Christ's Faithful People
885 - 891 AD
When Hadrian III died on his way to Worms, Rome was suffering from famine and drought. The people, hoping God would bless them under a holy pope, cried out for Stephen, cardinal-priest of the Four-Crowned Martyrs. All agreed on Stephen, and he was consecrated the next Sunday without waiting for any imperial confirmation. Emperor Charles the Fat was angry when he heard of this, but when he discovered how universal was the desire for Stephen, he let the matter rest.
Stephen was the son of Hadrian, a noble, living in the upper-class Via Lata district. Hadrian, a man of good life, had his son educated by Zachary, bishop of Anagni and papal librarian. Then he entered the Lateran and was made cardinal-priest of the Four-Crowned Martyrs by Marinus I.
Stephen deserved the reputation he enjoyed for holiness. But he was also a practical man. He took the people around the papal treasury and showed them how empty it was. Then he helped them as best he could. To fight the plague of locusts which was then desolating Rome, he offered a reward for every pint of locusts brought in. When this failed to make an appreciable dent in the millions of insects, Stephen, after prayer, blessed holy water and gave it to the people to sprinkle on their fields. The plague ended.
Stephen did what he could to adorn the churches, but above all he was interested in souls. He preached frequently. He denounced magical and superstitious practices; above all, he was good to the poor. A lover of justice, he personally consecrated Teutbold, bishop of Langres when his metropolitan tried to override the people's will. He checked the impudence of Frothar who had usurped the see of Poitiers, and rebuked the archbishop of Ravenna for uncanonical conduct. When Photius was removed from the patriarchate of Constantinople to make way for Emperor Leo's brother Stephen, the Pope refused to acknowledge Stephen until he had been assured that Photius had resigned. At the beginning of his pontificate he had found a letter addressed to Hadrian from Emperor Basil which denounced the Roman Church for allowing Marinus, already a bishop, to become pope. Stephen defended the act of the Roman See in a dignified and skillful manner.
The sad condition of the Western Empire presented the Pope with a vexing problem. Charles the Fat, deposed in 887, had died the following year. The old empire of Charlemagne was now broken up into five or six pieces. Shadowy as was the imperial title, there was heated competition for it. Stephen crowned Guido, duke of Spoleto, emperor on February 21, 891. The turbulent dukes of Spoleto had been thorns in papal sides, but Stephen seems to have got along well with Guido. However, the title did not mean much because Guido could not control Italy, much less the territories beyond the Alps.
In the midst of gathering gloom, in September 891, the saintly Stephen died.