We had a Jubilee Year in AD 2000. A group of us seminarians at Catholic University in Washington managed to get ourselves to Rome, to visit the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. We met Pope John Paul II. A few years ago I wrote an essay about the effect that visit had on my Catholic-convert soul.
Pope Boniface VIII beautified Rome for the first-ever Jubilee Year there, in AD 1300. The Muslim conquest of the Holy Land meant that Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher could no longer occur. So the pope opened Rome; he restored the ancient Christian custom of coming on pilgrimage to the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul.
Pope Boniface made a huge success with the Jubilee Year 1300. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came. There was, nonetheless, a foreboding absence from the ranks of those pilgrims. Among the throngs in the Roman streets that year, there was not a single European monarch. None came.
In other words, something lovely happened in Rome in 1300. But something terrible was about to happen. Five weeks ago I promised more information about the Avignon papacy and a digest of our Catholic faith in the office of pope. Seems like AD 1300 is the best place to begin…
The reign of Boniface VIII marked a turning point in history, ending a period that had begun seven centuries earlier, with the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great. Gregory had filled a power vacuum in western Europe when the reach of the Byzantine emperor into western affairs waned. The Sucessor of St. Peter became the pre-eminent authority in shaping the politics of the western half of the now-crumbling Roman empire.
Seven centuries later, however, Pope Boniface found that he could not command the absolute allegiance of the grandsons of the monarchs over which his predecessors had held sway. Gregory the Great, acting out of charity towards the poor, had made the Holy See a model of administrative efficiency at the dawn of the seventh century. The latter part of the thirteenth century, however, saw an altogether dysfunctional Roman operation.
Between 1254 and 1285, the pope was absent from Rome for all but four years. (Some historians call this period the “Viterbo Papacy” because the pope was so often resident there.) During this interval, conclaves held to elect a new pope after the death of the old one often dragged on for years. The conclave that elected Pope Gregory X stretched from 1268 to 1271. Indeed, sometimes conclaves would last longer than the ensuing papacy: the conclave that elected Celestine V lasted over two years, but the poor pope reigned for only five months. Also, men who had never even been ordained to the priesthood were often elected pope.
The Cardinals, after the new pope shows total ignorance of Scripture: “Gosh, I guess we should have put ‘in Holy Orders’ in the job description!”
We mentioned last month how Pope Celestine resigned the papacy in 1294. Celestine had consulted with a learned Cardinal, Benedetto Caetani, about the legality of resigning. Caetani had advised Celestine that he could legally resign. In the subsequent conclave, Caetani became Pope Boniface VIII.
(Caetani’s role in Celestine’s resignation would later be used against Boniface in an elaborate p.r. campaign by King Philip IV of France–even though Caetani had not, in fact, pressured Celestine in any way.)
In 1303 conflict between Rome and Paris reached the breaking point. Boniface declared as solemn doctrine the practical reality that his predecessor Gregory had seized upon, that is: God had subjected all human beings to the Roman Pontiff. King Philip responded by calling for Boniface’s removal from office, and the king spread false charges against the pope. Philip arraigned Boniface for heresy and demanded that an ecumenical council sit in judgment on him.
Meanwhile, Pope Boniface, staying in his hometown of Anagni, outside Rome, prepared a document excommunicating King Philip.
Henchmen of the king’s arrived and commandeered the building, intending to arrest the pope and take him to France for trial. The historical record is not clear regarding what happened when the henchmen encountered the pope. They may have physically assaulted him. They almost certainly at least slapped him. The slap has come to be known as the Schiaffo di Anagni.
Dante refers to this outrage in Canto XX of Purgatorio. The poet calls King Philip “the new Pilate,” who “mocked and imprisoned Christ a second time, in His vicar.” Dante adds: “I see vinegar and gall renewed, and between living thieves I see them kill Him.”
After the Schiaffo, the townspeople of Anagni turned on King Philip’s henchmen, allowing Boniface to escape and return to Rome. But he did indeed die, in a month’s time, at age 73.
Benedict XI was then elected pope in a one-day conclave.
As a Cardinal, the new pope had stayed with Boniface through the ordeal in Anagni. But, by the same token, Benedict wanted no more trouble with King Philip.
Benedict tried a middle way, restoring all of King Philip’s ecclesiastical prerogatives, but meanwhile pursuing legal action against the ruffians of Anagni. And Benedict refused to put Boniface through a posthumous trial for heresy, notwithstanding King Philip’s demand for such a procedure.
Benedict died of dysentery, in Perugia, north of Rome, after only eight months in Peter’s Chair. The ensuing conclave lasted eleven months, from July 1304 to June 1305. It proved to be a highly significant event. More to come…