The Great Schism

From the Book, "Popes Through the Ages," by Rev Joseph S. Brusher S. J.

Pope Gregory XI had left Avignon to return to Italy and had re-established the Pontifical See in the Eternal City, where he died on March 27, 1378. At once attention was directed to the choice of his successor. Cardinals, Priests, nobles, and the Romans in general were interested in it, because on the election to be made by the Conclave depended the residence of the future Pope at Avignon or at Rome. Since the beginning of the century the Pontiffs had fixed their residence beyond the Alps; the Romans, whose interests and claims had been so long slighted, wanted a Roman or at least an Italian Pope. The name of Bartolommeo Prignano, Archbishop of Bari, was mentioned from the first. This Prelate had been Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Church, and was regarded as the enemy of vice, simony, and display. His morals were exemplary and his integrity rigid.

The sixteen Cardinals present at Rome met in Conclave on April 7, 1378, and on the following day chose Prignano. During the election disturbance reigned in the City. The people of Rome and the vicinity, turbulent and easily roused, had, under sway of circumstances, loudly declared their preferences and antipathies, an endeavored to influence the decision of the Cardinals. Were these facts, regrettable in themselves, sufficient to rob the members of the Conclave of the necessary freedom of mind and to prevent the election from being valid? This is the question which has been asked since the end of the 14th Century. On its solution depends our opinion on the legitimacy of the Popes of Rome and Avignon.

It seems certain that the Cardinals then took every means to obviate all possible doubts. On the evening of the same day thirteen of them proceeded to a new election, and again chose the Archbishop of Bari with the formerly expressed intention of selecting a legitimate Pope. During the following days all the members of the Sacred College offered their respectful homage to the new Pontiff, who had taken the name of Urban VI, and asked of him countless favors. They then enthroned him, first at the Vatican Palace, and later at St. John Lateran; finally on April 18, 1378, they solemnly crowned him at St. Peter's.

On the very next day the Sacred College gave official notification of Urban's ascension to the Six French Cardinals in Avignon; the latter recognized and congratulated the choice of their colleagues. The Roman Cardinals then wrote to the Head of the Empire and the other Catholic Sovereigns. Cardinal Robert of Geneva, the future Clement VII of Avignon, wrote in the same strain to his relative, the King of France and to the Count of Flanders. Pedro De Luna of Aragon the future Pope Benedict XIII, likewise wrote to several Bishops of Spain.

Thus far, therefore, there was not a single objection to or dissatisfaction with the selection of Bartolommeo Prignano, not a protest, no hesitation, and no fear manifested for the future. Unfortunately Pope Urban did not realize the hopes to which his election had given rise. He showed himself whimsical, haughty, suspicious, and sometimes choleric in his relation with the Cardinals who had elected him. Too obvious roughness and blamable extravagances seemed to show that his unexpected election had altered his character.

St. Catherine of Siena, with supernatural courage did not hesitate to make him some very well founded remarks in this respect, nor did she hesitate when there was a question of blaming the Cardinals in their revolt against the Pope whom they had previously elected. Some historians state that Urban VI openly attacked the failings real or supposed, of members of the Sacred College, in that he energetically refused to restore the Pontifical See to Avignon. Hence, they added to the growing opposition. However, that may be, none of these unpleasant dissensions which arose subsequently to the election could logically weaken the validity of the choice made of April 8, 1378.

Unhappily such was not, in 1378, the reasoning of the Roman Cardinals. There dissatisfaction continued to increase. Under pretext of escaping the unhealthy heat of Rome, they withdrew in May to Anagni, and in July Fondi, under the protection of Queen Joanna of Naples and to 200 Gascon lances of Bernardon De La Salle. They then began a silent campaign against their choice of April 1378 and prepared men's minds for the news of a second election. On September 20, Thirteen members of the Sacred College precipitated matters by going into the Conclave at Fondi and choosing as Pope Robert of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII. Some months later the new Pontiff, driven from the Kingdom of Naples, took up his residence at Avignon; the schism was complete.

Clement VII was related to or allied with the Principal royal families of Europe; he was influential, intellectual, and skillful in politics. Christendom was quickly divided into almost two equal parties. Everywhere the Faithful face the anxious problem: Where is the True Pope? The Saints themselves were divided: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Sweden, Blessed Peter of Aragon, Blessed Ursala of Parma, Philippe DiAlencon, and Gerard De Groote were in the camp of Pope Urban VI; St. Vincent Ferrer, Blessed Peter of Luxemburg, and St. Colette belonged to the Party of Clement. The century's most famous Doctors of Law were consulted and most of them decided for Rome. Theologians were divided. Germans like Henry of Hesse or Lagstein and Conrad of Gelnhausen inclined toward Urban VI; Pierre DiAilly, his friend Phillippe De Maizieres, his pupils Gene Gerson and Nicholas of Clemanges, and with them the whole school of Paris, defended the interest of Clement. The conflict of rival passions and the novelty of the situation rendered understanding difficult and unanimity impossible. As a general thing scholars adapted the opinion of their country. The powers also took sides. The greater number of the Italian and German states, England, and Flanders supported the Pope of Rome. On the other hand, France, Spain, Scotland, and all the nations in the orbit of France were for the Pope of Avignon.

Nevertheless, Charles V had first suggested officially to the Cardinals of Anagni the assembling of a general Council, but he was answered with a deaf ear. Unfortunately the rival Popes launched excommunication against each other; they created numerous Cardinals to make up for the defections and sent them throughout Christendom to defend their cause, spread their influence, and win adherents.

While these grave and burning discussions were being spread abroad, Boniface IX had succeeded Urban VI at Rome and Benedict XIII had been elected Pope after the death of Clement VII of Avignon.

There are two Masters in the Vessel who are fencing with and contradicting each other, said Gene Petit at the Council of Paris (1406). Several ecclesiastical assemblies met in France and elsewhere without definite results. The evil continued without remedy or truce. The King of France and his uncles began to weary of supporting such a Pope as Benedict who acted only according to his humor and who caused the failure of every plan for union. Moreover, his extractions and the fiscal severity of his agents weigh heavily on the Bishops, Abbots, and lesser clergy of France. Charles VI released his people from obedience to Benedict XIII (1398), and forbade his subjects, under severe penalties, to submit to this Pope. Every Bull or letter of the Pope was to be sent to the King; no account was to be taken of privileges granted by the Pope; in future every dispensation was to be asked of the Ordinaries.

This therefore was a schism within a schism, a Law of separation. The Chancellor of France who was already Viceroy during the illness of Charles VI, thereby became even Vice-Pope. Not without connivance of the public power, Geoffrey Boucicaut, brother of the illustrious Marshal, laid siege to Avignon and a more or less strict blockade deprived the Pontiff of all communication of all those who remained Faithful to him. When restored to liberty in 1403, Benedict XIII had not become more conciliating, less obstinate or stubborn. Another Private Synod, which assembled in Paris 1406, met with only partial success. Innocent VII had already succeeded Pope Boniface IX of Rome, and, after a reign of two years, was replaced by Pope Gregory XII. The latter, although of temperate character, seems not to have realized the hopes which Christendom, immeasurably wearied of these endless divisions, had placed in him. The Council which assembled at Pisa added a third claimant to the Papal Throne instead of two (1409). After many conferences, projects, discussions (often times violent), interventions of the civil powers, catastrophes of all kinds, the Council of Constance (1414) deposed the suspicious John XXIII, received the abdication of the gentle and timid Pope Gregory XII and finally dismissed the obstinate Benedict XIII. On November 11 1417, the assembly elected Odo Colonna, who took the name of Martin V thus ended the Great Schism of the West.