The Pope and Rome – Synonymous, Right? Hmm … Let’s "See"

"Avignon, Palais des Papes depuis Tour Philippe le Bel by JM Rosier” by Jean-Marc Rosier    Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Avignon, Palais des Papes depuis Tour Philippe le Bel by JM Rosier” by Jean-Marc Rosier
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

17 Replies to “The Pope and Rome – Synonymous, Right? Hmm … Let’s "See"”

  1. I think we should be taking notes from the playbook of CAIR and the Islamic Brotherhood. They seem to be making great strides in infiltrating every aspect of society in the world right now. When was the last time Christian leaders were invited to the White House for a secret meeting with the president or claimed to be victims of Judeo Christianphobia by the mainstream media. We have radicalized western factions giving us a bad rap. We have martyred victims regularly in the news and statistics to prove it. What we have is a lousy public relations committee composed of a bunch of fat pacified wimps.

    1. Well, maybe. But I think a stronger case can be made that Revelation is describing the destruction of Jerusalem, not Rome since in Rev 11 the “Great City” is described as the place where their Lord was crucified.

        1. Why do you say that? The prophets did not apply these terms to Pagan cities, but only to Israel and Jerusalem as a rebuke. Only on one occasion, was the city of Tyre rebuked using these terms.

  2. The Pope, one day, for a time, could end up living in and undisclosed location. Nuclear war/nuclear terrorism could also drive the Pope away from Rome.

  3. “Some countries (in Europe especially) have concordats that allow lots of tax money to flow to the Church.”

    Tell that to Cardinal Marx of Germany and tell him to start reading Sacred Scriptures because he has become assimilated to FILTH of the world!

  4. Also, this passage from The Martyrdom of Polycarp should be recalled when considering whether to stay or flee:

    “Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do. Matthew 10:23”–

    “23 Only, if they persecute you in one city, take refuge in another; I promise you, the Son of Man will come, before your task with the cities of Israel is ended.”–Matthew 10:23

  5. We should be aware of the plans the Vatican had during WW II. There was a plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII by the Nazi’s. If it had happened, the plan was that Pope Pius XII to retire and the Holy See move to Lisbon. There the cardinals would elect a new pope; so much for history.

  6. Bergoglio is laying the groundwork for a schism.

    The bishops who have long signaled approval of abortion–i.e., Wuerl, Dolan, O’Malley, Cupich, Chaput, Gomez, DiNardo–by giving Communion to abortionists, will all side with Bergoglio when he approves of Communion for adulterers. Wuerl, Dolan, O’Malley, and many other bishops also approve of sodomy. Cardinal Wuerl famously punished Fr. Guarnizo for not giving Communion to an out lesbian.

    Unless God intervenes, Bergoglio will take the MAJORITY of the bishops (at least in the Americas and Western Europe) into schism after the next installment of the Synod.

    1. Pope Francis is the most misquoted person I have seen. The media reports what they hope he is saying, not what he actually says. When the dust finally settles they will be disappointed to see that he is like the last two Popes on church dogma. He is a little different in that he really lives the Gospel for the world to see. His predecessors were also excellent.

      Regarding the serving of communion to a lesbian; we don’t know all of the details, what happened in confession, etc. Things may not be what they appear to be.

      A good article. If our Popes are forced to leave Rome for a period of time, the Lord will guide His Church just like He has the last 2,000 years.

  7. It’s beginning to be a little spooky, to see the various private prophecies from approved sources beginning to fall into place. I believe, Father, that what we are going through in the present day is only the beginning of the end (of that phase in history which started in 1517, and which Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser termed the 5th age of the Catholic Church, which he predicted would end in chaos, anarchy and bloodshed. Each of these approved private prophecies reinforces, and/or adds to, the others. Since they come from all over the world, and from many centuries, and these in the age when instant communication did not exist, and since many of these prophecies did not become known for years, decades, or even longer after the death of the prophets involved, it is a little hard to argue connivance or conspiracy–that theory simply will not hold water.

    That said, and discounting the more egregious unapproved private prophecies (such as Nostradamus whose astrological chits deny free will; the “prophecy of St. Malacy” which appears to be of a literary genre known as ‘medieval forgery” although this one appears to date from the 1590’s; and also discounting unapproved or even condemned modern “apparitions” such as Medjugorje and Garabandal–it appears that if mankind will continue to ignore the repeated calls of our Popes, church leaders and seers to repent, convert, reform one’s life and do penance for our own sins and htose of others, we will bring down the end of this modern perversion of “civilization” on ourselves.

    Any number of approved seers and prophets from past centuries, down to Sister Lucia of Fatima and Padre Pio, have predicted that one day Russia will invade Western Europe at a time when it would appear that militant Communism was a thing of the past, and that the invasion would be impossible. Russia is predicted to not only successfully invade Western Europe by simultaneously invading on 3 fronts (the North Sea, overland probably through the Fulda Gap, and through the Mediterranean, assisted at first by Moslems and Communist Chinese). They will not only take over Rome but are widely predicted, again from multiple sources, to occupy the Vatican. (The “red flag” will one day be raised over St. Peter’s)

    The Pope is predicted to leave Rome and to go to Germany, probably Cologne, where he will die a “cruel death” in exile. His immediate successor is predicted to be assassinated almost simultaneously with his election and/or installation, after which it is variously predicted that either an Anti-Pope, or possibly 2 or even 3 antipopes will reign, and the Roman Catholic Church will be leaderless for a period of some 25 months.

    After living through what occurred in the 1960’s, and I am thinking more of the sexual revolution than any goings-on inside the Catholic Church, and taking into account the apparently accelerated trajectory which is going on these days, I quite frankly do not want western so-called civilization to survive for one stinking moment longer than Almighty God permits it to. I want this unending reign of Satanic sexual perversion, lying, Godless, and blasphemy, etc., to end as quickly as possible.

    Unfortunately, various indicators are that the present sorry mess will continue for several more decades at least, after which time God will in His inscrutable wisdom end the age of the Protestant revolt, and usher in the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This Triumph is predicted to last for some considerable period of time, and to be a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, during which time the enemies of our faith will largely convert and enter into the Catholic church. There will still be some unconverted souls, however, until the very end of time. After a lengthy period of peace, stability and prosperity, which will result in much of the same abuses which came about after the end of WWII, people will again become lax and corrupt, and this will result in the eventual rise of the Antichrist.

    That said, do I look forward to the approaching denouement? Not one bit. It is likely to be excruciatingly protracted, painful, and as society breaks down more and more, under the weight of a long-predicted universal bankruptcy (which we appear to be just barely entering into), things are going to become much more difficult.

    What I do recommend that everyone do is, keep oneself in the state of sanctifying grace at all costs; frequent the sacraments, esp. frequent confession and frequent worthy reception of Holy Communion; deepen and intensify one’s prayer and devotional life, devote oneself to the works of mercy as possible in one’s life, and do all within one’s power to bring Jesus to souls and souls to Jesus, the Roman Catholic Church to souls and souls to the Roman Catholic Church. (Believe me when I say I try to live this in my daily life, and you sure find out in a hurry who your real friends are, and who your fair-weather friends are!) Remain where you are in virtually all instances. Do not fall into hoarding food, going out West to do the survivalist thing, etc. Unless your vocation or legitimate reasons arise, remain where you are so that you can continue to minister to your family and friends.

    God does not expect us to do the impossible, but He does expect us to do what we can, with what is well within our reach. We will be judged at the end of our lives not so much on our knowledge of the Catholic faith or of private prophecy, but on how we lived the Gospel. If you try to worship and adore the living God in spirit and truth and live the beatitudes, you will really have nothing to worry about.

  8. As recently as the 1880s, Leo XIII apparently considered leaving Rome for Austria. Unfortunately for Leo [but fortunately for Rome], the Emperor of Austria-Hungary said he would not allow it.

    The reason why Leo toyed with the idea of leaving Rome was that the city had been seized in the 1870s by the Italian nationalists who were intent on making Rome the capital of the modern Italian state. Up to that time, the Pope was the head of state of the Papal States and had full sovereign rule over Rome and parts of Italy. After the seizure of Rome, Popes for the next fifty years regarded themselves as prisoners in the Vatican, until Pius XI and the Italian state negotiated the Lateran Treaty which created Vatican City.

    I would hope that if things go bad in Europe over the next few decades, there will be several countries that would be willing to accept the Pope with more or less open arms. I would think that the United States and Canada, with their tradition of commitment to religious freedom and providing a haven for refugees, would welcome the Pope. In Canada, even the liberal media became excited in 2013 over the possibility of seeing Cardinal Ouellet elected Pope [and indeed, according to some reports, this might have happened if he himself had not invited the Cardinals to support Bergoglio instead]:

    It’s unlikely, though, that the Pope will be going anywhere anytime soon. The reality is that the weak Italian economy depends heavily on tourism and the Pope is just about the biggest tourism draw Rome has. This is one of the main reasons why, for example, even the atheist former President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, was so friendly with Pope Benedict:

    In the post-Modern world, most Italians are not as militantly anti-clerical as they used to be. I would hope that they would take steps to defend the papacy if push comes to shove, if only because it would be in their economic self-interest to do so.

  9. One advantage that his current location has is that the Pope is not subject to the laws of any secular state. (I presume that’s right. If it’s not then please tell me otherwise.) Wherever else the Pope went he would be subject to such laws. That seems to be a very strong reason for him staying put. Canada and the USA might welcome the Pope but given the extent to which the laws in those countries are currently restricting religious freedom I would not think that those destinations would be a good exchange for the Vatican City. Could it not be the case that a Pope could find himself before the courts for making comments about, for example, marriage and homosexuality which were deemed to be ‘hate speech’? There are certain sections of the population who would just love to see the Pope in court. Remember the people who wanted to do that very thing when he visited the UK. And while Moslems might possibly become a ‘threat’ in Rome, they could hardly achieve that status within the Vatican City.

    1. Yes, this is true. Some have suggested that the reason Pope Benedict has not left the Vatican since his resignation is that he might be indicted if he travels to Germany or elsewhere. There is the possibility of that happening in Canada or the U.S. too. The Vatican is a sovereign state and its citizens [including Pope Benedict and Pope Francis] have the same legal rights as the citizens of any other state [including freedom against extradition to another country absent an extradition treaty].

      Things would have to get really bad in Europe before the Pope decides to take up residence elsewhere and it doesn’t seem likely that will happen any time soon.

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