Most Catholics understandably link the Church, the Papacy, and Rome. We are “Roman” Catholics. The Pope lives in Rome. He is the Bishop of Rome and of the universal Church. Rome, the Papacy, and the Church are solidly linked terms and almost interchangeable. To say, “Rome has spoken … ” is to say the Pope has spoken, the Church has ruled.
But this connection has not always held and the popes, for various reasons, have chosen or been “forced” to live outside of Rome.
Among the lesser known and understood chapters of Church history is the “Avignon Papacy” (1309-1377). During this period, the popes lived outside of Rome, in what is now the French city of Avignon. Even prior to that time, several popes had found it necessary to live elsewhere within Italy due to the chaos, violence, and troubles in Rome.
These were turbulent times in the Church and in Europe. Whatever brief intellectual and cultural unity had come to Europe in the 13th Century (sometimes called the Medieval Synthesis) was breaking down, and a kind of localized anarchy had become the norm.
Large nation-states, as we now call them, were not the norm in the 14th Century, and violence was common between villages and regions. We live in times in which large countries engage in statecraft and, when there is conflict, wage wars between nations and even conduct world wars. The body count can be astonishing in these national and global conflicts.
In the 14th century, however, it was “death by a thousand cuts,” and violence and war were very localized. But the chaos and violence could be very fierce and ugly.
It is important for us to know some of this material. While I am no prophet, something tells me that with the decline of Christian Europe and the rise of a militant version of Islam, it may be important for us to know that Rome has not always been a place where it was possible or reasonable for the popes to live, and to learn what some of the effects of this have been.
The absence of popes from Rome almost always had a deleterious effect and it took quite a bit of pressure, even from saints, to get them to return. I pray that modern popes will always have the courage to face down threats and never relinquish the Holy See. But history provides important models to know and lessons to learn from the Avignon Papacy.
The history is too lengthy and “byzantine” (i.e., complex) to detail here in a mere blog post. But some highlights are helpful to review. Thus, I’d like to present some excerpts from Sigrid Undset’s book St. Catherine of Siena (pp. 126-139), which describe something of this time. Exact quotes from the book are in italics, and some narrative of my own that I weave in (represented in plain text) is drawn from her material.
The general situation – Times were hard … in Italy. Towns and villages lived under the constant threat of being attacked and ravaged by the armies of neighboring republics … despots [or mercenaries] temporarily unemployed and on the lookout for plunder … The vanquished became victims of orgies of senseless bloodlust, torture, massacre and looting. In the wake of the soldiers followed plague and starvation. Men and boys who had grown up in this anarchy [often] took to the woods or mountains and became outlaws, murderers who neither gave nor expected mercy …
The situation in Rome – The restless, self-willed people of Rome were all too ready [to undertake] rioting, and anarchy broke out during papal elections when armed mobs of Romans tried to force Cardinals to choose their candidate. German emperors also [frequently] invaded Rome to force their claim[s] … [This] often forced popes to flee to Naples or Lyons … For several decades popes had preferred to live at Viterbo [or other Italian towns] … to escape the eternal unrest and uncertainty of Rome
The Avignon Papacy [began] when Clement V refused [because of the situation in Rome] to leave his native France to live in Italy … [he settled in Avignon, which, though technically not part of France, was under French influence] At his death Clement V left a fortune of one million florins. His successor [John XXII] also lived in Avignon and continued the building activities of his predecessor, [making] the papal city on the Rhone one of the most strongly fortified and mightiest cities in Europe.
Things just got worse in Rome – In Rome itself [with the pope absent] there was no authority which could control the aggressive members of the great baronial families who continually waged war on each other … They had fortresses inside the city walls … Pilgrims who came to pray at the graves of the apostles were robbed, peasants attacked outside the city walls, women were raped … The Churches were in ruins; in St. Peters and the Lateran, cattle grazed at the foot of altars … As a result of the absence of the popes, war and enmity between small groups flourished unchecked … How deserted the town which was once so full of people, the mistress of the peoples [had] become a widow.
Some attempts were made by Pope Clement VI to restore order there. He sent a legate, and churches were repaired and rebuilt, law and order restored, and pilgrims could return safely. But at length, the Romans turned against the men the Pope had sent and drove them from the city. Chaos returned. It was both disgraceful and discouraging.
Calls for repentance – It took the Black Death, which overran Europe, to put an end to the fiasco. Half of the population of Italy died in the plague. Many felt sure that the plague was a punishment from God on a world that had rejected Him.
A chorus of voices demanded that the world should do penance and the Pope return to the city that was the rightful home of the Holy See … that this return was an essential condition for a re-birth of Christianity.
This view was championed by St. Brigitta of Sweden in the middle years of the 14th Century. She wrote to Pope Clement VI and warned of terrible misfortunes that would come upon him if he failed to return to Rome. While it was said that he was deeply moved by the letter of this holy and influential woman, he cited a “difficult situation” that presently prevented his move.
His successors, Innocent VI and Urban V, also failed to end the Avignon Papacy. (Though Urban did go to Rome for three years, he left, dying shortly afterwards in fulfillment of Brigitta’s prophecy.)
Upon the election of Gregory XI, great hope was raised of a papal return to Rome. Brigitta, however, would not live to see it. It would fall to Catherine of Siena to prevail on Gregory to make the return. She carried on a long correspondence with him and then visited him in Avignon in 1376. While the weight of her influence is a debated topic, some legends have her saying to the Pope in effect, “Go to Rome or go to Hell.” And Gregory, who was a smart man and knew that Catherine said this is out of love for him and the Church, went back to Rome in 1377.
What are some lessons we can learn from this difficult and painful chapter?
- While we link the Pope to Rome, and he does carry among his titles that of “Bishop of Rome,” we ought not see this as doctrinally essential to his role as the Successor to Peter. Peter himself began in Jerusalem and then likely moved to Antioch, possibly to Ephesus, and then finally to Rome. His move there made sense since Rome was the hub of the empire they sought to evangelize. But if Rome were to fall into a condition that made it untenable for the Pope to stay, he could fulfill his role elsewhere. He would likely retain his title of Bishop of Rome even if forced to live elsewhere.
- We can see how serious the Church’s role is in fostering conversion. All the thousands of European conflicts of this and later periods occurred among Catholics. All claimed to believe in the Lord and to be Catholics, but their politics and national differences trumped their identity as sons and daughters of God. Politics and worldly conquest were more important than the faith. Does this sound familiar? Many today allow the same worldly things to eclipse their faith. Bishops and priests, along with Catholics in general, may seek to avoid conflict now by overlooking this trend, but in the end it would seem it grows only worse until the matter becomes critical.
- The Church of that period was seriously compromised by its own involvement in the political and temporal order. Popes were large landowners and rulers in their own right. This both compromised the Church and also dulled her prophetic stance. This state of affairs arose from benign causes. As Rome declined, Europe suffered from barbarian invasions and a leadership gap, and many departed to the east. In a way, only the Pope could have filled this void at first. But power is seldom handed back once acquired. The popes grew rich and powerful, and many became corrupted by it. Today, too, the Church, while not rich or a landowner, must be careful not to align herself too closely with worldly affairs and governments. Some countries (in Europe especially) have concordats that allow lots of tax money to flow to the Church. In America, the bishops must be careful not to allow themselves to become too closely aligned with political parties or views. We also have to be careful not to allow ourselves to become too dependent on our tax-exempt status or on other things that benefit us either financially or in terms of influence, because the “price” of these benefits may become too high. All these sorts of things can bring the Church into conflict and disrepute, dulling our prophetic stance. We must be very careful never to be in a position where we have “too much to lose” by preaching the Gospel.
- We are entering an era in which the popes may be pressured to leave Rome. The Christian presence in Italy is steadily eroding through contraception and abortion. The cultural and religious suicide of Christians, coupled with a rather healthy growth of Muslims (whose radical elements are a big growth sector), may cause difficulties for the presence of the Church in Rome. Muslims, especially radicalized ones, are not known for their religious tolerance. If you think I exaggerate or am being polemical, please talk to the Nigerian and Sudanese Catholics who have been suffering church bombings and the death and forced relocation of thousands.
- Hagia Sophia in Constantinople became a Mosque. Could the same fate await St. Peter’s? Might this happen in our lifetimes? Where would the Pope and the “Vatican” go? Should the Pope die a martyr or judiciously decide to leave? Should Christians fight to save the Holy See? At what cost? What would a move to another place do to Catholic unity? Would the receiving country gain too much prominence in Church matters? Would others resent this? Such questions cannot be answered now. But as the Avignon Papacy shows, having the popes outside of Rome has a way of causing distress in the wider Church. Most of the early popes were willing to live in a dangerous place and accept martyrdom rather than be “unSEEted.”
- I do not write as an alarmist, but rather as one who ponders if history has things to teach us. Difficult days may come for us. How should the Church prepare? Her own history has things to teach.
- Sign me up for the path of martyrdom, where popes and many Catholics with him would be willing to suffer and die rather than merely accommodate demographic and political realities and vacate the apostolic see. Step one is to step up our own birthrate and work more vigorously towards winning souls for Christ.