The world was caught off guard with the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI this past week that he would resign the papacy on February 28th. Citing deterioration of mind and body, the Pope is one of a very few successors to St. Peter to resign the office.
There was confusion as to when the last pope resigned. The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants. In a prior blog (http://blogs.record-eagle.com/?p=5327#more-5327), I had written that the only Swiss saint, Nicholas of Flue, was born and baptized during the controversial Council of Constance in Constance, Germany, near Lake Constance, which today borders the countries of Austria and Switzerland. The Catholic Church had three men claiming to be pope at the outset of the council in 1414.
It was the age of conciliarism, where, for the first time, a church council had assumed the reins as head of the Church. It all began with King Philip IV of France (1248-1314) who was instrumental in securing the election of Clement V, a Frenchman, to the papacy in 1305. This had an unpopular outcome in Rome, where factionalism made Clement’s life as pope stressful. To escape the oppressive atmosphere, in 1309 Clement chose to move the papal capital to Avignon in France, which was the property of papal vassals at that time.
There were seven popes who resided at Avignon from 1305 to 1378.
1305-1314: Clement V
1316-1334: John XXII
1334-1342: Benedict XII
1342-1352: Clement VI
1352-1362: Innocent VI
1362-1370: Urban V
1370-1378: Gregory XI
Two saints, Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden are credited with persuading Pope Gregory XI to return the See to Rome. This he did on Jan. 17, 1377. But Gregory’s stay in Rome was plagued with hostilities, and he seriously considered returning to Avignon. Before he could make any move, however, he died in March, 1378.
When Gregory XI moved the See back to Rome, he did so over the objections of the cardinals in France. The man elected to succeed him, Urban VI, was so hostile to the cardinals that 13 of them met to choose another pope in Anagni in central Italy … Pope Clement VII. Pope Clement VII set up his papacy back in Avignon, but Urban VI in Rome and his supporters refused to acknowledge him as the legitimate pope. Some people supported Urban VI in Rome as the legitimate pope while others supported Clement VII as the legitimate pope. Furthermore, support for these two rival popes often depended on one’s nationality. The French and their allies support the Avignon pope while those who resented France’s influence on the papacy supported the pope in Rome.
In 1409, another group of cardinals hoped to resolve the conflict by holding a church counsel in Pisa. Those in attendance elected a third pope, Alexander V, who was supposed to replace the other two. So there were now three popes all claiming to be the only legitimate leader of the Catholic Church.
Alexander, considered today as an antipope by the Church, died a year after his election in Pisa, and was succeeded by John XXIII (obviously not the pope who called Vatican II into session), but himself an antipope.
Meanwhile Urban VI, claimant pope in Rome died in 1389 and was succeeded by Boniface IX who died in 1404. He, in turn, was succeeded by Innocent VII, who died in 1406. His successor was Gregory XII.
Back in Avignon, Clement VII (today considered an antipope), died in 1394. He was succeeded by antipope Benedict XIII. In 1398 the French church withdrew its allegiance from the Avignon papacy. Benedict was abandoned by 17 of his cardinals, with only five remaining faithful to him, thus in effect taking Avignon out of the picture.
That left two claimants to the papacy … John XXIII and Gregory XII. In 1415 the Council of Constance brought this clash between papal claimants to an end. Gregory XII and John XIII both agreed to resign. Benedict XIII in Avignon was stubborn and refused to abdicate, but he was declared a schismatic and excommunicated from the Church by the Council in 1417.
In the same year, the Council chose Martin V as the true pope. The council was attended by roughly 29 cardinals, 100 doctors of law and divinity, 134 abbots, and 183 bishops and archbishops, so its credibility as an ecumenical council held sway throughout Western Christendom.
Conciliarism, or the belief that a church council can override papal authority, continued on through Martin Luther’s time. Luther called for a council after being declared a heretic by Pope Leo X. The Catholic Church answered with the Council of Trent, which sealed Luther’s fate as a heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
Before I end this blog, news media have reported that an earlier pope was the last one to resign. In the wake of the announcement of Benedict XVI that he would resign at the end of this month, Celestine V has been invoked as the last pontiff to resign – in the 13th century.
Celestine was born in 1215 and felt called to a life of simplicity and solitude. He had withdrawn from society and lived the life of a hermit. Church tradition says he fasted every day except Sunday and kept four Lents a year, surviving on bread and water. He founded, in 1244, the order subsequently named after him, the Celestines. After a period of two years when the papacy was vacant, the future pope was elected by admiring cardinals. With no political experience, Celestine proved to be an especially weak and incompetent pope. He was in his seventies and even protested his election. However, he finally accepted the cardinals’ choice. His papacy ended by his own will barely five months after it began in 1294.
Various parties had opposed his resignation and the new Pope Boniface VIII had reason to worry that one of them might try to reinstall him. Not to worry, though, Celestine had had enough. He died 10 months later after being harassed and even imprisoned for his decision. He was later canonized a saint.
It will be interesting to see who will succeed our present pope. There is the opinion that the new pope will come from Latin America, Africa, or Asia. However, the pope’s brother, also a priest, thinks that a European will be chosen. Believers in the Church-denied prophecies of St. Malachy even suggest that this may be the last pope in history … Peter the Roman. See http://catholicsouthernfront.wordpress.com/st-malachy-papal-list/.