November 6, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: The remarkable St. Bernard and the papacy

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

St. Bernard was by far the most outstanding Churchman of the first half of the 12th century. He is a doctor of the Church because of his eloquence and writings about the Blessed Virgin. He was a Cistercian, but one wonders just how often he was in his monastery.

Even as a teenager, Bernard showed leadership. When, at age 16, he joined the monastic community of Citeaux, his five brothers, two uncles and some 30 friends followed him into the monastery. By the age of 25, he was abbot of a new house, in Clairvaux.

Bernard was often called upon to solve problems. One of those problems was an eight-year schism when there were two popes—Innocent II and Anacletus II. It started with the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130. The chancellor and a minority of cardinals quickly buried him in a temporary grave, and elected Cardinal Gregorio Papareschi pope, enthroning him the next day as Pope Innocent II.

The majority of the cardinals refused to accept this, and elected Cardinal Pietro Pierleoni as Anacletus II. Anacletus had control of Rome because he had the support of the Norman King Roger II, and Innocent had to flee to France, where Bernard was.

Bernard campaigned for Innocent, winning over King Louis VI of France and King Henry I of England. Meanwhile, St. Norbert, who founded the Praemonstratensians in 1121, won support for Innocent by the German bishops and King Lothair III.

In 1133, King Lothair attacked Rome and gained the Lateran Palace for Pope Innocent. However, Anacletus controlled St. Peter’s and eventually Innocent retreated to Pisa. There he held a synod that excommunicated Anacletus and the Norman king, Roger II.

Three years later, St. Bernard gained Milan in support for Pope Innocent, and King Lothair attacked Rome again. Rebuffed again, he died on his way back to Germany.

By this time, though, Bernard was making headway with some of Anacletus’ supporters, notably King Roger. In 1138, representatives of both popes debated their respective cases before Roger at Salerno. Bernard was apparently the more persuasive because most of Anacletus’ adherents abandoned him.

Bernard continued to advise the next three popes, although the first two of them lived only a year as pope. Pope Eugene III was pope from 1145-1153. Following Bernard’s advice, he held some important synods in Paris, Trier and Rheims that enacted canons meant to raise clerical and monastic standards.

Pope Eugene III also proclaimed the second crusade to recover the Holy Land, and commissioned Bernard to “preach the crusade.” The purpose of this crusade was the liberation of Edessa from the Muslims. Bernard preached the crusade throughout Europe, and his eloquence was so overwhelming that a huge army was assembled.

Unfortunately, the ideals of the military leaders didn’t match those of Pope Eugene and St. Bernard. The crusade ended in disaster with the crusaders reaching Damascus, Syria, but never getting to Edessa. It’s said that Bernard felt responsible for the crusade’s failure, and that this burden might have hastened his death in 1153 at age 63. †

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