Ensconced in Avignon, a Cistercian Pope strives for reform as war lurks on the horizon for France
Resuming where we left off in the succession of Popes in our October 27th issue before reviewing the first 1300 years, we return to that sad time in Church history when the Holy See was ripped from Rome and firmly entrenched in Avignon, France. With the passing of the controversial Cahors-born Pope John XXII and his 18 year reign until December 4, many were hoping an Italian might wrest control of the Avignon Papacy and return it to Rome but their methods left the Church not only black and blue but in the throes of schism. When the Conclave convened in Avignon, the leading candidate was Cardinal Jean de Comminges, a French prelate of great repute, but because he was unwilling to return the Holy See to Rome when canvassed by fellow cardinals he was passed over in favor of a humble Cistercian who had risen to the ranks of the red hat under the pontificate of John XXII. His name was Cardinal Jacques Fournier who had been born in Saverdun just outside Toulousse, France. He had gained notoriety as a skillful, but fair inquisitor, extracting nemerous confessions from heretics and those who had strayed through his holy manner rather than through intimidation or torture. Thus, he became the unanimous choice of the College of Cardinals and was elected on the first ballot on December 20, 1334 as the 197th successor of Peter. He chose the title Pope Benedict XII in honor of the holy Sovereign Pontiff Blessed Pope Benedict XI who had settled a difficult dispute with the kingdom of France after Pope Boniface VIII had so angered the French and become a bitter enemy of King Philip IV.
Upon his election all of Christendom rejoiced for the stormy pontificate of John XXII was frought with turmoil. Rome held out great hope that the papacy would return to its roots and Benedict XII gave indications of this from the onset, another reason the cardinals were so strong in support of him. But the new monarch of France King Philip VI, intent on keeping the papal party in France because of the prestige of such a coup, strongly rebuffed Benedict who normally would not have placed that much importance on Philip's request, but Rome itself was still struggling with internal conflicts and its citizens in a rebellious state and so Benedict procrastinated, deciding the peaceful, serene setting of Avignon was more advantageous than the turbulent, unsteady atmosphere of Rome. Yet, his intent was noble and it was not a ruse as evident of his allocating monies to restore and re-roof St. Peter's in Rome even though he was not there at the time. He also spent money for restoration of the Lateran. Many Roman dignitaries visited him at Avignon and even promised him he would be installed at Bologna as a prequel to returning to Rome. But political pressure from both Rome and France backfired for Benedict was first and foremost a theologian and a pious man who held prayer time as paramount. Avignon's quiet environs lent greatly to the monastic feeling Benedict yearned for. As time went on Benedict became more set in his ways and, rather than sending out signals of a return to Rome, turned 180 degrees and announced plans to expand the papal palace at Avignon with the generous coffers of France's royalty contributing much of the funds. But Benedict disdained the opulence in favor of reinforcing the impregnability of the fort in case of attack. While his predecessor had been a shrewd politician, Benedict was not. But Benedict was fastidious and a stickler for reverence and the essence of sacrifice for religious and clerics. Thus, rather than making the palace lavish, he made it practical and cut down on excess curia who were expendable. Throughout his pontificate one of his main crusades was assuring that religious orders were obedient to their rule, thus reforming many orders that had strayed from the purity of their founders including the Spiritualist Franciscans who had misread Benedict and thought they could gain control of the influential Franciscan Friars but they were sadly mistaken for Benedict ordered all Friars, monks, priests and brothers to forsake the world as vagabonds and return to their monasteries and convents. The Benedictines benefited the most from this reform, especially through Benedict's Papal Bull Summa magistri on June 20, 1336 which reestablished the intent of Saint Benedict to his order and which remained in effect up to the Council of Trent. In addition, all mendicants were instructed that they could not inherit riches or be appointed to benefices. In addition, he decreed that bishops must resume residencies in their dioceses in clerical housing, not the well-to-do houses furnished by aristocracies in return for clerical favors.
In fact, clerical favors had led to much of the corruption and laxity within the Church and Benedict was intent on stopping these practices. He reorganized the curia, taking charge of the Sacred Penitentiary which dispensed indulgences in order to reform a practice that had gotten out of control with past Popes and curias that had grown accustomed to the "good life." The Pope was a stickler for refusing favors to friends and family not only with himself but all curia and clerics - from bishops to the lowliest cleric. This was not easy in an era when nepotism was running rampant through all of society. He established the "Rota" setting up a tribunal to monitor abuses and ensure proper dispensation of indulgences by setting exact fees that were reasonable in the face of the exhorbitant amounts many bishops had been extracting from those in return for favors. In essence, his crusade was one of reestablishing the purity of their vocations as shepherds who would be held responsible for their flocks who had wandered and wavered, opting for a more lax spiritual life because those who represented religious life - the bishops and clerics had shown a propensity for worldly riches. It was not an easy project for Benedict and, because his pontificate only lasted eight years the enforcement was more difficult in the years ahead because, as we shall see, his immediate successors did not enact or carry out the same reforms and many of the faithful would fall back into their old habits.
Throughout his eight-year pontificate he gained many friends among those who longed to live their religious lives as the rules intended, but Benedict also made enemies politically - an area in which he was a mere novice. He tried his best to prevent war between England and France, but the outcome was inevitable and in the third year of his papacy war broke out - a war that would be called the "One Hundred Year War" but, in effect this dynastic bitter struggle between the two countries would last 116 years. Yet, as Pope to all Christendom, he refused to take sides which was a credit to his ethics and commitment as Supreme Pontiff. Two of his greatest protagonists were John XXII's constant thorn the German Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian and Petrarch, a Roman poet who turned on Benedict primarily because the former would not return the Holy See to Rome. In the case of Louis, he sought to alienate himself from the Pope when he issued his May 1338 manifesto in Frankfurt Fidem Catholicam which proclaimed that imperial authority came directly from God, not the Pope. It was an about face to which the Holy Roman Empire had become accustomed to from its onset. In August of the same year he further agitated things with his second diet of Frankfurt with Licet iuris which reinforced the first edict going further by establishing that consent of the Holy See was not required for the king or emperor to make laws. This resurrected the controversy of lay investiture all over again. That same year, rather than retaliate as Boniface VIII had done in a tete-a-tete with Philip, Benedict remained silent and, at his only consistory, elevated five French prelates to the rank of cardinal as opposed to only one Italian. This further angered Petrarch and his allies who felt this was a slap in the face to Rome. Incensed, he spread rumors against Benedict that he was a drunk and unfit to be Pope. This was something many of his critics, those who were upset with his reforms and political enemies, ran with but the fact of the matter is that Benedict was a good Pope, dedicated to his mission as Supreme Pontiff who lived what he preached, often donning the monk's habit in place of the papal robes. On April 25, 1342 Benedict, sick with the fever, breathed his last breath at Avignon. A papacy that had begun hopeful for a return to Rome was further entrenched in France and Benedict's successor Pope Clement VI would do nothing to change that, allowing reforms to be rejected and neglected as the One Hundred Year War took front and center stage as we shall see in the next installment.