It's been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for Pope Benedict, what with the arrest of his butler, the firing of his banker, and protesters demanding he say what he knows about the disappearance of a teenaged girl three decades ago. But he's hardly the first pope to find himself weighed down by the toils of the world's oldest living bureaucracy.
Eight-and-a-half centuries ago give or take, the English pope, Adrian IV, asked his landsman, the humanist John of Salisbury, what people thought of the papacy. "I was entirely frank with him," wrote John, "and explained without reserve the abuses which I had heard of in the different provinces. For it was said by many that the Roman Church, which is the mother of all the churches, shows herself to be not so much a mother to the rest as a very stepmother. Scribes and Pharisees sit in her seats, and place on the shoulders of men unbearable burdens."
Adrian himself seems to have had a pretty tough go of it before ascending the See of Peter, struggling his way out of poverty in England and, after being elected abbot of a house of regular canons in southern France, earning the bitter enmity of the canons by trying to reform them. And yet, he told John, being pope was far worse.
For he confesses that he has found so many miseries upon that throne that on making a comparison of the present with the past, all the bitterness of his preceding life seems as joy and the greatest felicity. He says that the throne of the Roman pontiff is a prickly seat, his mantle sewed together everywhere with the sharpest thorns, and of such great weight that it weighs down, exhausts and crushes the strongest shoulders; and that the crown and mitre rightly seem bright only because they are of fire. And he says that he wishes that he might never have left his native soil of England, and had remained forever unknown in the cloisters of blessed Rufus, rather than to have exposed himself to such great anguish, were it not that he dare not resist the dispensation of God.
To John, this was a cautionary tale for Adrian's would-be successors: "Is not the man most deserving of misery who fights to attain such misery?"