Blessed Pope Benedict XI Reconciler in the face of treason
After the troubled reign of Pope Boniface VIII, the faithful knew that anything would seem like an improvement, especially Philip IV, king of France who had waged a bitter war with the proud pontiff and had thrown Rome into turmoil. Therefore the cardinals, minus those who had openly bolted and joined Philip's court, understandingly held an anti-French sentiment and sought to elect one of their own - someone who would toe a more moderate line and appease both the Colonna cardinals and the Franciscan Spirituals who Boniface had so greatly angered for his treatment of his predecessor Pope Saint Celestine V. Therefore, less than two weeks after Boniface's death they unanimously selected on October 22nd a peace-loving, scholarly Dominican Cardinal Niccolo Boccasino, bishop of Ostia as the 194th successor of Peter. On October 27th, 1303 he was elevated to Supreme Pontiff taking the name Pope Benedict XI. Some historians say he took the name in honor of his predecessor Boniface whose name was Benedetto. Others feel it was more of a "slap in the face" at Philip stemming from Benedict XI's own feelings of contempt for the French monarch who sought ecclesiastical control and because Boniface had made Benedict XI a cardinal and who had been rescued at Anagni from the clutches of Philip's henchmen by none other than Cardinal Boccasino. Despite his resentment toward Philip, Benedict was wise in realizing there was a fine line of diplomacy that could go a long way in taming the Gallican king. Therefore he treaded carefully but, dedicated to reconciliation with all, absolved those who had been involved from Philip himself to staunch Boniface VIII supporters who were guilty of twisting Church law for their own gains. Benedict ignored the threats of excommunication and opted instead to "catch more flies with honey than vinegar." In short, he was a throwback to Pope Saint Celestine V except he was prepared to handle the responsibilities of the papacy and did not back down. He passed out pardons liberally, but even this did not deter Philip from continuing to interfere, most notably in suppressing the Cistercians in France simply because they had been loyal to Boniface because he was the Supreme Pontiff. But Benedict was helpless due to the fact he had to contend with Frederick III in Sicily, offspring of those thorns-in-the-papacy Hohenstauffen clan, and Charles II, Philip's brother in Naples. More than anything Benedict wanted peace but greed and the lust for power prevented this as the triumverate of Charles, Frederick and Philip sought their own agendas to the detriment of Rome. Even though Benedict had absolved Philip and his royal court of the excommunication leveled by Boniface, Philip continued to balk at cooperation and pressed the matter of holding a general council for the express purpose of denouncing Boniface VIII. Most, including Benedict XI saw it as purely a revenge factor on Philip's part and thus declined, angering the French monarch all the more. Philip managed to plant subversionists in Rome who were able to rile up the citizenry; so much so that Benedict XI decided it would be safer at Perugia than Rome and hastened there in April of 1304. Meanwhile Philip and his uncontrolled minister Guillaume de Nogaret persisted in taxing the people and interfering in Church matters. To appease the anti-French faction and with no other choice, Benedict, a peace seeker, was forced to denounce Nogaret and his Italian accomplices mostly for their disobedience but also in part for their involvement of Boniface's treatment at Anagni. Benedict ordered them to meet with him before June 29 at Perugia. But just prior to that Benedict fell gravely ill with a stomach ailment which would kill him on July 7, 1304. Many historians believe Nogaret's men got to Benedict's stewards and planted poison in the Pope's favorite food - figs. It was the kind of amount that took its toll slowly over two weeks but left the pontiff in extreme pain. Remember, they had no Alka Seltzer or antacids back then and no way to isolate the pain and decipher the cause and treat it. Therefore, it is widely believed that in order to avoid a face-to-face meeting with this just and holy Pope, Nogaret masterminded the poisoning.
With Benedict's death the Church lost a good and pious Pope whose pontificate did not last long enough. In the short time he reigned Benedict did much in reversing the unfair bulls and condemnations wrought by Boniface. But the Franciscan Spirituals were still not appeased, quite possibly because of Benedict's close alignment with the Dominicans, three of which he elevated to be princes of the Church. Nevertheless, claims of his holiness came not while he sat on the throne of Peter, but rather after he was laid in the tomb at San Domenico where miraculous cures were soon attributed to his intercession which prompted Pope Clement XII, 432 years later, to beatify him and assign his feast day for July 7, the day he died. Benedict authored many works on Sacred Scripture and tried to live the Word of God as best he could despite the political climate he had inherited. In the next installment, we will examine his successor Pope Clement V and the beginning of the Babylon Exile in the "Captivity of Avignon" as Philip continues to meddle as Rome burns.