(mid-Aug. 985–Mar. 996)
A Roman, son of a priest Leo, a learned man and the author of books, he was cardinal priest of S. Vitale when he was elected, in the turbulent situation following Antipope Boniface VII's death (late July 985), as the agreed candidate of leading curial officials and John Crescentius (d. 988), head of the powerful Crescentii family. The regent Theophano, widow of Emperor Otto II (973–83), being preoccupied in Germany, John Crescentius acted as political ruler of Rome and the papal state with the official title ‘patrician’. Although restricted to ecclesiastical affairs, the new pope threw in his lot with the nobility, thereby alienating his clergy; his rapacity also set them against him. The imperial government, which had taken no part in the papal election, acquiesced in the arrangement, and when Theophano spent some months in Rome in winter 989–90 and asserted her youthful son's sovereignty, she maintained amicable relations with both pope and patrician.
However reduced his role at home, John acted vigorously in the church at large. When war seemed imminent between King Aethelred II of England (978–1016) and Duke Richard I of Normandy (946–96), he mediated and arranged a peaceful settlement (1 Mar. 991). In 992Duke Mieszko I of Poland (c. 960–92) presented his whole realm to St Peter and the pope, his object being to ensure more effective protection for it against Germany and Bohemia; the pope also sent a delegation to Russia, where Prince Vladimir of Kiev (988–94) had just converted to Christianity. In Germany John cooperated with the church policies of the imperial government, and on 31 Jan. 993, at a synod in the Lateran, in an act intended to strengthen his bonds with Germany, solemnly canonized Ulrich, bishop of Augsburg (923–73), the first ritual canonization of a saint by a pope. In 992, spurred on by the German episcopate, he intervened in the affair of the deposition of Arnoul, archbishop of Reims (988–1021), at the instigation of Hugh Capet, king of France (987–96), by the synod of Saint-Basle, Verzy (June 991), and his replacement by Gerbert of Aurillac (the future pope Silvester II). The French bishops had acted independently, convinced that they were within their rights and that the papacy had lost all moral authority; when John's legate, Abbot Leo, summoned them, with Hugh Capet and his brother Robert, to present themselves at Rome, they rejoindered, at the synod of Chelles (993 or 994), that a pope who transgressed the decrees of the fathers was no better than a heretic. Nevertheless John was able, through his legate, to have Gerbert suspended by the synod of Mouzon in the Ardennes (995). The incident has been described as one of the first and most serious manifestations of Gallicanism, i.e. the claim by the French church to more or less complete freedom from the authority of the papacy.
After Theophano's death (15 June 991) John's position in Rome had deteriorated. John Crescentius died in 988, and his brother Crescentius II Nomentanus seized power in the papal state and ruled it as a tyrant. The French bishops at Saint-Basle complained that he had refused their envoys access to the pope, and had prevented him from dealing with their business unless lavish bribes were provided. Abbot Leo had to admit that he held John ‘in such tribulation and oppression’ that he could vouchsafe no answer to them or others. In Mar. 995, persecuted by Crescentius, hated by his clergy for his avariciousness and nepotism, John was forced to seek refuge in Sutri; in the summer he sent envoys to the German king Otto III, now 15 and deemed of age, begging for help against his oppressors. The news of this démarche, and of Otto's decision to move south, obliged Crescentius and the Roman nobility to make their peace with the pope, invite him back to Rome, and reinstall him in the Lateran with every honour. Otto set out from Regensburg in Feb. 996. but before he reached Rome John had a violent attack of fever and died.