Pope Callixtus III
Pope Callixtus IIIPope Callixtus III

Callixtus III 1455 – 1458

Upon the death of Nicholas V in 1455, the first Spaniard was elected Pope, taking the name of Callixtus III.  He was 77 years old and inherited one of the biggest problems faced by the Church–the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.  All of Europe was in shock– worried they would be invaded by the Muslims, changing the face of Catholic Christian Europe.  To this particular issue, the new Pope would devote himself.

Alfonso de Borja was the son of a small landholder with unfounded claims to nobility.  Born December 31, 1378, they did, however, have enough money to educate Alfonso who studied law, which earned him a comfortable living.  He was successful enough to catch the eye of the King of Aragon, Alfonso V, who made him his confidential royal secretary.  

This was still the age of antipopes, and King Alfonso sent him to advise antipope Clement VIII that support would be withdrawn from him and given to the rightfully elected, Nicholas V.  The Pope was so pleased with de Borja’s success, he at once made him bishop of Valencia, one of the richest sees in Spain.  At this time, de Borja had no background in the Church.  

Other prestigious appointments occurred for the new bishop, including influencing King Alfonso to withdraw support for the unauthorized Council of Basle.  From there came an appointment as a cardinal priest and de Borja spent the next 12 years studying the Curia while operating “under the radar,” being careful not to draw attention to himself.  This worked in his favor.

The conclave of 1455, though vehemently divided between two other candidates, united under de Borja whom they considered to be a “caretaker Pope,” due to his advanced age of 77.  Within 4 days, he was elected and took the name of Callixtus III on April 8, 1455.

With abundant energy, Callixtus subordinated everything else to what would become the heart of his papacy:  his deep commitment to what proved to be an unsuccessful crusade against the Turks who were marching towards Europe with a vengeance.  Artists and humanists railed against him, wishing for the days of Nicholas V.  Money was diverted from the beautification of Rome to generals and munitions.

Multiple kingdoms in Europe account for the lack of support for the Pope’s ability to gather and support an army and navy to defeat the Turks, despite a decisive win at the Battle of Belgrade.  A Hungarian, John Hunyadi, and St. John Capistrano saved the city from a takeover by the Turks.  But after the death of their greatest general, no significant military man emerged to assume command, and no money came forth from feuding Catholic monarchies.  It was evident in this failure how far papal prestige had declined.  

The greatest project of his life was unsuccessful.

Pope Callixtus’ contemporaries thought him to be a weak and ineffectual leader–a pope of little merit.  Though much of this was attributed to his advanced age and poor health (he suffered from gout), another issue was his practice of nepotism, which occurred for both positive and negative reasons.  Given the temporal power the popes assumed at this stage of history, it was difficult for them to trust other temporal monarchs and understandably they relied on family members whom they often felt they could trust.  

In his case, Callixtus took the process of nepotism further than most.  Within months, there was not an important fortress in the Papal States that did not have a Spanish commander.  Pope Callixtus also promoted several nephews to the cardinalate, including Rodrigo Borja, the infamous Pope Alexander VI. 

His papacy was replete with large sums of money and property and positions given to his nephews and other trusted friends.  This practice remains a blight on his papacy.

Callixtus was not really a renaissance Pope, and this was taken negatively by Romans who wanted their city beautified in a manner befitting a head of the Papal States.

It is important to remember Callixtus exonerated Joan of Arc of all wrongdoing, which lead to her eventual canonization in the 19th century.  He also celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and established the Feast of the Transfiguration–which proved to be the day on which he died–August 6th, 1458.