Urban was born around the turn of the thirteenth century in Troyes, France where, as the son of a shoemaker he exceeded all expectations when he excelled in studies at the University of Paris and became a canon and then archdeacon. Throughout he acquired a reputation as a man with wide-ranging diplomatic skills and this prompted him to be elevated to Bishop of Verdun in 1252 and, shortly thereafter, Pope Alexander named him legate of the Latin territories and Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1255. One of the great advantages that Urban possessed that his predecessors did not was the fact he was a non-Italian and therefore not subject to the in-fighting politics that had so hindered the previous popes. Using this to his advantage he took a firm hold on recovering most of the papal states that had been lost through poor or failed negotiations with Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen and his illegitmate son Manfred who succeeded him. Though Urban wanted dearly to return the papacy to Rome, he was, like his predecessors, unable to accomplish this but he did not let that hinder him from doing all in his power to reinstate prestige and power within the Church. One of his first acts was to hold a consistory where he named fourteen more cardinals, including six of his fellow Frenchmen of which three were close confidants of the holy King Saint Louis IX who were both astute and holy in their intent. In order to bring stability to the region, he convinced the bankers and money merchants to back the Holy See which saw the revival of the Guelph party which favored the papal states. With the help of this group he was able to gain influence throughout Italy and through deft political moves, defeat all of Manfred's candidates. Papal prestige was returning and this caused Manfred to begin to fear. In the west Urban tried to gain support as well as appease the problems in his own native land by offering Sicily to King Louis IX but he declined and so Urban made one of the few mistakes of his regime by offering it to Louis' brother Charles of Anjou, who was unlike his saintly brother, more of an ambitiouss man. Manfred was now seeing the balance of power shifting and therefore he sought to pacify the Pope by offering a truce, enlisting the aid of Baldwin II of Constantinople, a fugitive Latin emperor who was hoping Manfred could help him win back the Latin empire from the infidels with a crusade. However, the House of Hohenstaufen had betrayed the papacy enough over the years that Urban did not trust Manfred's advances and instead drew up on June 17, 1263 a pact with Charles of Anjou that he would be given all of southern Italy and Sicily in return for 50,000 marks and an annual payment to the Holy See of a goodly amount of gold in an effort to rebuild the papal coffers and pay for the papal troops. In return Charles would promise loyalty and military protection for the Pope and the papal states. This did not sit well with Manfred who retaliated by launching an attack on Urban's troops in Tuscany and Viterbo, forcing Urban to flee to Orvieto. The assault came so quickly that Charles could not react and this caused further hard feelings. Urban appealed to King Louis but word never reached him as the messengers were either intercepted by Manfred's men or desserted the the Holy Father in cowardice. Manfred pressed on to Orvieto, and Urban retreated farther to Perugia, it was there that this poor man, who had so wanted to strengthen the Church politically and spiritually, died on October 2, 1264.
As much as he accomplished in trying to reunite and refurbish the Holy See, Urban could do nothing to change the destiny of the Hohenstaufen clan. This was partly Urban's fault because he depended too much on the two non-Hohenstaufen candidates in Germany Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X, the king of Castille. They had been wrestling for control and, through in-fighting and divisiveness allowed the Hohenstaufens to regain a foothold through Conradin, Frederick II's grandson and the last in the line of Hohenstaufens. Conradin had been weaned in the papal courts and knew the inner workings of the Holy See and used this, as we shall see in future installments, against the popes. Moreover, Urban, because he had been the Patriarch of Jerusalem and was in concert with Louis' hopes of resurrecting a crusade to once and for all crush the infidels, turned his attention more toward the east, where, in Constantinople, the emperor Michael VIII Paleologus of Nicaea showed overtures of wanting to end the centuries-long schism between East and West. This so consumed Urban in his desire to reunite the Church universally, that he neglected the warning signs in the west, much to the detriment of the Church as we shall see in future installments. Add to this that Michael's motives were to discourage a crusade which he knew Louis was promoting throughout France and other parts of Europe. This confused Urban and greatly distressed Louis, but Urban pressed on to bring about reconciliation and died before he could effect such a landmark concord.
Of all that Urban is known for, he is best known as the "Corpus Christi" Pope for it was in 1263 at Bolsena that a Eucharistic Miracle took place when a priest was consecrating the Host at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There, before the eyes of all, the Sacred Blood of Jesus began trickling from the confected host. Word spread fast throughout Italy and the Holy Father acknowledged it by extending a feast that had been celebrated locally in Liege, France to the universal Church. That feast was, of course, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ called Corpus Christi. Urban assigned a Dominican philosopher and theologian to establish guidelines and write some songs for the occasion that would totally show the proper reverence for the True Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. That preacher extraordinaire recommended the feast be celebrated sixty days after Easter every year and Urban decreed it thus in 1264 Oh, yes, that Dominican? None other than Saint Thomas Aquinas! We will cover this great saint's and Saint Louis' roles in the Church during this time in our next installment.
Next installment: Saints who preserved the Church in the turbulent thirteenth century.
To review all past installments of this on-going series, go to Archives beginning with the inaugural A CALL TO PEACE internet issue in January 1996. volume 7, no. 1.