DAILY CATHOLIC    TUESDAY     June 2, 1998     vol. 9, no. 106


To print out entire text of Today's issue, go to SECTION ONE and SECTION TWO
          Many popes had tried to solidify the Church and unify Europe but most had failed. None had the political prowess and acumen that Pope Nicholas III possessed and carried out in just two and a half years, a papacy far too short. Through his masterful negotiations he was able to establish the Church politically and expand the Papal States that would become constant through the next six centuries, as well as unify the four major principalities of Germany, Burgundy, Lombardy and Tuscany. His papal bull on the Franciscans became a landmark decision that places most favorable status in the annals of Franciscan history and he was the first Pope to actually reside permanently in the Vatican. Besides making radical changes in the architecture of St. Peter's, he also began laying out the the famous gardens in Vatican City. His specially affinity for the Franciscans and Dominicans caused him to appoint many to high posts within the curia and dispatch missionaries to convert the Tartar kings as well as sending them all the way to China. In a word, he was a breath of fresh air that established much needed oxygen for the Church, life support that would sustain and shape the Church for many centuries to come.
Installment Seventy

Popes Nicholas III: Political prowess punctuates the papacy

          Freed from the restrictions of an austere conclave, the College of Cardinals met in Viterbo to carefully select Pope John XXI's successor. The closest to John, who had been crushed to death by the ceiling in his hastily constructed "observatory" at the Papal Palace in Viterbo, was Cardinal Giovanni Gaetano Orsini who was, in reality, the power behind John XXI. Many felt he would be the logical choice, but because he had vigorously promoted opposition to Charles of Anjiou, king of Sicily, the latter mounted a fierce campaign among his chosen cardinals to derail the Orsini express. What should have taken only a few days, weeks at the most, stretched into months as, on every ballot a stalemate resulted from half opting for Orsini and the Angevin cardinals voting for anyone else but John XXI's right hand man. This lasted until nearly the end of November (six months) when Charles lost his influence with his cardinals and they swung behind Orsini, unanimously electing him as the 188th successor of Peter. He chose the name Pope Nicholas III in deference to the church of Saint Nicholas in Carcere where he had been named cardinal deacon in his earlier years.

          His elevation to the papacy was something that had actually been prophesied by Saint Francis of Assisi. The story goes that as a youngster his father, Matteo Rossi Orsini, a great Roman nobleman, tried to influence the humble saint by offering Giovanni as a candidate to the Order of Friars Minor. But Francis knew that God had other plans for this young man, telling his father that he was destined to become not a Franciscan, but rather the Protector of the entire Order and head of the entire Church. True to his word, Giovanni went on to become a diocesan priest, bishop and cardinal and be appointed Protector of the Franciscans and, on November 25, 1277 the Supreme Pontiff. A month later on December 22, he was coronated. His first rule of order was to continue his campaign to gain more independence for the Holy See by negotiating with Charles. Nicholas, imposing severe restrictions on the Angevin king of Sicily if he refused the Pope's demands, convinced Charles not to seek reappointment as a senator of Rome. This move not only removed Charles from power in Rome, but gave Nicholas the opening to appoint himself to the Roman senate as Charles successor. This was an important move for it forever created the "papal signoria" over Rome. Nicholas further eroded Charles' power in central Italy by declaring no non-Italian prince could hold office in Italy or Rome without approval of the Holy See. To keep Charles at bay and assure he would comply, Nicholas negotiated with King Rudolf I of Habsburg, who had been Pope Gregory X's choice for Holy Roman Emperor. Since Gregory had not been able to consummate the coronation, Rudolf had gone through three Popes in one year while waiting. In return for favors from Nicholas, Rudolf agreed to vacate Romagna. With this move Nicholas was able to form the Papal States with the boundaries they would enjoy throughout Italy until 1860. To solidify this, he arranged a marriage of Rudolf's daughter Clementia to, of all people, Charles' grandson Charles Martell. The union proved a brilliant piece of political prowess by Nicholas for both Charles and Rudolf agreed to respect, as well as defend, the other sovereign's territories. As part of her dowry, Clementia was awarded Burgundy and thus was established four kingdoms: Germany, Lombardy, Tuscany and Burgundy. It was agreed the Holy Roman Emperor would oversee all four. Thus peace was at hand largely through the masterful political prowess Pope Nicholas III had wielded.

         The move of unification did not please everyone, specifically Michael VIII Palaeologus, the Byzantine emperor who had strung the Popes along in order to quell Charles. When Nicholas brought Charles to his knees through honey rather than the vinegar of excommunication, Michael was livid, but could do nothing about it. In fact, Nicholas had the upper hand and played it to the hilt. He sent papal legates to Constantinople with an ultimatum. He would keep Charles from attacking the city if Michael signed the terms he enclosed. If the Byzantine emperor thought the terms demanded by Blessed Pope Innocent V a year and a half earlier were stiff, he was astounded how demanding Nicholas' terms were, which included a permanent papal legate headquartered in Constantinople. Michael was caught between a rock and a hard place and had no choice but to reluctantly accept the tough terms. Michael's half-heartedness, however, would come back to haunt him and cause his excommunication in the next regime when Nicholas' successor Pope Martin IV would sadly undo so much of the wonderful relations established by Nicholas.

          But during Nicholas pontificate everything was right with the world. True to Francis' prophecy, Nicholas, formerly protector of the Franciscans as well as the Dominicans, issued a papal bull that would go far in establishing the Franciscans as a solid foundation among religious orders in the Church. It was Exiit qui seminat, issued on August 14, 1279 and largely inspired by Saint Bonaventure which ended the dispute among the Friars on the type of poverty that Franciscans should practice. In addition, Nicholas made it a severe ecclesial violation for anyone to either attack or alter the rule established by Saint Francis. He appointed a tremendous number of Franciscans and Dominicans to prestigious positions within the curia and dispatched Franciscan missionaries to the far reaches of the world, including preaching to the Tartars in eastern Hungary to settling in Persia and even China. Closer to home Nicholas began the restoration of Saint Peter's Basilica and the push to reestablish the Holy See at the Vatican. He had been arch-priest at St. Peter's before receiving the red-hat and always had a special affinity for St. Peter's and its site as opposed to the Lateran or other Papal Palaces elsewhere in Italy. It was Nicholas who purchased additional land around the Vatican and established most of the boundaries which incorporate Vatican City today. He also planted the first of the Vatican gardens, which today are among the most brilliant in the world. It is ironic that, as much as he loved the Vatican, it was at the summer residence of Soriano, near Viterbo that he suffered a stroke and died on August 22nd, 1280. Like Innocent V, he died before he could formally coronate Rudolf I as Holy Roman Emperor and this would come back to haunt the Church as we shall see in future installments. He was buried in the chapel of St. Nicholas which the Pope had built himself inside St. Peter's. He was mourned by all but a few, one of them being the poet Dante Alligheri, who, because Nicholas awarded so many appointments to relatives of the Orsini family, accused him of nepotism and condemned him to hell where he was depicted in the poet's most famous work "Dante's Inferno." Truth be told, we doubt Nicholas found his way to the nether regions, but rather the etherial realm of Heaven for, through his strong adherence to Church law and the Doctrines, Teachings, Dogmas and Traditions of the Church and his masterful handling of events and characters of that time, he further strengthened Holy Mother Church. It was but a brief oasis in the desert of inept pontiffs for his successor would undo much of the progress Nicholas had accomplished as the people would rebel against this weak successor who became a puppet of Charles.

    Next installment: Pope Martin IV: The bitter tones of the Sicilian Vespers.

June 2, 1998       volume 9, no. 106


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