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Pope Gregory XI Returns to Rome at the Request of St. Catherine of Siena: January 17, 1377

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part I.


Boniface VIII’s successor, Benedict XI, made peace with King Philip the Fair. Philip had sent messages to Benedict, congratulating him on his election and promising to be obedient in the future. In turn, Benedict absolved Philip of the penalties Boniface had placed on him. Benedict was a saintly man who might have strengthened the papacy if he had lived longer. But he died in 1304 after reigning as pope for only eight months.


The next pope—Clement V—was a Frenchman whom the cardinals, it seems, elected to please King Philip. Instead of being crowned pope in Rome, Clement insisted that the ceremony be held in France; and it was, in the presence of Philip. Clement remained in France after his coronation, appointing mostly French clergymen to be cardinals.


The coronation of Pope Clement V, inaugurating the “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes in Southern France. Miniature from the “Cronaca Villani.“
The coronation of Pope Clement V, inaugurating the “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes in Southern France. Miniature from the “Cronaca Villani.“

Philip tried to force Clement to stage a trial of the deceased Boniface VIII, whom the king accused of heresy and other crimes. Clement did not refuse, but he delayed calling a trial. Finally, at the king’s insistence, Clement set a date for the trial. In the end, however, Philip called the trial off, allowing it to wait for an ecumenical council. The king even withdrew his charges against Boniface, declaring that his motives in attacking the dead pope had been only the purest.


Pope Clement lived in various places throughout France. He finally settled in Avignon, a town that was part of the Roman Empire of the Germans but lay directly across the Rhône River from French territory. Clement V and the eight popes who followed him remained in Avignon, where they built a huge palace and installed an elaborate court. Being so close to France, these popes were heavily influenced by the French king.


The popes reigned from France and Avignon from 1305 to 1377, a 72-year period called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes—a reference to the 70-year exile of the Jews in Babylon in the sixth century b.c. The popes’ “captivity” weakened the respect Christians had for the papacy—to the Germans, Englishmen, Italians, and all the European nations, it appeared that the popes worked only for France’s benefit. Another development that lost the Avignon popes the respect of many throughout Europe was their practice of nepotism—the granting of high church offices to relations.


View of the papal palace at Avignon
View of the papal palace at Avignon

Though not wicked men, the Avignon popes often seemed to be more concerned with the worldly aspects of the Church than with its spiritual welfare. They set up a large bureaucracy to govern the Church. To pay for the many bureaucrats as well as for the luxurious court life at the papal palace, the Avignon popes levied new taxes and established an army of papal tax collectors to gather the money. For instance, before they could become bishops, those elected to the office had to pay a special tax; and the pope claimed the right to take for himself the treasury, library, and furniture of a bishop who died. The taxes levied by the popes in Avignon affected even common priests, who sometimes cut back on their charitable and educational work or charged fees for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other services in order to pay the taxes.


One of the worst abuses, however, was the granting of more than one benefice to a cardinal or member of the papal court. One man could become the bishop of two or more dioceses, even in countries where he did not live and would never visit. The Avignon popes often chose bishops or other high-ranking churchmen who were not native to the country in which their dioceses lay, but who could pay the high costs of their office. Such bishops had little knowledge of local problems or customs. All too often, these appointments went to those self-serving men who had won favor by their service at the papal court. These men were frequently disliked for their foreign ways when they arrived as bishops, abbots, or canons in Spain, England, or Germany.


[. . .]


During their stay in Avignon, the popes had not utterly forgotten their Italian lands, nor did they intend to stay in Avignon forever. One problem they faced was that Italy, particularly its papal states, was torn by struggles between rival lords. The Avignon popes thought it would be too dangerous for them to return to Rome.

Statue of Saint Catherine of Siena
Statue of Saint Catherine of Siena

One pope, Urban V (who became pope in 1362), did return to Rome. But faced with threats of revolution and overcome with fear, he changed his mind. Though the Romans begged him to remain, he returned to Avignon, where he died, three months later, in 1370. The next pope, Gregory XI, was determined to return to Rome. But when warfare again erupted in Italy, he remained at Avignon.


Living in war-torn Italy at the time was a woman named Catherine, of the city of Siena. Catherine was known far and wide as a holy woman. She lived a life of poverty as a lay Dominican and tended the sick and the poor. She attracted even the pope’s attention. In letters to Gregory, she begged him to return to Rome, calling the city “a garden watered with the blood of the martyrs, which is still boiling and calling for others to follow in their footsteps.” By returning to Rome, she insisted, the pope could bring peace to Italy.


Moved by Catherine’s urgings and prayers, Gregory XI did return to Rome, entering the city on January 17, 1377. After nearly 75 years, the pope reigned again in the Eternal City. The long “Babylonian Captivity” was over. But all was not well with the Church; new and greater evils were soon to follow.



Music from the Age of Schism


The late 14th-century French composer, Matheus de Sancto Johanne, worked for Cardinal Richard of Geneva—but not when the latter, in 1378, was chosen as antipope in Avignon to oppose Pope Gregory XI’s successor, Urban VI. When this piece, Science n’a nul annemi (“Knowledge has no enemy”) was written—before or after the schism—is unknown. It exemplifies a late 14th-century style called the Ars Subtilior (“more subtle art”), characterized by complex rhythms and melodies.



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