Pope Joan: ancient rituals, crazy imaginations led to legend, according to archivist

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VATICAN CITY – Intelligent, loving, highly cultured and very pregnant, the infamous “Pope Joan” is one of those urban legends of the “urbi” of Rome about a woman who secretly rose through the ranks of the clergy in 9th century and was elected pope. John VIII.

Ideally, being hairless was the custom of Western priests, a Vatican archivist explained. So, says the legend, his blanket was not blown until after two and a half years when his horse got scared during a procession near Saint John Lateran, triggering spontaneous labor and the instant birth of ‘a child – colorful events in many paintings, books and some films.

That a woman apparently became the Pope is why legend insists that a special chair, with a large keyhole shape open in the middle, would be used from that day on at every ceremony. enthronement in Saint-Jean-de-Laterran so that a deacon can verify a new the kind of the pope, Mgr. Stefano Sanchirico noted.

But is all this true? This was the question the longtime Vatican official discussed on December 14 at the Oratorian Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome. The event, “Pope Joan: between ritual and myth”, was sponsored by the archives of the Oratorians, the religious congregation founded by Saint Philippe Neri.

Sanchirico, an official in the Vatican Apostolic Archives, is an expert in papal ceremonies and protocol, who spent years as a papal master of ceremonies and prelate of the papal household prefecture after working in the Congregation for the Catholic education.

His definitive scholarly answer? No. No female pope.

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

However, he told his audience, this great story is like a mosaic in which a small number of tiles represent the truth, and too many creative hands have inserted them into an extremely inaccurate picture.

One element of truth, he said, is the existence of a “pierced chair,” although its purpose was not to verify the sex of the Pope.

The chair was used in the ancient ritual of a newly elected Pope when he officially took possession of the Palace and Basilica of St. John Lateran, 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 St. Peter’s successor, he said.

According to old protocols for the enthronement ceremony, he said, the new pope entered the cathedral to sit on a white marble “sedia stercoraria”, recalling the chair’s original function as a ‘Excrement’ or toilet chair.

This gesture of humiliation reinforced the fact that although the Pope is invested with great power, he is not God; he is still a human being, subject to the necessities of nature like everyone else, including death. Sitting down, Psalm 113 was sung, which praises a high but benevolent God who pulls the poor out of the dust and “the needy out of the dung.”

Then, said Sanchirico, the Pope would be seated on the white marble “cathedra”, perched at the top of a series of steps to symbolize episcopal power and responsibility, the authority to teach and the duty to protect his flock. difficulty. This chair is still in use today when a pope officially takes possession of the chair of the Bishop of Rome.

In the old ceremony, the new pontiff also sat on two dark red marble chairs with large keyhole-shaped openings in the seat, which a modern scholar said were used birthing chairs. in ancient Imperial Rome.

In the papal ritual, said Sanchirico, on a chair, the Pope would receive his “férula,” or pastoral staff to symbolize governance, and he would receive the keys to the cathedral and the palace to signify the power to open and close. , to tie and lose.

On the second chair, he would be surrounded by a sash from which 12 gems hung to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles, he said.

The holes in the chair “gave birth to the idea that the ritual” was to verify the sex of the Pope, the Monsignor said, but “its meaning is quite different.”

While a pregnant Pope Joan is a pure myth, he said, maternal images abound in explanations of the role of the Pope and the Diocese of Rome, especially as “Ecclesia Mater,” the church mother.

Sanchirico said the ceremonial use of the chairs predated the years of Pope Joan’s supposed reign from 855 to 858, thus refuting the subsequent and incorrect interpretation or invention that a new Pope sat on the unusual chairs to verify his gender.

Over time, he said, some popes were reluctant to use the “pierced” chairs as the rituals lost their meaning and were no longer understood; Pope Leo X was the last pope to use the Pierced Chairs in the early 16th century.

Sanchirico also showed his audience a color copy of an ancient manuscript found “a few years ago”, which he said could explain where the idea of ​​a female Pope John VIII came from and why a particular route , not far from Saint-Jean-de-Latran, would become the place where Pope Joan would have given birth and would be nicknamed “Popess Lane”.

The Latin text, he said, says that an owner named Giovanni Papa (John Pope) owed eight coins from the papal treasury for expenses incurred for the decoration of a part of the street used for a papal procession near the place where the alleged Pope Joan gave birth. A copy of the file shows that the money was received by “papassa”, who could have been related to the Papa family.

“A completely incorrect interpretation” of the text easily provides all the right ingredients – “Pope”, “John”, “eight” and “popess” – to concoct a tantalizing caption of a female Pope John VIII, who is said to be linked to a street particular that later the popes would have “avoided like the plague” during the processions, he declared.

No female pope existed, concluded the Bishop, but “it is clear that there are facts which, if placed incorrectly, give rise to a whole different story”.

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