The Eight Popes of Santa Susanna
Eight Popes are associated with the history of the church of Santa
Susanna. The church was at one time the home of Pope Caius where
he celebrated the eucharist for the Christian community. For Pope
Eleutherius, the church is his final resting place. Pope Sixtus
V was responsible for the construction and frescoes of the present
church, and five others were cardinal priest of Santa Susanna
before their election as pope. Here is something about each of
them in chronological order. This material is taken from many
sources but especially from J.N.D. Kelly's Oxford Dictionary of
the Popes and Richard McBrien's recent Lives of the Popes.
Buried in the Church of Santa Susanna, he was the twelfth successor
of St. Peter. Eleutherius was a Greek from Nicopolis in Epirus
and had served as deacon to Pope Anicetus (155-166). It was during
his papacy that St. Irenaeus of Lyon visited Rome to discuss the
suffering of the Christians of Lyon and to bring a letter critical
of the prophesies of the heresy of Montanism. This movement was
derived from a series of prophesies which announced the end of
the world and demanded that Christians live rigid and severe lives
in preparation. Tertullian a prominent convert from North Africa
states that Eleutherius was initially attracted to Montanism and
only later in his papacy did he come to condemn it.
Eleutherius is listed as a martyr. He died during the reign of
the Emperor Commodus (180-192). Commodus was the son of the emperor
Marcus Aurelius. The new emperor was insane and during his reign
Rome became increasingly violent. Fascinated with eastern mystery
religions and violent circus games, a number of Christians, including
Eleutherius perished under his misrule.
The body of Eleutherius originally rested in the catacombs and
then in the small church of San Giovanni della Pigna, near the
Pantheon. In 1591, his body was brought to the Church of Santa
Susanna by Camilla Peretti (the sister of Pope Sixtus V). The
great fresco over his tomb altar by Giovanni Pozzo (1563-1591)
shows Eleutherius being dragged by horses and then burned over
a grill while the Emperor Commodus watched. Pope St. Eleutherius'
feast day is May 26th.
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(17 December 283 - 22 April 296)
Original owner of the site of the Church of Santa Susanna. He
was from Dalmatia (along the coast of Bosnia), Caius is attributed
to be a relative of the emperor Diocletian. Caius was the uncle
of Saint Susanna and the church stands over the site of the two
houses built by Caius and his brother Gabinus about the year 285.
Here Caius, Gabinus and Susanna lived. Here the Christian community
gathered to celebrate the eucharist, as the church could not own
Caius is attributed to have encouraged both his niece Susanna
and the captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, Saint
Sebastian to witness to their faith even under the threat of martyrdom.
While Susanna, Gabinus and Sebastian were all martyred under Diocletian,
it appears that Caius died a natural death. He is buried in the
chamber next to the papal crypt in the catacombs of San Callistus.
When the first church was constructed over the site of Caius'
house about 330, the church was originally called San Caio. The
growing devotion to Saint Susanna, who was buried in the church,
led Pope St. Gregory the Great to rename the church Santa Susanna
in 590. Pope St. Caius' feast day is April 22.
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(21 October 686 - 21 September 687)
Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, he was elected pope in 686
as a compromise candidate. When his predecessor John V had died,
a dispute broke out between two factions, the clergy of Rome who
favored the priest Peter and the military who wanted their chaplain
the priest Theodore. The army had taken possession of San Stefano
in Rotundo on the Celian to use as a command post. Soldiers were
then sent up the Celian hill to the St. John Lateran to prevent
the clergy from entering the basilica and electing Peter. Faced
with this opposition, the Roman clergy shifted their allegiance
to the elderly priest of Santa Susanna, Conon, whose father had
been a highly regarded general from Thrace. This was acceptable
the military, and they stepped aside to allow the clergy to elect
Conon soon found himself in contest with the new emperor Justinian
II (685-95, 707-711) who considered himself the guardian of the
faith, and who believed that both the bishops of Rome and Constantinople
were subject to his authority in all things. As the new emperor
was young, Conon actually benefited from some initial tax relief
put through by the new emperor's administration. While this assisted
the pope's popularity in Rome, Conon was to experience significant
criticism for placing the deacon Constantine over the administration
of Sicily. The Sicilians would arrest and deport Constantine,
embarrassing the pope.
Elderly and sickly, he died after reigning only one year and
leaving many conflicts and issues for his successor to resolve.
He did leave in his will a large bequest to the clergy and people
of Rome Pope Conon was buried in the old Constantinian basilica
of St. Peters in Rome.
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(15 December 687 - 8 September 701)
Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, he was born in Palermo of
a Syrian family from Antioch, attended choir school in Rome and
succeeded Conon as priest of Santa Susanna. A conflict broke out
after the death of Conon between the deacon Paschal and the priest
Theodore. Paschal had bribed the imperial governor at Ravenna,
John Platyn, with a hundred pounds of gold if he were elected.
Paschal was the administrator of the estate of pope Conon, and
planned to pay the governor with money willed to the clergy and
people of Rome. Platyn ordered his appointees in Rome to see to
Paschal's election when Conon died on September 21. A rival group
then elected the priest Theodore who had been a favorite candidate
during the election of Conon. Both groups raced to the Lateran
to install their candidates. Theodore arrived first and took one
part of the Lateran palace and Paschal arrived and took possession
of the other side. Neither being able to formally install their
candidate at the main altar.
When it was clear that neither group would give way, a meeting
was held between the majority of the clergy, civil and military
leaders of Rome on the Palatine hill. They unanimously chose Sergius,
the priest of Santa Susanna. The group then marched to the Lateran
basilica and subdued both factions. Sergius was formally declared
pope. Theodore and his followers submitted but Paschal had to
be forced to submit. He wrote to the imperial governor urging
him to come in person and overturn the election. When John Platyn
arrived and discovered the election was both legal and that Sergius
was extremely popular in Rome, he ratified the choice. This allowed
Sergius to be ordained bishop in December. Playtn however, claimed
the hundred pounds of gold promised him by Paschal from the estate
of the old pope. Paschal continued to scheme against against Sergius
until the deacon was finally deposed and imprisoned in a monastery
where he died unrepentant.
Sergius proved to be an energetic and strong pope who successfully
asserted papal authority over the western church. He rejected
the teachings of a church council (the second Trullan Council)
called by Justinian II which had occurred without the presence
of western bishops, and which ruled against a variety of western
canonical practices. This angered the emperor who deported the
pope's representatives in Constantinople and sent the commander
of his Imperial guard, Zacharius, to Rome to either obtain the
pope's signature or bring him back as a prisoner. The imperial
troops in Ravenna rallied to Sergius and routed Zacharius and
his forces. According to one story, Zacharius hid under the pope's
bed in the Lateran while Sergius pleaded to spare his life. The
emperor Justinian would soon be deposed and sent into exile in
the year 695 for mismanagement of the empire.
Sergius rebuilt and embellished a variety of churches in Rome,
including his own Santa Susanna. He reburied Pope St. Leo the
Great in a grand tomb in the old Constantinian basilica of St.
Peters. A fine singer, Sergius introduced the Agnus Dei or Lamb
of God to the western liturgy and created the feast of the Exultation
of the Holy Cross. He was buried in the old Constantinian basilica
of St. Peters. His feast day is September 8.
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Saint Leo III
(26 December 795 - 12 June 816)
Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, he came from a modest family
in southern Italy. He was elected unanimously by the clergy of
Rome following the death of Pope Hadrian. The papacy had dramatically
changed over the 8th century. Pope has separated themselves from
the protection the Byzantine emperors and their governors in Ravenna.
Pope Stephen II had in 754 sought the support of the Frankish
king Pepin to defeat the invading Lombards. The pope would receive
from Pepin the lands formally conquered by the Lombards, therefore
creating the Papal States. The Lombards remained, and Leo soon
found that he had other enemies within Rome, many of the aristocratic
families of the city including relatives of the late Pope Hadrian
who accused the pope of perjury and adultery.
On April 25, 799, while riding in procession Leo was attacked
by a gang who sought to cut out his eyes and tongue. While Leo
survived the attack, he was arrested by his enemies, deposed as
pope and imprisoned in a monastery. Leo managed to escape north
to the Franks who refused to accept the deposition. Leo was escorted
back to Rome where the Franks began an investigation both of the
charges against the pope and the attack upon his person. The emperor
Charlemagne arrived in Rome in November 800 to review the charges
in solemn council. The emperor stated that no one on earth could
judge the Apostolic See, but he accepted the pope's statement
of innocence after Leo took an oath purging himself of all charges
on December 23rd.
At Christmas mass at St. Peters some two days later, Leo crowned
Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, giving Charlemagne equal status
with the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople. This relationship
provided protection for the Holy See and allowed Leo to administer
the Papal States, bestowed several decades earlier by Pepin. However
Charlemagne extracted a high price for his support, often interfering
in the work of the church and expecting Leo's tacit approval in
all things. Leo began a building program in Rome, restoring and
embellishing churches. A great apse was added to Santa Susanna
and a magnificent Byzantine mosaic was installed in the apse,
depicting both Leo and Charlemagne. Leo died on June 12, 816 and
was buried in the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peter. Leo
is listed as a saint based on the miracle of his restored eyes
and tongue, following the attack on his person in 799, his feast
day is June 12.
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(6 March 1447 - 24 March 1455)
Cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, and the first of the Renaissance
popes. Born Tomes Parentucelli on 15 November 1397, the son of
doctor from Sazana near La Spezia. He worked for the Bishop of
Bologna, Nicholas Albergati for almost twenty years, following
him to Rome, where he joined Albergati in the Roman curia. An
excellent diplomat, he was sent as Papal Legate to Germany in
1446 persuading the Germans to support Eugenius IV as pope who
the Council of Basel deposed and elected anti-pope Felix V in
his place. For this success Eugenius made Parentucelli cardinal
priest of Santa Susanna and in 1447, Bishop of Bologna. He was
unable to take possession of his see because Bologna was in revolt.
Eugenius died in February and the 18 cardinals meeting in Conclave
were deadlocked. The favorite candidate, Cardinal Colonna remained
a few votes short of election at which point Cardinal Parentucelli
emerged as a compromise candidate. Upon his election at the church
of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the new pope took the name of Nicholas
after his old mentor from Bologna.
A superb politician and diplomat, Nicholas V was a much need
reconciler following the conflict between pope and council at
Basel. He ended the schism by persuading anti-pope Felix V to
abdicate, making him Cardinal priest of Santa Sabina with a substantial
pension. He also persuaded the Council of Basel to dissolve after
confirming Nicholas' election as pope. Nicholas then proclaimed
the Holy Year of 1450 to celebrate the restored unity of the church.
While he failed to bring about any real and needed reform of the
church, he did bring the intellectual aspirations and artistic
achievements of the Renaissance into partnership with the church.
It was Nicholas who brought Fra Angelico to Rome and it was his
donation of some 1200 Greek and Latin manuscripts that began the
Vatican Library. In the last years of his life, he became increasingly
worried, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, and increasingly
suspicious of plots against his life. He died March 24, 1455.
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(24 April 1585 - 27 August 1590)
The pope responsible for the remodeling of the present church
of Santa Susanna, he was born Felice Peretti in the March of Ancona
on December 13, 1520. The son of a farm worker, his education
was provided through his uncle who was a Franciscan. Felice joined
the Franciscans, receiving a doctor degree in theology in 1548.
An extraordinary preacher he was brought to Rome by Cardinal Carpi,
protector of the order. His series of Lenten sermons made his
reputation in Rome and Paul IV invited him to come and work in
the curia. In 1566 St. Pius V appointed him vicar general of the
Franciscans and bishop of Sant'Agata dei Goti. The pope's confessor,
he was made a cardinal in 1570. Clashing with the new pope, Gregory
XIII after his election in 1572, Peretti was pensioned off in
semi-retirement to a villa on the Esquiline where he lived in
relative obscurity. Following the death of Gregory in 1585, he
was unanimously elected as successor and took the name Sixtus
after the last Franciscan pope.
The Papal States and Rome itself suffered from increasing violence
and banditry, caused in part by a large number of dispossessed
aristocrats, who has lost their lands due to Gregory XIII's need
for revenue. Sixtus immediately employed a series of harsh measures
to end this state of lawlessness. After two years or arrests and
public executions that numbered in the thousands, peace was restored
to Rome and the Papal States. Changing both the economic and agricultural
policies of the Papal States, he drained the marshes, set food
prices, and encouraged the development of the wool and silk industries.
Sixtus raised taxes, floated loans and sold off church offices,
becoming one of the richest men in Europe and accumulating millions
of scudi in gold which he housed at Castel San Angelo. He reorganized
the Roman Curia creating a system that remained in place until
Vatican Council II. Sixtus effectively enforced the decrees of
the Council of Trent, set the number of cardinals at seventy,
established the policy of bishops visiting Rome every so many
years to report on their dioceses.
Sixtus is best remembered for his transformation of the city
of Rome into a Baroque city, which was accomplished through a
series of great boulevards that linked the Medieval pilgrimage
churches of Rome. He rebuilt the Lateran Palace and enlarged the
Quirinal Palace, the papal residences. He completed the dome of
St. Peters and is most remembered for erecting a series of obelisks
in key places throughout the city including St. Peter's Square.
It was Sixtus who commissioned the remodeling of the Santa Susanna
as part of his urban renewal, and it was school of Sistine artists
associated with his commissions he painted the present frescoes
inside the church. Sixtus died of malaria on August 27, 1590 and
is buried in St. Mary Major.
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(12 July 1730 - 6 February 1740)
The last cardinal priest of Santa Susanna to be elected pope,
he was born Lorenzo Corsini in Florence on April 7, 1652. The
oldest son of nobleman who had made his fortune in business, Lorenzo
was educated both in Rome and Pisa, receiving a doctor of law
degree in 1675. Upon his father's death in 1685, he decided to
enter the priesthood and with his personal wealth and the assistance
and family friends, he rose rapidly through the Roman curia. He
was made a titular archbishop in 1690 and nuncio to Vienna in
1691, but as he was not a cardinal, the emperor refused to acknowledge
his presence. He returned to Rome and became papal treasurer in
1696. In 1706 he was made cardinal priest of Santa Susanna by
Clement XI. In residence in the Pamphili Palace in the Piazza
Navona, he was in the very center of Rome's scholarly and artistic
life. Cardinal Corsini was nominated in the conclaves of 1721
and 1724, and was finally elected in July 1730 at the end of a
highly conflictive four month conclave. He took the name Clement
after his papal patron who had made him a cardinal.
Elected at the age of 78, Clement was often bedridden with gout
and he became blind in 1732. His administration depended increasingly
on his friends and his nephew Nero Corsini who he made a cardinal.
He reintroduced lotteries, and began printing paper money, and
he established a free port at Ancona. Clement brought to trial
and imprisoned several members of the last papal administration
who had caused the financial crisis he had inherited. The pope
had significant problems in international relationships, often
finding himself ignored by the Catholic powers of Europe. The
lessening of the papal debt together with his own fortune allowed
Clement to embellish the city of Rome. He built the great facade
on St. John Lateran and the beautiful Andrea Corsini chapel inside
the basilica. He is probably best remembering for commissioning
the Trevi Fountain, that bears his name, one of the most visited
sites in Rome. He died on February 6, 1740 and after a grand funeral
procession from St. Peter's he was buried in the Corsini chapel
of St. John Lateran.
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