Pope Gregory IX: The end of exile as the Babylonian Captivity at Avignon comes to an end, but not without a price
As so often happens throughout history of mankind, when God sends one messenger who is ignored, He sends in another until man finally listens. So was the case for Holy Mother Church towards the latter part of the fourteenth century when the Almighty chose first one wise woman who He bestowed the gifts of Heavenly visions and messages to, and, when she was thwarted, He sent another - one with the stubborn resolve to get the job done no matter what! We're speaking of course, of Saint Bridget of Sweden and Saint Catherine of Siena two powerful women of the Church in a time when man was weak and it took a strong woman to right the barque of Peter. Bridget had implored previous pontiffs to return and Blessed Pope Urban V had finally responded and returned to Rome, but the political climate forced him to flee back to Avignon. True to St. Bridget's prophesy, the Holy Father died upon his return to Avignon on December 19, 1370. Two weeks later the conclave, consisting of seventeen cardinals, chose another Frenchman - the cardinal deacon Pierre Roger de Beaufort who was not yet a priest. Upon his election he was ordained a priest on January 4, 1371 and took the name Pope Gregory XI, the first Gregory since the holy Blessed Gregory X a century prior.
One of the greatest problems of these times was the lack of foresight by Church leaders and their total lack of comprehending the human psyche. We say this because, despite all the problems in Northern Italy with the Duke Bernabo Visconti of Milan who, slowly but surely, turning the papal states one by one against the Holy See. To counteract this the Popes sent French cardinals and papal legates to govern over the Italians. Big mistake for naturally this didn't go over well at all with the Italian people who had always resented French intervention and blamed everyone in France for the Avignon exile. While Gregory's policies mirrored Urban V's in respect to reuniting the Eastern Church with the Western Church, returning the papacy to Rome, and bringing the 100 Year War to a peaceful conclusion, the 201st successor of Peter never totally comprehended the psychology and cultural differences between France and Italy. Bernabo capitalized on this by capturing one Papal State after another capturing his biggest plum in the influential Florentine region. With the fall of Firenze other Papal States fell like dominos, feeling betrayed by the Holy See. In the Spring of 1373, to counteract this collapse of the Papal States, Gregory excommunicated Visconti who laughed at the Pope and forced the papal legates who conferred it on him to consume the bull of interdiction by chewing it in humiliating Gregory's men. When Gregory realized this had no teeth, no pun intended, he decided to take stronger measures by issuing a Papal Bull of Interdiction for all of Florence. That had an effect for an excommunication of this sort forbids all who are still in union with Holy Mother Church to have any dealings with the excommunicated ones, including commerce. This hurt the pocketbooks of the Florentine bankers and merchants who responded to this strictest of punishments by recruiting the holy nun Sister Catherine from nearby Siena to plead with the Pope. She had gained much reknown for her devoted care of the sick during the plague and had become famous as a peacemaker. Thus dispatched her to Avignon to meet with Gregory XI, but the Pope would not compromised for he realized he was finally gaining the upper hand militarily. With nominal help from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, Gregory had appointed Cardinal Robert of Geneva to command a powerful group of mercenaries to regain the rebellious Papal States. Robert would later become the antipope Clement VII. With Gregory having the upper hand he did not have to negotiate with Catherine, but he was moved by her piety, sincerity and holiness. He realized the truths of what Catherine had imparted about reuniting the Holy See in Rome and Gregory felt the only way would be through a strong military presence in Italy to stabilize the situation there. He did learn one very important lesson from this holy nun and that was, when dealing with Italians, send Italians. From that time on he recalled all French cardinals and papal legates back to France, supplanting them with loyal Italian ones. Combined with Robert's decisive victories in Northern Italy, slowly but surely the Papal States returned to the fold, including Florence.
Many historians say Gregory was "bull-happy" for he issued a record number of papal bulls and excommunications with no particular favorites. He sent five bulls to the king of England Edward III alone as well as the Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury plus the University of Oxford warning them of the growing heresy of John Wycliffe. Gregory, fearing insurrection from the rank and file, utilized the Inquisition to rein in the heretics. He enlisted the help of France's monarch King Charles V who complained to the pontiff that his jails were overflowing with dissenters. Meanwhile Gregory's efforts to preach a crusade in coming to the aid of the Eastern Church against the Turks fell on deaf ears because of the problems in Italy and the war between England and France. The only help Gregory could give was to dispatch a band of brave men to rescue a Latin Rite Dominican monastery in the east. Other than that, he realized the only way he could gain power in dealing with the Turks was to be headquartered in Rome. This paralleled with a second visit of St. Catherine in the early summer of 1376. She was not afraid to berate the Supreme Pontiff for his many mistakes and poor judgment in dealing with Italy. At first the Pope was incensed but during her extended three month summer stay at the Avignon palace he realized in time she was right and the more the two talked the more he realized her words were true and it was time to return to Rome. Thus, on September 13, 1376 the Holy Father said goodbye forever to Avignon and journeyed to Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast where he sailed on October 2nd. Normally a voyage like this would have taken maybe a week, but because of storms he did not reach Corneto on the coast of Italy until December 6, 1376. Many liken it to the great sea portrait of the barque of Peter envisioned by Saint John Bosco. Because of weather conditions and political matters that had to be "cleaned up" militarily before the Pope could reenter Rome, he did not return to the eternal city until January 17, 1377 when he sailed from Ostia triumphantly up the Tiber to debark at Castel Sant'Angelo. Shortly after his return Catherine paid him a visit at the Vatican where he greeted her warmly, realizing she was truly a messenger of God. But he was also stubborn and though she pleaded with him to relax his severe stipulations on Florence as the Pope's conditions for lifting the interdict, he resisted. This did not sit well with Catherine or her people for she placed all the blame on Gregory for allowing this travesty to continue. Adding to this was the fact that Cardinal Robert unnecessarily ordered a slaughter of the people at Cesena as a show of force. This unmerciful act did nothing but rile the people and once again the situation in Rome reached such a fever pitch that Gregory had to flee Rome for Anagni.
Whether he had intentions of returning to Avignon only Gregory knew, but by now he was weary of it all as well and longed for peace. Many believed this weariness, his knowledge -through Catherine's Heavenly words - of a coming schism, his failure to accomplish all he wanted to do, and the great pain of not uniting Italy and have the people love him contributed to his early death for he died on March 27, 1378. His and Catherine's dreams of peace would be realized a few days later when Bernabo Visconti, also tired from all the warring, agreed to a peace treaty at Sarzana. How long the peace would last was anyone's guess at that time, but one thing was sure. Gregory XI would be the last French Pope to rule the Roman Catholic Church and the Babylonian captivity at Avignon. The exile was finally over, but what would follow was far worse for the Church would be thrown into turmoil with the Great Schism of the West when Queen Joanna I of Naples would encourage the election of Robert of Geneva as the antipope against the 202nd legitimate successor of Peter as we shall see in the next installment: Pope Urban VI: Out of the frying pan of the Avignon Exile, into the fire of the Great Schism.