church:
Hell, we had a pope dig up the rotting corpse of another pope, subject him to trial, find him guilty, strip him of his vestments, cut off the fingers he used for blessings, and cast the remains into the Tiber … and we’re still here.
This event was memorably described by Browning in The Ring and the Book, giving me a welcome chance to present the passage here, where poetry is always welcome.
Eight hundred years exact before the year
I was made Pope, men made Formosus Pope,
Say Sigebert and other chroniclers.
Ere I confirm or quash the Trial here
Of Guido Franceschini and his friends,
Read — how there was a ghastly Trial once
Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes:
Thus — in the antique penman’s very phrase.
“Then Stephen, Pope and seventh of the name,
“Cried out, in synod as he sat in state,
“While choler quivered on his brow and beard,
“‘Come into court, Formosus, thou lost wretch,
“‘That claimedst to be late the Pope as I!’
“And at the word, the great door of the church
“Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
“The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
“And buried duly in the Vatican
“Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
“They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
“Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
“Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.
“And Stephen, springing up, cried furiously
“‘Bishop of Porto, wherefore didst presume
“‘To leave that see and take this Roman see,
“‘Exchange the lesser for the greater see,
“‘— A thing against the canons of the Church?’
“Then one (a Deacon who, observing forms,
“Was placed by Stephen to repel the charge,
“Be advocate and mouthpiece of the corpse)
“Spoke as he dared, set stammeringly forth
“With white lips and dry tongue — as but a youth,
“For frightful was the corpse-face to behold —
“How nowise lacked there precedent for this.
“But when, for his last precedent of all,
“Emboldened by the Spirit, out he blurts
“‘And, Holy Father, didst not thou thyself
“‘Vacate the lesser for the greater see,
“‘Half a year since change Arago for Rome?’
“‘— Ye have the sin’s defence now, synod mine!’
“Shrieks Stephen in a beastly froth of rage:
“‘Judge now betwixt him dead and me alive!
“‘Hath he intruded or do I pretend?
“‘Judge, judge!’— breaks wavelike one whole foam of wrath.