Today we keep the Memorial of Pope St. John XXIII, on the 59th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. [Click HERE for a little compendium of my homilies commemorating the 50th annversary.]
You may not know, dear reader, that Pope St. John was actually the second John XXIII to summon the world’s bishops to Rome for an ecumenical council. (You might not know this unless you have traveled through the cities of Tuscany and read all the historical markers in all the churches.)
When Giuseppe Roncalli took the name John at the end of the conclave in 1958, he mentioned to a French Cardinal that he had chosen this name “in memory of France and in memory of John XXII who continued the history of the papacy in France” (We know about this private remark from Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography, John XXIII: Pope of the Council.)
The pope to which newly elected Pope John referred was: the pope who occupied the Chair of St. Peter from 1316 to 1334. John XXII did not occupy it, however, in Rome. He occupied it in the Provencal town of Avignon. John XXII was, in fact, the first pope to both get elected and die in Avignon.
John XXII’s predecessor, Clement V, had moved the papacy from Rome to France. (More to come on the why and how of this, plus a thorough digest of our Catholic faith in the papacy, in a subsequent post.)
Pope John XXII gave us the prayer “Soul of Christ,” which I daily recite after Holy Communion. He also taught erroneously about the beatific vision (though not in a magisterial utterance), and he had to recant later in life. William of Ockham developed his skeptical philosophy largely because of Pope John XXII’s often wild statements.
But no one despised John XXII, and the money-grubbing papal bureaucracy in Avignon, more than the aging Dante Alighieri. In Paradiso XVIII, the poet wrote of the pope and his courtiers:
Watch, [o heaven of justice], wherefrom issues the smoke
that tarnishes thy ray, that once enkindled wrath
may come on the hucksters in the temple that was
raised and walled with miracles and martyrdom.
O host of Heaven I contemplate, be heard your prayers
to aid all those on earth, led on by bad example…
Thou who recordest but to obliterate [Pope John, who was forever excommunicating people, then lifting the excommunication],
consider that Peter and Paul, who died to save
the vineyard thou hast spoiled, are living yet.
Thou can’st well say, “So ardently do I crave
Florentine coins that I know not the Fisherman nor Paul.”
More to come on the Avignon papacy. But to get to the first “John XXIII…”
You may not imagine that an old book called The Age of the Great Western Schism by a 19th-century Episcopalian churchman could be a can’t-put-it-down page-turner. But it is.
In 1376 the seventh Avignon pope, Gregory XI, finally departed France to return to the city consecrated by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul. He reached Rome in early 1377. After Gregory’s death soon thereafter, however, the Cardinals divided into two parties. (More later on why.) In 1378 two conclaves elected two popes. Urban VII reigned in Italy; Clement VII reigned in France.
Now you might thus surmise: The first John XXIII succeeded Clement; therefore not a real pope. Good guess. But the real history has more twists.
Two popes, each with a valid claim to legitimate election: the schism lasted for a generation. Finally Roman Pope Gregory XII and Avignon “Pope Benedict XIII” agreed to meet near Genoa, with both parties of Cardinals. Both popes promised to resign; then the conclave would choose one pope.
Last month I found myself on the Ligurian coast, just south of where the meeting was supposed to have taken place. When the Roman pope did not arrive, the Avignon pope continued journeying south. He made it to La Spezia (where I changed trains). Meanwhile, Pope Gregory made it as far as Lucca (where I spent two lovely days.) Then Gregory balked. Didn’t have the heart to resign as promised.
At this point, the Christian world lost patience. Gregory’s Cardinals left him in Lucca and met up with some Avignon Cardinals in Pisa. They summoned an ecumenical council there, in the sublimely beautiful duomo with the famous leaning campanile.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Cardinals, along with other churchman and reigning monarchs, summoned an ecumenical council, on their own authority. Christendom came together in 1409 (minus the two competing popes).
The Council Fathers enjoyed referring to Gregory not as Gregorius but as “Errorius” and to Benedict not as Benedictus but as “Benefictus,” in honor of his practice of selling benefices, or church offices, for cash.
The Council of Pisa condemned and deposed both. Then the Fathers chose another pope, who took the name Alexander V. (Now the world had three popes.) Alexander soon died. His successor: John XXIII.
This 15th-century Pope John attempted to hold an ecumenical council in Rome, just like the 20th-century Pope John ultimately would. But Pisan-pope John XXIII’s effort failed abysmally; hardly anyone came. Then the emperor of Germany convinced him to summon a council north of the Alps.
The Council met in Constance, accepted the resignations of both Gregory XII and “John XXIII,” deposed “Benedict XIII,” and elected Pope Martin V, who then returned the papacy to Rome. He lies now in the confessio of the papal cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
Now, I hold unflinchingly to our Catholic faith in the papacy. (As I mentioned, I will delve into that soon.) That Catholic faith in the divinely instituted office of the Successor of St. Peter stipulates: an ecumenical council can only be convoked by the pope, or at least with the explicit permission of the pope.
We faithful Catholics have to acknowledge, however: Were it not for the Council of Pisa–manifestly not convoked by any pope–we might not know for sure who the pope is.
Yes, it’s true: the Lord in His Providence could have solved the problem of the Western Schism in some other way. Other, that is, than the Council of Pisa choosing a pope, who then had “John XXIII” for a successor, who then called the Council of Constance, which then gave us the indubitable Pope Martin V. The Lord could have saved the day by some other design, some course of events that did not include Cardinals and other senior churchmen calling a Council without a pope.
But the fact is that it happened the way it happened. Which explains why the Council of Pisa in 1409 is found neither on the list of official Catholic Ecumenical Councils nor on the list of condemned, not-real Councils.