January 15, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Seven popes lived in Avignon

John F. Fink(Twenty-first in a series of columns)

Catholics in the 14th century became accustomed to having the pope reside in Avignon, modern France, instead of in Rome. Seven popes did so, from 1309 to 1377.

The first one, Clement V, who moved the curia to Avignon, pretty much did what King Philip IV of France wanted. He consolidated the French influence in the College of Cardinals, creating 10 new cardinals, nine of them French (including four nephews).

After Clement died in 1314, it took the cardinals more than two years to agree on a successor, finally choosing a man who took the name John XXII, a feeble man who nevertheless reigned for 18 years.

During this time, King Louis IV of Bavaria marched into Rome, had himself crowned emperor by a member of the Colonna family, declared Pope John deposed, and had the Roman clergy elect Pietro Rainalducci as Pope Nicholas V, now listed as the 32nd antipope in the Church’s history.

The third Avignon pope, Benedict XII, was a good pope. He reformed some abuses in the Church, and it was during his papacy that new constitutions were written for the Cistercians, Franciscans and Benedictines. He began the construction of a permanent palace for the pope in Avignon. I have visited this palace; it’s well worth a tour.

From a good pope to a bad one: Pope Clement VI is known for keeping a luxurious court, with sumptuous banquets and colorful festivities. He is said to have remarked that his predecessors had not known how to live as popes. He also lavished offices and gifts on relatives and countrymen.

Pope Innocent VI’s papacy stretched from 1352 to 1362. He wanted to return the papacy to Rome, but by that time the Papal State in Italy was dominated by petty tyrants and the pope had to finance military operations to restore their allegiance to the Holy See.

The sixth Avignon pope, Urban V, did manage to return to Rome—for a while. A holy man who continued to live as a Benedictine while he was pope, he and his curia arrived in the Papal State on June 3, 1367. He was met by Cardinal Albornoz, whose military victory made the pope’s return possible. The two entered Rome with a strong military escort on Oct. 16.

By that time, the Lateran, where previous popes lived, was uninhabitable, so Pope Urban moved to the Vatican. He began to repair dilapidated churches, completely rebuilding St. John Lateran. The political situation in Italy, though, deteriorated. After Perugia revolted, and then Rome, Urban sought refuge in Viterbo and then Montefiascone. He finally gave up and returned to Avignon in 1370. He died three months after his return.

Pope Gregory XI finally took the papacy back to Italy to stay. St. Catherine of Siena is credited with convincing him to do so. Before he could do so, though, he had to commission an army led by Cardinal Robert of Geneva to reconquer the Papal State. Once back in Italy, he found it impossible to live in Rome, so he made his residence in Anagni. †

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