Monday, December 20, 2021

Pope Joan: Old rituals, wild imaginations led to legend, Vatican archivist says by Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service


An engraving of Pope Joan, a Roman legend that dates from the 11th century, is illustrated in the 17th-century book, "A Present for a Papist: or, The History of the Life of Pope Joan, From her Birth to her Death," by Alexander Cooke. (CNS photo/Google Books, Public Domain)

Which do you think, fact or wild tale or a combination?


"Intelligent, in love, highly cultured and heavily pregnant, the infamous "Pope Joan" is one of those urban legends of the "urbi" of Rome about a woman who covertly climbed the clerical ladder in the ninth century and was elected Pope John VIII.

Conveniently, being beardless was the custom for priests in the West, a Vatican archivist explained. So, the legend says, her cover was blown only after two and a half years when her horse took a fright during a procession near St. John Lateran, triggering spontaneous labor and the instantaneous birth of a child — events colorfully chronicled in numerous paintings, books and some films.

That a woman apparently became the pope is why the legend insists that a special chair, with a large open keyhole shape in the middle, would be used from that day on at each enthronement ceremony at St. John Lateran so a deacon could verify a new pope's gender, Msgr. Stefano Sanchirico noted.

But is any of this true? That was the question the longtime Vatican official discussed Dec. 14 at the Oratorians' Santa Maria in Vallicella church in Rome. The event, "Pope Joan: Between Ritual and Myth," was sponsored by the archive of the Oratorians, the religious congregation founded by St. Philip Neri.

Msgr. Sanchirico, an official at the Vatican's apostolic archive, is an expert in papal ceremonies and protocol, who spent years as a papal master of ceremonies and prelate of the Prefecture of the Papal Household after working at the Congregation for Catholic Education.

His definite scholarly answer? Nope. No female pope.

In fact, "the legend does not emerge at the same period of time" as the supposed events, but crops up 250 years later, he said. The myth fell into oblivion after the 13th century, he said, but returned to popularity during the contentious period of the Protestant Reformation.

However, he told his audience, this tall tale is like a mosaic in which a tiny number of tiles represents the truth, and too many creative hands inserted them into a wildly inaccurate picture.

One element of truth, he said, is the existence of a "pierced chair," although its purpose was not to verify the pope's gender.

The chair was used in the ancient ritual for a newly elected pope when he took formal possession of the palace and Basilica of St. John Lateran, the seat of the bishop of Rome. This ceremony could take place just before or after the pope's consecration and coronation in St. Peter's Basilica, which established him as the successor of St. Peter, he said.

According to the enthronement ceremony's ancient protocols, he said, the new pope entered the cathedral to sit on a white marble "sedia stercoraria" as a reminder of the chair's original function as an "excrement" or toilet chair...."

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