In Europe at the turn of the thirteenth century hundreds of great Gothic cathedrals were erected, among them the famous Notre Dame in Paris. A young man, studying at the University of Paris, watched with interest. He listened to reports of crusader armies and discussed theology with his fellow students. They didn’t dream he was destined to become the most powerful man in the world.

He was Giovanni Lotario de’ Conti, and his interests were law and theology. Then he entered the service of the church. On February 22, 1198, at the young age of 37, he was consecrated pope, and immediately chose the name Innocent III.

The new pope wanted the papacy to reflect the mysterious majesty and Gothic splendor of the new cathedrals like Notre Dame, and he set out at once to become absolute ruler over both church and state. He wrote to kings, princes, scholars, and universities, seeking to influence events in Europe. He organized new crusades to capture the Holy Land. He identified heresy and worked hard to root it out. He massacred dissenters. He expanded papal control of central Italy. He involved himself in the selection of kings and emperors. He forced King Philip II to return to his wife. He brought England’s King John to his knees. In one way or another, he dominated the leaders of Europe, insisting that he was their spiritual leader.

Pope Innocent also made his mark on church dogma. In 1215 he convened the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome. The council issued 70 pronouncements, the most significant involving the Lord’s Supper. The council decreed that the elements of the Eucharist actually possess the substance of the body and blood of Christ, a doctrine known as transubstantiation.

Pope Innocent died in 1216 at age 56. “No other mortal,” wrote one historian, “has before or since wielded such power.”

He had gained the whole world.

What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? What would you give to get back your soul? (Matthew 16:26)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 22.

*Header: This image was originally posted to Flickr by sacratomato_hr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/11677248@N00/4787087475

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