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Adrian VI

Pierre-Olivier Léchot

Translation Tony Dickinson

Now what would he be doing in this mess? It is claimed that when he learned that he had been elected pope, in 1522, Adriaan Floriszoon gave a long sigh. Indeed nothing predestined this son of a cabinet-maker and professor of theology, born in 1459, to gird on the pontifical tiara. Brought up in the devotio moderna, the spiritual current which promoted individual piety, Adrian seems to have lived an austere life, entirely dedicated to the study and teaching of theology – an area in which, we note in passing, he never distinguished himself by his boldness, even if ties of friendship bound him to Erasmus of Rotterdam. That did not prevent him from following the academic cursus honorum: professor at Louvain, he became the rector there and then the chancellor.
His life changed completely in 1507, when he became the tutor of the archduke Charles of Habsburg, heir of the king of Spain and potential candidate for the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. This appointment, which he seems not to have desired, still less sought, constrained Adrian to follow his master to Spain when the latter succeeded his grandfather, King Ferdinand. Charles made him Archbishop of Tortosa and Grand Inquisitor – he even appointed him viceroy during his absences from Spain. Finally in 1517 Charles obtained a cardinal’s hat for his protégé. The career of this scholar of austere habits could have stopped there. But, as often, destiny (or the conclave) was to decide otherwise. In December 1521, when the crisis over Luther was at its peak, Pope Leo X (who had excommunicated the restless Luther at the beginning of the year) died at the age of forty-six. The conclave went badly: several factions clashed and only reached final agreement on the name of the man who was still only an unknown in Rome: Adrian, archbishop of Tortosa.
From the moment of his arrival, the new successor of St Peter, who wanted to retain his baptismal name as sovereign pontiff and took as his motto « patere et sustine » (« endure and forbear », quite a programme!), encountered hostility from the curia. The fact was that Adrian had no intention of modifying his pious and austere life-style in order to take on the ways of his two predecessors, Julius II and Leo X: rather than hunting, he preferred celebrating mass early in the morning and in place of the artists with whom the renaissance popes surrounded themselves, he chose to live among the poor and the sick. Finally, and especially, Adrian believed that the broken unity of western Christianity could be repaired only if the curia and the Church were reformed: in an instruction to his legate in Germany that was intended to be read, the pope recognised publicly the responsibility of Rome in the conflict which was undermining the unity of the Church. But let there be no mistake: this does not mean that Adrian was a defender of Luther’s ideas, far from it. He reaffirmed the condemnation issued by his predecessor against the theologian from Wittenberg and believed that the latter must be punished for his errors. However he attacked with tenacity abuses of all sorts and drew the criticism of many members of his entourage. It has to be said that his style of government was disruptive, because he worked principally through decrees and ignored intermediate bodies…
It was with relief, therefore, that Rome welcomed his death, in September 1523, barely a year after his arrival in the eternal city. The story goes that, during his last days, the old pope pined after the time of his professorship in Louvain. As for the Romans, it seems, if Diderot is to be believed, that they thanked the pope’s doctor by carving on the door of his house the laudatory title « liberator of the fatherland ». The curia did not make the same mistake again and chose as his successor Leo X’s cousin, Giulio di Medici, who hurried to recall to his presence the artists whom his predecessor had put to flight.


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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