Adrian VI: Pope against his will

Adrian VI: Pope against his will

11th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

The election of the only Dutch pope in history came as a surprise and Adrian VI was Bishop of Rome for just a year. His attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church failed. He was born in Utrecht 550 years ago.

A suitable successor to Pope Leo X, who died in December 1521, was extremely difficult to find and the cardinals were deadlocked. Ultimately, a compromise was reached and the cardinals elected the absent Cardinal Adrian Florenszoon Boeyens. Although relatively unknown, he was rumoured to be both devout and an excellent administrator.

Pope Adrian VI
There were two non-Italian popes after Adrian VI: the current pope Benedict XVI --a German -- and his predecessor, the Polish pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Adrian, who was serving in Spain at the time of his election to the papacy, couldn't believe the news when he first heard it. He was the first non-Italian to be elected pope. It also proved to be a dubious honour.

Prominent intellectual
At that point in history, Utrecht was the intellectual centre of the northern lowlands. The Bishop of the Netherlands had his seat in Utrecht and many important people came to the city to pray and talk.

Adrian VIAccording to Utrecht's official city historian, René de Kam, young Adrian's talents were soon noticed:

"Adrian, who was the son of a carpenter, was a gifted student. He attended the Latin School of the Chapter of Old Munster, located next to the Dom Church".

At the age of 17, he attended university in the southern town of Leuven/Louvain. Mr De Kam continues: "initially he studied general subjects but quickly settled on theology. By the time he was 30, he was already a prominent professor of theology. He was a leading thinker and became an important man there". Picture right: Adrian VI by painter Jan van Scorel, 17th cent.

Charles V
Adrian, now a priest, was noted for his pious, devotional lifestyle. The royal house entrusted him with a prominent task: instructing and educating the seven-year-old King Charles. Adrian became the confidant of the young king, who would later rule large areas of Europe as the Emperor Charles V. This is where the trouble began.

Charles sent Adrian to Spain, where his diplomatic talents were employed in completing important work for Charles. When he became emperor, Charles asked Adrian to stay on in Spain and rule in his name. This made Adrian the head of the Spanish Inquisition. He was also ordained a cardinal. A stranger in a country that did not understand him.

According to René de Kam, Adrian did his duty reluctantly:

"That is the remarkable thing about Adrian's life. His intelligence and insight into secular matters meant he was destined to be involved in matters he had an aversion to. He wanted to be a scientist, not a man of important worldly business. But that is what he became. Against his better instinct."

Later when Adrian was made pope, he hesitated about accepting. "But," as De Kam points out, "if you have been chosen as pope, it's not exactly easy to say no."

When Adrian arrived in Rome, after a journey lasting months, he met a great deal of resistance. The cardinals and the people of Rome had already realised that life in the church's capital city was going to change. And not just because the previous pope had exhausted the Vatican's coffers.

LutherThe new pope wanted to shake up the Catholic Church. His ideas were not that far removed from his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther, who had been excommunicated by the church. Historian René de Kam:

"Like Luther, Adrian wanted to tackle the corruption and licentiousness within the church. The Catholics in Italy soon had the impression that the new pope was a heretic. Of course, he could have done what was expected of him and not even try to deal with these problems. But he didn't. A brave man, I think you must admit."

Not that the challenge lasted long. Just over a year after his coronation, on 14 September 1523, Pope Adrian VI died at the age of 64. He never saw the Papal House, the house he had built in Utrecht, where he had planned to spend his old age as a scientist.

Philip Smet
Radio Netherlands

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