A plastic rosary with red beads and cross on a pink background by Karolina Grabowska
I was raised Catholic (which didn’t stick) and was taught that only men could become the Pope. Years later, a good friend of mine told me about Pope Joan. It was the first time I heard of her. Why didn’t the Catholic Church teach about this particular Pope?
Wikipedia noted Jean de Mailly’s chronicle, written around 1250, contained the first mention of an unnamed female pope and inspired several accounts over the next several years.
The most popular and influential versions is that of Martin of Opava’s Chronicle Pontificum et Emperatorum in the 13th century. Martin introduced details that the female pope’s birth name was Jon Anglicus of Mainz, that she reigned in the 9th century and that she entered the church to follow her lover.
The legend was generally accepted as true until the 16th century, when a widespread debate among Catholic and Protestant writers called the story into question: various writers noted the implausibly long gap between Joan’s supposed lifetime and her first appearance in texts.
According to Wikipedia, Pope Joan – who was born Ioannes Anglicus – became Pope between 885-857, during the Middle Ages. Her story first appeared in chronicles in the 13th century and spread throughout Europe. The story of Pope Joan was widely believed for centuries.
Most versions of Pope Joan’s story call her a talented and learned woman who disguised herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. In the most common accounts, owing to her abilities, she rose through the church hierarchy and was eventually elected pope.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops posted information about how a new pope is chosen. They wrote: When a Pope dies or resigns, the governance of the Catholic Church passes to the College of Cardinals. Cardinals are bishops and Vatican officials from all over the world, personally chosen by the pope, recognizable by their distinctive red vestments. Their primary responsibility is to elect a new pope.
Following a vacancy in the papacy, the cardinals hold a series of meetings at the Vatican called general congregations. They discuss the needs and the challenges facing the Catholic Church globally. They will also prepare for the upcoming election, called a conclave. Decisions that only the pope can make, such as appointing a bishop or covering the Synod of Bishops, must wait until after the election. In the past, they made arrangements for the funeral and burial of the deceased pope.
In the past, 15 to 20 days after a papal vacancy, the cardinals gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for a Mass involving the guidance of the Holy Spirit in electing a new pope. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote in a conclave. They are known as the cardinal electors, and their number is limited to 120.
The cardinals vote by a secret ballot, processing one by one up to Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgement, saying a prayer and dropping the twice-folded ballot in a large chalice. Four rounds of balloting are taken every day until a candidate receives two-thirds of the vote. The result of each ballot are counted aloud and recorded by three cardinals designated as recorders.
If no one receives the necessary two-thirds of the vote, the ballots are burned in a stove near the chapel with a mixture of chemicals to produce black smoke. The ballots of the final round are burned with chemicals producing white smoke to signal to the world the election of a new pope.
It sounds to me like perhaps Pope Joan could have been selected through this tedious and time consuming process. Assuming, of course that the election for a new pope existed at the time.
Wikipedia posted that her sex was revealed when she gave birth during a procession and she died shortly after, either through murder or of natural causes. The accounts state that the later church processions avoided this spot and that the Vatican removed the female pope from its official lists and crafted a ritual to ensure the future popes were male. In the 16th century, Siena Cathedral featured a bust of Joan Lamont and other pontiffs; this was removed after protests in 1600.
A website called Pope History provided more information. One of the stories about Pope Joan gave her a different fate. Instead of dying during childbirth, she survived. Of course, she was confined and deposed. The forsaken female pope had to endure years of penance for her trickery. However, the child she gave birth to during that fateful procession grew up to be Bishop of Ostia. After Joan’s death, the Bishop ordered the body interred in his cathedral.
According to Pope History, from the 13th to 15th century, the story of Pope Joan was regarded as fact. Joanna was used as a moral anecdote in Dominican preaching. At the behest of Pope Sixtus IV, Bartolomeo Platina put the story in the Vatican library.
The story was also considered true by the Council of Constance in 1415. A carving of her bust was included along with an installation of past pontiffs at Siena Cathedral, too.
At the start of the 17th century, Pope Clement VII outright declared the story of Pope Joan was untrue. With that declaration, belief in Pope Joan started to wane. The art depicting Joan carved for the series of papal busts at Siena Cathedral was destroyed.
Was Pope Joan a real person? Or was she only a myth? In my opinion, as a lapsed Catholic, I think Pope Joan could have been a real person, who disguised her gender right up until she gave birth.
Unfortunately, this led to the Vatican removing anything related to the female pope and creating a ritual to prevent women from ever becoming pope. I’m not sure why they were so afraid of having a woman pope.
This explains why I’d never heard of Pope Joan. Assuming she existed, it is clear that the Catholic Church was desperately trying to hide that knowledge. I am dismayed that the dismissal – and the silencing and erasing her – was condoned by the Catholic Church.