Monday, May 5, 2014

Who is Buried in Pope John XXIII's Tomb?

Tomb of Pope John XXIII, Florence Italy

Who is buried in Pope John XXIII's tomb? No, that isn't the start of a bad joke and the answer might surprise you because it is not "good Pope John," born Angelo Roncalli, and recently canonized. Buried this exquisite tomb, carved by Donatello, instead is Baldassare Cossa and how he got there is an interesting story, of which I'll only give a brief account here.

Cossa lived during a tempestuous time in the history of the Church, the "Great Schism". When the Babylonian Captivity (that period during which the popes ruled from Avignon, France instead of Rome) was ended by Gregory XI, who returned the Papacy to Rome, many French cardinals were not happy with the decision to return to the now dilapidated Eternal City. When Gregory died, the Roman people rioted in the streets, clamoring for the election of an Italian pope, which they got with the election of Urban VI. Upset by the prospects of permanently abandoning Avignon and disliking the ruling style of Pope Urban (it is said he had a rather quick temper), the French cardinals removed themselves to nearby Anagni and, apparently hoping for a mulligan, elected a Genevan cardinal to the papacy as Clement VII. Of course, the cardinals couldn't legitimately do this (it would be like trying to raise someone else to the See of Peter while Francis is still reigning), thus Clement was an anti-pope. This was the sad beginning of the "Great Schism" (not to be confused with the East-West Great Schism of the eleventh century).

Having two popes dividing Europe was, of course, quite a scandal. To end this mess, another group of cardinals met in Pisa and decided to oust the successors of both Clement VII and Gregory XI and elected a third man pope. Predictably, neither of the other two popes (one actually the pope, the other an anti-pope) recognized this illicit action (councils cannot depose popes), and the Church now had two anti-popes! Baldassare Cossa succeed to this second anti-papacy, the one that began at Pisa and took the name Pope John XXIII.

The Schism lasted only because the secular powers of the day used the division in the Church to their own ends, with Spain and France, hoping for the return of the papacy to Avignon, backing the anti-popes. Eventually, at the Council of Constance, one anti-pope agreed to abandon his claims to the papacy, a second anti-pope was excommunicated, and the legitimate pope abdicated, paving the way for Martin V to move the Church past the horrors of schism.

Today, Cossa is the best remembered of these anti-popes, thanks to his friendship with the powerful Florentine Medici family, who decided to commission Donatello to build a magnificent tomb for him, which calls him "Pope John XXIII."

Donatello tomb pope
Tomb of "John XXIII"
Angelo Roncalli (St. Pope John XXIII), of course, has his own tomb:

st pope john xxiii
Tomb of St Pope John XXIII


  1. Thank you,always good to be educated or re-educated. I seen S.John`s32 body many times in Rome when i studied there!!

  2. That is a very interesting story. And we think we have it bad with internal bickering!

    1. Thanks, Kathleen. I think it's safe to say that Catholics have ALWAYS thought they had it bad in their bad compared to their forefathers. I suspect Catholics a hundred years from now will be lamenting how much better those lucky Catholics in the late 20th / early 21st century had it (especially with all our saintly popes!)