Pope Martin V: The struggle to start anew
Finally the Great Schism of the West was over with the decision at the Council of Constance in July, 1417. It was left to the Conclave to choose someone who could heal the deep wounds that had ripped Holy Mother Church apart and left many of the faithful disallusioned. Pope Gregory XII, who had convened the Council stepped aside for the good of the Church and John XXIII, the antipope from Pisa had been deposed. That left only the upstart Benedict XIII who had pretended to be the pope since 1394 first at Avignon and then Peniscola on the Spanish coast. He naturally refused to recognize the council's decision which prompted Spain, who had been loyal to him, to abandon him. In short, he was without any support but stubbornly holed himself up in a castle refusing to accept reality. From that point on he was never a factor again and died a broken, bitter man on May 23, 1423. Thus, on November 11, 1417 twenty-two cardinals and an unusual contingent of thirty representatives comprised from Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England met for three days at Constance and on the third day unanimously chose 49 year-old Cardinal Oddo Colonna. Born in Gennazano, Italy he had studied law at Perugia and been made a cardinal by Pope Innocent VII. He had at first been a supporter of Gregory XII, but was one of those who deserted Gregory when the Pope strayed. He took up the cause of John XXIII, but bowed in obedience to the Council. He chose the name Pope Martin V owing to the fact he had been elected on the feast of Saint Martin of Tours.
While many thought he would re-enact reforms that would bring all back in line with the Church, he was a disappointment in the fact he feared the Council which declared they were more powerful than the Pope. Martin bought this and it haunted him throughout his fourteen year pontificate. Nevertheless, the Council had the same goals as the Pope so in this case it was beneficial to the Church. With their guidance, Martin restructured the Roman Curia, populating it with those who had been loyal to Rome and Avignon as well, but this still did not curtail many of the abuses within the ecclesial hierarchy. Martin published seven reforms on March 20, 1418 which dealt with papal taxation and the abuses most prevalent in papal terriotries. He set about to negotiate with the five nations individually concordats that would relax the taxes if these countries' leaders could assure they would uphold the papal rights to these territories and adhere to Church law. Through this painstaking, long process Martin was able to recover many of the provisions lost during the Great Schism that had lasted nearly forty years. During this time he had maintained residency and the papal headquarters in Constance because his chief rival was Braccione di Montone who steadfastly refused to give up central Italy as a Papal State. Martin moved on to Mantua and Florence for a year each before finally being able to enter Rome on September 28, 1420. Once back at the Vatican Martin set his sights on defeating Montone. To complement his military efforts he called on the Council to aid him, convoking a Council in 1423 at Siena, but a severe plague broke out and it had to be disbanded. At approximately the same time Benedict XIII had died and the four cardinals he had appointed in Spain chose a successor antipope as he had demanded. They chose Clement VIII. Martin offered full reconciliation to Clement and the other three cardinals if he would agree to abdicate, but, like Benedict, he refused. But he met his own fate because of his penchant for simony and would be deposed by his own cardinals who elected Benedict XIV on November 12, 1425 who was even less effective than his two predecessor antipopes. A year before that Martin finally defeated the upstart Italian Montone, known as the Lord of Perugia, at the Battle of L'Aquila. But his problems weren't over for a northern Italy revolt in Bologna threw that entire northern region into rebellion and disharmony. It wasn't until 1429 that Martin's armies were able to quell this riot. The victories enabled him to recover lost territories and treasures that rebuilt the papal coffers.
While militarily he was successful, pastorally he was mediocre. To his credit and through the prompting of Saint Bernadine of Siena he spread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus by approving the cult begun by this Franciscan devoted to reform in the spirit of its founder. Martin also set about to reconstruct and renovate numerous churches as well as both religious and secular institutions in Rome that had fallen into disrepair. He sought the help of "starving artists" who were at the threshold of the Renaissance. Their work attests to their mastery and much of it still stands today as a tribute to the man some historians call the "Restorer of Rome." In fact, Martin was the first to inaugurate the opening of the "Holy Door" which was then at the Lateran Basilica.
Martin was a strict disciplinarian, keeping a close eye on the cardinals he had appointed and forcing them to live up to the high expectations he asked. But his problem was with those prelates who had already been set in place before his election. Many refused to go along with the reforms and he was powerless to prevent it, despite numerous proclamations and threats, due largely to the power the Council had wielded. In effect he was a "Paper Pope," writing many proclamations with no muscle. That was sad because he truly had intended to suppress those who were followers of the Bohemian reformer John Huss. He preached tolerance for the Jews regarding penalties on those who forced Jews to be baptized without full knowledge and commitment to the Catholic faith. He also launched a crusade against the Hussites, but the problems in the east where his failure to reunite Constantinople and Rome troubled him deeply and the tensions in England and France, where the 100 year was still in progress, prevented him from following through in suppressing the heretics. It was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that would take full flight less than a century later.
As much as he wanted to evade facing another council, he had no choice but to submit to the the Council fathers. Martin, in one of his final acts, chose Cardinal Cesarini to oversee the Council of Basle on February 1, 1431. Historians say the Pope was treated as an equal and not afforded the dignity that should have been reserved for the Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ for the Universal Church. The Council was, in effect, getting too big for their britches in believing their press clippings that they were superior to the successor of Peter. But before they could exact decisions, Martin died of apoplexy on February 20, 1431 three weeks after the council had convened. It would be left to his successor Pope Eugene IV to face the Council head-on in a battle for papal supremacy.
Next issue: Pope Eugene IV: Taking on the Council in a struggle to the end