Feast Day : September 16
Also known as: Desiderius
A sickly and reluctant pope, Victor is remembered for sending the military force to North Africa that in 1087 defeated the Muslim Saracens, prefiguring the Crusades. He was born in 1026 or 1027 to a family of Lombard nobles. From his youth he yearned to become a monk, but since he was an only son, his parents opposed this plan, and arranged a marriage for him instead. After his father died fighting the Normans in 1047, he fled his marriage and went to Cava, only to be captured and brought back home by force. Again he escaped to Cava, where he received permission to enter the monastery of Santa Sophia at Benevento, and took the name Desiderius. Finding the life at Santa Sofia less strict than he wished, Desiderius soon moved to the island monastery of Trimite in the Adriatic Sea, then, in 1053, went to live with some hermits at Majella in the Abruzzi. His austerity brought him to the attention of Pope St. Leo IX (r. 1049–54) and his successor, Pope Victor II (r. 1055–57). He attached himself to Victor’s court at Florence, where he met two monks from Monte Cassino, and in 1055 he returned with these monks to their monastery. Joining the community shortly thereafter, he was appointed superior of the dependent house at Capua. In 1058, Desiderius succeeded Pope Stephen X (r. 1057–58)—who had retained the abbacy even while he held the papacy—as abbot of Monte Cassino. He proved to be a great abbot, who rebuilt the church and established schools of art, while he reinstated monastic discipline. His reputation brought the abbey many gifts and exemptions. Pope Alexander II (r. 1061–73) gave him the power to reform other monasteries in his region as well. He was well positioned to act as a gobetween for Rome and the Normans in Italy, a role he performed under Pope St. Gregory VII (r. 1073–1085). In May 1085, as he lay dying, Gregory named Desiderius as one of the fittest to succeed him. After Gregory’s death, Desiderius went to Rome to consult on the succession, but when he discovered that he was the leading candidate, returned to Monte Cassino. There he involved himself in political affairs, trying to get the Normans and Lombards to support the Holy See. In the autumn, he marched on Rome with the Norman army, but when he discovered that the Norman princes were conspiring with the Vatican’s cardinals to seat him, he refused to enter the city unless they desisted. Since neither side would give in, the election was postponed. In 1086, Desiderius was importuned to return to Rome and was once again pressed to accept the Chair of St. Peter. When he continued to resist, the cardinals lost patience with him. On May 24, they seized him and carried him to the Church of St. Lucy, where they dressed him in the pope’s red cape and gave him the name Victor. Four days later he abandoned the papal insignia, and again returned to Monte Cassino. He spent about a year there before finally accepting the throne during Lent in 1087. After the Normans had driven the soldiers of the antipope Clement III (Guibert of Ravenna) out of St. Peter’s, he was consecrated there on May 9, and gave the Easter Mass. However, he remained in Rome only eight days before returning once more to Monte Cassino. Victor’s short papacy was much concerned with struggles with Clement and his supporters. In August 1087, at a synod in Benevento, Victor renewed Gregory VII’s excommunication of Clement, who was once again ensconced in the Lateran Palace. While the council was under way—on August 5—the army he had sent to North Africa under the Banner of St. Peter captured the town of El Mahadia and forced the Islamic ruler of Tunis to free all Christian slaves and to pledge tribute to the Holy See. The Benevento council had lasted only three days, however, when Victor entered his final illness. He retired to Monte Cassino, where he had himself carried to the chapter house, which he had built. He died there on September 16, 1087, and was interred in a tomb he had prepared for himself. Four hundred years after, his relics were translated to the church, then later were moved again. Victor’s only known literary work is his Dialogues on the miracles of St. Benedict and others at Monte Cassino. His cultus seems to have begun no later than the reign of Pope Anastasius IV (r. 1153–54), only decades after his death, though it was largely confined to the region of Monte Cassino. In 1727, the monastery’s abbot obtained permission to keep his feast.