Saint of the Day – 16 September – Blessed Pope Victor III (1027-1087) “the Gentle Pope” Benedictine Abbot, Monk, Advisor, diplomat, reformer – papal ascension – elected 24 May 1086 and enthroned on 9 May 1087 – until his death. He was born Dauferio in 1027 in Benevento, Italy and died on 16 September 1087 at the monastery of Monte Cassino of natural causes. He was buried at Monte Cassino. He is also known as Desiderius.
Few have been more reluctant to accept the papacy than the Monk who became Victor III. Blessed Pope Victor III was born a Prince of the dukes of Benevento around the year 1026, the only son of Prince Landulf V. Victor was always monastically inclined, having skilfully avoided not one but two arranged marriages before opting for life as a hermit and monk.
When his father died fighting the Normans, Dauferio escaped the watch of his relatives and entered a monastery. But the enraged relatives hunted him down, tore off his religious habit and hustled the would-be monk home. Dauferio, however, had a mind of his own and soon escaped again. This time his relatives agreed to let him remain a Monk. As a Benedictine Monk, he received the name Desiderius. In spite of his aversion to honour and power, his sweet disposition and pronounced ability caught the attention of the reforming Popes. St Leo IX and Victor II took a great liking to the young Benedictine. He succeeded Abbot Frederick when the latter was elected Pope Stephen IX.
Desiderio proved to be one of the greatest in the long line of Cassinese Abbots. He had found the old abbey in a ruinous state and energetically undertook a wide-scale rebuilding program. Under his leadership there rose a chapter house, an Abbots’ house, a library, a dormitory and a great church. Pope Alexander II consecrated it in 1071. As Abbot, Desiderius became renowned as the greatest Abbot the monastery had seen since St Benedict himself. Desiderius’ reputation brought gifts and exemptions to the Abbey. The money was spent on church ornaments, including a great golden altar front from Constantinople adorned with gems and enamels and “nearly all the church ornaments of Victor II, which had been pawned here and there throughout the city”. Peter the Deacon gives a list of some seventy books Desiderius had copied at Monte Cassino, including works of Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, Saint Bede, Saint Basil, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Cassian, the histories of Josephus, Paul Warnfrid, Jordanes and Saint Gregory of Tours, the Institutes and Novels of Justinian, the works of Terence, Virgil and Seneca, Cicero’s De natura deorum and Ovid’s Fasti.
No mere bricks-and-mortar Abbot, Desiderius took great pains to help his Monks’ advance in the spiritual life. Nor was he neglectful of the abbey’s intellectual life. As Abbot of Monte Cassino, Desiderius was a great personage in Southern Italy. This power he used loyally to back the reform popes. Nicholas II made him a Cardinal and Papal Legate. He had great influence with the Normans and it was he who secured their help for St Gregory VII in his time of need. So great was his reputation with the Holy See that he “…was allowed by the Roman Pontiff to appoint Bishops and Abbots from among his Benedictine brethren in whatever churches or monasteries he desired, of those that had lost their patron”.
It is not surprising that when Gregory VII died, Abbot Desiderius was sought as his successor. But Desiderius simply would not agree to accept the heavy honour. At last on Pentecost Sunday, 24 May 1086, the exasperated Cardinals and clergy carried Desiderius to the Church of St Lucy, and forcibly clothED him with the papal mantle, called him Victor III. But four days later Victor put off the papal insignia and withdrew to Monte Cassino. It was almost a year later, before he finally consented to serve as Pope. At a great council held at Capua in 1087 Victor at last surrendered. When the Normans drove antipope Guibert out of Rome, Victor was solemnly enthroned in St Peter’s on 9 May 1087.
Much could be hoped for from such a Pope as Blessed Victor III but his health was failing and his short pontificate was stormy. Unable or unwilling to maintain himself in Rome against Antipope Guibert, Victor held a council at Benevento, which once more excommunicated the antipope and once more condemned lay investiture. When the council had lasted three days, Victor became seriously ill and retired to Monte Cassino to die. He had himself carried into the chapter-house, issued various decrees for the benefit of the abbey, appointed with the consent of the monks the prior, Cardinal Oderisius, to succeed him in the Abbacy, just as he himself had been appointed by Stephen IX and proposed Odo of Ostia to the assembled cardinals and bishops as the next Pope. He died on 16 September 1087 and was buried in the tomb he had prepared for himself in his beloved Abbey’s chapter-house. Odo was duly elected his successor as Pope Urban II
In the sixteenth century his body was removed to the abbey church and again translated in 1890. The cult of Blessed Victor III seems to have begun not later than the pontificate of Pope Anastasius IV, about six decades after his death. In 1727 the Abbot of Monte Cassino obtained from Pope Benedict XIII permission to keep his feast. Pope Leo XIII Beatified Victor I on 23 July 1887.