History, like our personal lives, is a series of if onlys. If only the captain of the Titanic had slowed down when he was warned there was ice ahead. If only General Belasarius had not been recalled from Italy so soon. If only Adrian VI had not died before he could effect church reform.
When Pope Leo X died, he left the Roman church in serious difficulties. German reformers stirred in the north. Church finances were in disarray, squandered on arts and extravagances. Rome reeked of corruption.
On this day, January 9, 1522, the college of Cardinals made a serious effort to change the direction of the church. For the first time in 200 years they chose a non-Italian pope. The move caught Adrian Dedel, Inquisitor of Spain, by surprise. He had never even been to Rome before.
Taking the name Adrian VI, the new pope entered the ancient city eight months later, on August 29, 1522.
Adrian had been born in Utrecht, Netherlands. Stinting herself, his mother put him through school, for Adrian was left fatherless at a tender age. He also found a benefactress in Duchess Margaret of Burgundy, who defrayed the expenses of his higher education.
A scholar of distinction, Adrian became a popular professor of theology at Louvain and a high-placed administrator of the school. Admiring students compiled and published his lectures without his permission; they sold well. Emperor Maximillian appointed him tutor to his son, Charles of Hapsburg. So well did Adrian ground his pupil in the Catholic faith that when Charles became Emperor Charles V, he was the staunch defender of Catholicism throughout the Reformation era.
When the teenaged Charles became King of Spain, Adrian went to Iberia with him. There he worked shoulder to shoulder with Cardinal Ximenes--who is remembered for his denunciation of the indulgences offered by Julius II and Leo X (read more about him tomorrow). The Dutchman Dedel was sixty-two and regent of Spain when called to the papacy.
The situation would have tested the strongest man. The luxury-loving clergy of Rome didn't want a reforming pope. Islam, on the march again, wanted to devour Christendom. Plague struck and the cardinals fled the city, crippling the pontiff's reforms. All who were dependent on the Vatican reproached the austere pope as a miser, because the coffers were bare. Adrian failed in his effort to get Elector Frederick of Saxony to withdraw support from Luther. He said that the corruption of the popes did not forfeit lay obedience. "Thou art a sheep; presume not to impugn thy shepherd, nor to judge thy God and Christ."
Possibly death came as a relief to Adrian when he departed this life less than two years after assuming the highest office of the Catholic church. In the short time at his disposal he was able to prove himself even-handed, but was not able to deal with the German Reformation or get papal finances back in the black. And that is why Catholic scholars say wistfully, if only...
- Bezold, Friedrich von. Geschichte der Deutschen Reformation. Berlin: Derlagsbuchhandlung, 1890.
- Brusher, Joseph Stanislaus. Popes through the Ages. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
- De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2000.
- Lea, Henry C. Studies in Church History. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea; London: Samson, Low, Son, & Marston, 1869; esp. pp. 378 - 9.
- Loughlin, James F. "Pope Adrian VI." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Montor, Chevalier Artaud de. Lives and Times of the Popes. New York: Catholic Publication Society of America, 1909.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.