Pasquale dei Massimi was born into an aristocratic Roman family around the year 775. He is a member of the same family as Pope Stephen, his immediate predecessor. The parents of this young child were Bonosus and Theodora. Pascal’s mother was known to be a devout Christian and was known for her acts of piety and sanctity.
As a young man, Pascal joined the Roman clergy and was installed in St. John Lateran to be instructed in liturgy and the teachings of the Church. After ordination, Pascal was a priest in the Curia. Around 796, the young priest was created cardinal by Pope Leo III and then abbot of St. Stephen’s monastery, near Rome. This monastery served pilgrims coming to Rome.
Pope Stephen, probably a cousin, died unexpectedly only seven months after being consecrated pope, in January 817. Fear of intervention by the Frankish emperor, Louis the Pious, the Roman nobles immediately voted Pasquale into the papacy without consultation. The new pope sent a legation to Emperor Louis apologizing for that indiscretion. Pascal stressed that the papacy had been thrust upon him to avoid factional strife. The primary legate, Theodore, returned some time later with a document congratulating Pascal, recognizing his sovereignty over the papal states and guaranteeing the election of future popes. This document has been challenged as a forgery.
Emperor Louis, the oldest son of Charlemagne, continued his father’s work, forcibly imposing unprecedented reform and reorganization of monasteries and diocese in Western Europe. Although Pascal was against the emperor ruling over Rome and Roman territory, he worked with him to redo the monasteries in the area. Unfortunately, Pascal was hated for his opinion; the Roman aristocrats were happy with the emperor.
King Lothair, king of Italy and co-emperor with his father, Louis, came to Rome on Easter Sunday, 823 to be crowned by the pope. This set a precedent for future emperors for many years. However, Lothair was not as agreeable to working with the papacy as his forebears. He held court and claimed that Farfa Abbey, north of Rome, was exempt from papal taxation. A number of aristocrats, including the papal legate Theodore, and his son-in-law, Leo, saw this as a way of dealing with the unliked Pascal. They turned to Lothair and developed an uprising, in northern Italy, against the Roman curia. This uprising was cut short and the leaders arrested. The two, Theodore and Leo, were blinded and later beheaded by members of the papal household. Pascal denied involvement, but Emperor Louis was not satisfied. He sent investigators to question the pope. It took an oath of purgation in front of 34 bishops to satisfied Louis and he dropped the suspicion.
Meanwhile, back in 814, the iconoclasts started arguing in Byzantium. Theodore of Studium, an upholder of orthodoxy, began to write, asking the pope for help. Those who believed in images were being persecuted. Pascal wrote to Emperor Leo in Constantinople to no avail. He could do very little for the people in that empire. But monks and artists who fled persecution were sheltered in the newer monasteries in the area of Rome.
Some say that Pascal’s rebuilding of three basilicas was to show the power of the papacy. Be that as it may, he rebuilt Santa Prassede, where he had a mosaic of his mother placed in the chapel of San Zeno. He redid Santa Maria in Domnica. When he had the relics found of Saint Cecilia, he had them put in the basilica dedicated to her. He also had two oratories added to the old St. Peter’s.
Pope Pascal died in 824. The date is often thought to be February 11. But other sources say in the spring. The Curia refused to let him be buried at St. Peter’s due his harsh governing of Rome. He was, instead, buried in the basilica of Santa Prassede.