The Black Death and Pope Clement VI's pontificate: Dark, forboding times for Europe and the Church
With the death of Pope Benedict XII on April 25, 1342 an ill wind blew in that would ravage Europe for years to come. When the College of Cardinals met in Avignon they knew the will of King Philip VI and, dismissing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they elected Cardinal Pierre Roger a favorite of the monarch's who was not as objective as Benedict. The Conclave had grown tired of the austerity of the simple, pious Benedict and wanted a man who relished the finer things in life like them. Thus on May 7, 1342 Roger became Pope Clement VI, 198th successor of Peter. Like his namesake Pope Clement V who followed Blessed Pope Benedict XI, this Clement was more in the mold of the former while Benedict XII lived a holier life as his namesake. While Benedict XII had been a man of prayer, Clement VI was a man of the world, filling the Avignon courts with musicians and dancers that, too often gave cause for scandal to the rest of Christendom who wondered what the papal court had been turned into. He exausted the coffers built up by his predecessors and exacted taxes on dioceses that seemed unfair, especially in light of the lavish trappings of the papal court at Avignon while many of the people were left in poverty. Add to this the widespread nepotism practiced by Clement as opposed to Benedict who had sought to end this vile practice. It was not a good time for the Church as Avignon became known more for its opulent life-style than for papal policy and spiritual guidance.
Saint Brigid of Sweden personally wrote Clement conveying to him of a vision she had received where Our Lord and His Blessed Mother had demanded he bring the papacy back to Rome. The letter also asked that he mediate a peace between France and England. Because of her outspokenness and demands, those surrounding Clement in his Avignon court ostracised her and denigrated her. Clement gave it little credence and stuck to his ways as Brigid retreated to Rome where she made an impression on the people with her austerity, holiness and great caring for the people and pilgrims to an empty Holy See. Despite Clement's refusal, she would continue to campaign for the papacy to be rightfully returned to Rome, something she would succeed in doing with Blessed Pope Urban V but only for a short time because of the tumultous climate and dangerous conditions in Rome at that time. It would be left to another great holy woman Saint Catherine of Siena to convince Pope Gregory XI to end the Babylonian Exile at Avignon in 1377. Meanwhile, back to the time of Clement VI; Rome sent envoys to Avignon to try to convince Clement to return to Rome, where the papacy could return to its roots Already well ensconsed in Avignon, Clement, being French, had no intentions of returning but placated the Roman party by patronizing them. They nominated him a senator and sought his approval of appointing Cola di Rienzo the "messianic tribune of the Roman people. Because of the Pope's moral support, Rienzo was able to carry off a bloodless coup of the eternal city but shortly after rising to power, Clement withdrew all support for Rienzo because Cola had made the proclamation that he was the supreme ruler of Rome and the people owed no allegiance to anyone but Rienzo. This caused Clement to excommunicate Rienzo and to have him stripped of his title in 1347, choosing to replace him with Giovanni Cerroni a Roman Senator. But this proved fruitless and soon, Clement had greater problems on his hands. He was unable to bring a peaceful settlement to the 100-year war because of his bipartisan French roots, and so turned his attention to northern Italy where he dispatched the papal army to Romagna where it was defeated handily by Clement's episcopal adversary Cardinal Giovanni Visconti, Archbishop and Lord of Milan. Even though Clement suffered an embarrasing defeat that forced him to give Bologna concessions he had not wanted, he remained active on the political front in trying to unseat the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian. To depose the latter, he sought to excommunicate him and place in his stead Charles, king of Bohemia who pledged his allegiance to the Holy See and pledged not to invade Italy. Louis ignored his interdict and refused to acknowledge Charles, but it became a fait accomplis on October 11, 1347 when Louis was killed during a boar-hunt. With his death Charles' crown was recognized and one of the good things is that Charles brought back to the Church the schismatic Franciscans and their rebellious leader William of Occam who made amends on his death bed.
Besides the great One Hundred Year War between France and England that had begun during Benedict XII's pontificate in 1337, there was another occurence that plunged Europe into woeful despair - the terrible Black Death. Brought to Europe from Asia via the trade routes in the mid forties of the fourteenth century, this deadly bubonic plague derived its name from the spots of blood which turned black just beneath the skin. It was carried by fleas and rats in the hulls of ships and spread from coastal cities inland throughout Europe. It literally shut down Europe as half of Europe's population would die from this lethal disease. It got so bad and the people so desperate that many accused the Jews of placing the infected rats in the wells. This rumor spread fast and no where was their more insurrection than in Germany, giving rise to the first antisemetic wave in a country where this would culminate six centuries later, also in the mid-forties, with the horrible holocaust orchestrated by Adolph Hitler. The plague hit Avignon in 1348 and, to his credit Clement VI disgarded the opulent life for one of a shepherd, comforting the sick, the poor, and going out of his way to defend the accused Jews. He issued an edict that would excommunicate anyone who persecuted the Jews, providing refuge in the Papal States for those persecuted Jews. It would seem this terrible plague provided a respite for Clement to amend his worldly ways and when he died from the plague himself on December 6, 1352 he had made his peace with God and the people, quite possibly through the intercession of Saint Bridget of Sweden who he had dismissed and not heeded.
In the next installment we shall see how the worldly French ways are perpetrated with Clement's successor Pope Innocent VI who draws the wrath of many of the faithful, including Saint Bridget, with his liberal use of the Inquisition for his own gains.