St. Thomas Aquinas’ mind stretched across many boundaries during his pilgrim life, and his bones straddle a boundary, even in death.
In the annals of French history, the same term–Jacobin–refers to two different groups. The Jacobins of the late 1700’s hated the monarchy and played a major role in the Reign of Terror that followed the 1789 revolution (1).
This group got its name from holding its meetings in a building that had once been a Dominican friary. Because Jacobins also = Dominicans.
After St. Dominic founded his religious order in 1214, the first Dominicans in Paris lived in the friary of St. Jacques. Parisians came to refer to them by the name of their house. Hence, “Jacobins” (2).
St. Thomas’ relics lie under the single altar in the “Church of the Jacobins” in Toulouse. Which does not mean: Church of the French Revolutionaries. It means Church of the Dominicans. The friars built the church during the first decades of the order’s life. It is their “mother church.”
Except it isn’t. Because it isn’t a church anymore.
The (French-Revolution) Jacobins despised the (Dominican) Jacobins and expelled the order from France in 1789. Fifteen years later, Napoleon put the Church of the Jacobins to use as a military barracks. The bishop moved St. Thomas’ relics to the nearby church of St. Sevrin (an ancient marvel itself.) The holy bones remained there for almost two centuries.
As the 19th century wore on, the people of Toulouse came to dislike the army using the old Dominican church as a barracks. The city took ownership of the building and turned it into a museum. In 1974, the government came to an agreement with the Church, and the bishop moved St. Thomas’ remains back.
There is one Holy Mass celebrated in the building each year, on January 28, the anniversary of the arrival of the saint’s bones in Toulouse in 1369, St. Thomas’ feastday.
This non-church church is truly a unique Gothic edifice, with a single row of columns supporting the roof. The altar sits in a strange position–not in the apse, but near the middle of the northern of the two naves formed by the one row of columns.
An unusual place. A church that isn’t a church anymore.
But you can pray there. I could hardly believe that I was actually kneeling in front of this altar. For decades I have thought about visiting my friend’s tomb–my daily companion, through his books, since I was nineteen years old.
…While St. Thomas walked the earth, King St. Louis IX built a chapel adjoining his palace in Paris–the Sainte Chapelle. The king built it to house the Lord Jesus’ Crown of Thorns.
That relic no longer remains in the Sainte Chapelle. (It was kept in Notre Dame–a priest had to run in, to rescue it, during the 2019 fire.) There is never a Mass in Sainte Chapelle anymore, not even once a year.
But the famous stained glass windows of Sainte Chapelle not only captivate you with their luminescence–swaddling you in light–but they also convey a stunningly unified message. All 1,113 panels contribute to communicating one single idea.
Namely: God Almighty governs all things. He has given human beings a circumscribed share in that government. To some human beings, he has given the authority to govern nations. To the custodian of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, He has given the secular government of Christendom.
The panels in the windows of Sainte Chapelle depict episodes or images from: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, Judith, Esther, Tobit, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Holy Gospels, and Revelation. One window has panels depicting the history of the Crown of Thorns, since the Passion.
All the episodes and images relate to the theme. Together, they communicate the idea. The King of France, custodian of Christ’s crown, possesses divine authority to rule human affairs.
The Sainte-Chapelle message, of course, goes against our American idea that the authority to govern comes from the consent of the governed. But that was not really a point in dispute when King Louis built his chapel. Rather, the potentially disputable point had to do with the consent of the pope.
Which is not to say that the Sainte Chapelle was meant to be anything other than a place for prayer, and above all for the celebration of Holy Mass. By a duly ordained priest. King Louis revered the Apostles and their successors.
But the king believed he had his mission in life from God, not from the pope. His chapel conspicuously avoids depicting St. Peter in any exalted manner.
As we mentioned here before, King Louis’ grandson–King Philip IV “the Fair”–wanted Pope Boniface VIII deposed from office, for interfering too much. But Boniface insisted that the king had his authority only by delegation from the pope. Philip strenuously rejected this idea.
That conflict ultimately resulted in the building of what is now an eerie ghost palace, which sits on top of a majestic hill rising east from the Rhone river in Provence. The Palais des Papes.
In the fourteenth century, Avignon, France, became the capital of western Europe. All roads led there. After Boniface VIII died in Rome, and his successor died after a months’-long papacy lived entirely in Perugia, Pope Clement V got elected in absentia. And proceeded never to set foot in Italy.
Clement V reigned over the Church on earth from France. So did the next five popes.
The huge banquet hall where Pope Clement VI entertained the monarchs of Europe: it’s now a bare chamber. Just cold stone walls. The loggia from which Blessed Urban V blessed pilgrims: it now looks out on an empty windswept courtyard. The cavernous Gothic chapel where popes were crowned: silent. (Carved facsimiles of the Avignon popes’ tombs sit in an adjoining room, adding to the ghostliness.)
They raked-in a lot of shekels in that old palace. The Avignon papacy was a business. The pope conferred countless ecclesiastical offices each year, and every time the coin had to ring in the coffer before the transaction was complete. They had huge trunks full of cash hidden in the floors.
But the money wasn’t all spent profligately. Clement VI entertained lavishly, but his banquets fostered peace between nations. And all the Avignon popes were highly cultured men who doled out huge sums to endow schools and pay professors, including scholars of Hebrew and Greek (to improve study of the Holy Scriptures).
They knew they belonged in Rome. The pope is the bishop of Rome, after all. You can hardly condemn absentee bishops, or absentee parish priests, when you yourself are one.
Urban V tried to return to Rome to live and govern, but then he fled back to Avignon when he feared for his safety in Italy. Urban’s successor Gregory XI then finally gave in to St. Catherine of Siena’s many behests and moved back to Rome for good.
But it wasn’t over yet. Gregory’s successor was challenged by a false pope who had been elected by a large number of Cardinals. The false Clement VII moved back to France and set up shop in Avignon, like the old days.
(It’s hard to imagine just how deeply confusing the Western Schism was to your average Catholic Joe of the time. The false pope sat in the throne that the real popes had used for three generations, and the real pope was a stranger in his own country.)
It took four more decades to settle the schism. Finally the new pope, Martin V, traveled from the Council of Constance to Rome, and the days of popes in Avignon ended for good.
The ghosts remain.