After the death of Pope Leo X on 1 December 1521, the papal conclave witnessed opposing factions of French and Spanish cardinals deadlocked over whom to select as a successor. Eventually, a Dutch cardinal began to emerge as a candidate, by way of compromise. His name was Adrian Florensz Boeyens, and on 9 January 1522, 500 years ago last month, he became Pope Adrian VI – the only Dutchman to serve as pontiff.
Adrian, who was born in Utrecht on 2 March 1459, came from a pious family of modest means. His father died young, and his mother soon after sent him to the Brethren of the Common Life, a Dutch Catholic community, for his schooling. As a young adult, he attended the University of Louvain, where he studied canon law, philosophy, and theology. He also received his priestly ordination there in 1490 and, the next year, obtained his doctorate in theology. He then became a popular theology professor and also served as vice-chancellor at Louvain.
In 1507, Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, appointed Adrian as the personal tutor for his grandson Charles (who later became the Holy Roman Emperor himself). Acquiring lofty political power as a young adult, Charles began to appoint Adrian to positions of importance, such as the bishopric of Tortosa, Spain. In 1517, Adrian was made a cardinal and soon after also became a grand inquisitor in the Spanish regions of Aragon and Castile.
Despite his high standing, Adrian was undoubtedly surprised when word came in 1522 that the papal conclave had selected him as the next pope. In some ways, though, he was a sensible choice. The Church was in dire need of reform, and the austere, steadfast, and experienced Adrian possessed “all the attributes of an authentic Church reformer”, wrote Robert McNally, SJ, in the 1969 edition of the Archivum Historiae Pontificiae.
In other ways, however, Adrian was an absurd choice: he wasn’t Italian, he didn’t speak Italian, and, beyond that, he’d never visited Italy. The Dutch pope was instantly unpopular with Roman citizens, who, “flabbergasted to hear” that a foreigner had been chosen were also “upset that he did not have a house to plunder”, as related in Frederic Baumgartner’s book Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections.
When the 63-year-old Adrian finally arrived in Rome on 29 August 1522, the milieu was less than festive. Almost none of the locals wanted him to come, and the city was also stricken with bubonic plague. Soon after his 31 August coronation, Adrian began to see fully the troubled state of papal finances, which had suffered because of extravagant spending by recent predecessors.
Other problems were more severe yet. Writing for the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, James F Loughlin rather dramatically described how Adrian had to “extirpate inveterate abuses”, “reform a court which thrived on corruption”, and “hold in leash young and warlike princes ready to bound at each other’s throats”. Moreover, Martin Luther’s growing movement threatened to tear the Christian world asunder. And outside of Christendom, the Turks had entered the Serbian city of Belgrade and were getting in position to take Hungary.
Amid all these troubling prospects, Adrian had to contend with Italian cardinals who liked him even less than the Italian laity.
Not only was he an ethnic outsider, this pontefice barbaro dared to criticise indulgences, matrimonial dispensations, and nepotism. Scorned as a miser for his efforts to implement fiscal discipline, he seemed insensitive to the aesthetic splendour of a Renaissance society.
Local artists who had profited from elaborate Church commissions were incensed by Adrian’s efforts to lower papal court expenses. And some of the more worldly cardinals viewed him as such a threat to their way of living that they broached the possibility of a schism.
When a beleaguered, exhausted Adrian died at age 64 on 14 September 1523, the papal doctor received flowers as a gift for having failed to keep his patient alive. In another display of gratitude, some locals erected a statue of the papal doctor inscribed with words that translate to “Liberator of the Fatherland”.
In a final cruel twist of fate, most of Adrian’s official papers vanished soon after his death, thereby further ensuring that, as a pope, he would never be anything more than an embattled historical oddity.
The Church had learnt its lesson. Not for 455 more years – until a Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II in October 1978 – would the World see another non-Italian pontiff.
Ray Cavanaugh contributes to Catholic World Report, 1843 and the Guardian.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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