In 1378 the “Great Schism of the West” began, destined to last 39 years. It was perhaps the most agonizing episode in the history of the Church.
This division was no ordinary schism. Schism usually means a voluntary breakaway from papal obedience by a group of Christians. In the Great Schism, however, Christians did not disobey the pope. Their problem was the true pope, for there were two – and later even three – whose claims to be pope seemed impressive.
Here is the way the tangle began. In 1378 the cardinals gathered at Rome to elect a new pope. But they couldn’t agree on a cardinal, for the French party wanted a Frenchman and the Italian party wanted an Italian. The reason why the two parties were so uptight was that since 1305 all the popes had been French, and they had lived not in Rome but on a patch of papal land at Avignon in France. The Italians wanted the pope back in Rome, which was, after all, his diocese.
Since the French and Italian cardinals could not agree on one of their own number, they finally settled on a non-cardinal Italian, Bartolomeo Prignano of Naples. But Prignano, who took the name Urban VI, was a crotchety person who quickly antagonized the French cardinals who had voted for him. So these cardinals left Rome for Fondi, Italy. At a meeting held there, they declared that Urban VI had not been validly elected. They proceeded to a new election and chose a Frenchman, who took the name Clement VII and went to live at Avignon.
Who, then, was the real pope? Some nations, since they were no surer than the cardinal electors were, accepted one claimant, some the other. When these men died, their claimants elected successors. In 1409 some cardinals of both “obediences” gathered together at Pisa to end the division by ousting both claimants and electing “Alexander V” to replace them. But the two papal claimants refused to be ousted, so now there were three heads of the Church. Only in 1417 did the hierarchy take over, eliminate the three claimants, and pick Martin V as sole pope.
Blessed Peter of Luxemburg, bishop of Metz, is a good illustration of how Catholics dealt with this cruel dilemma. He was a very devout young French nobleman. From childhood, he had shown a precocious zeal to grow in holiness. In addition to being prayerful, he suffered imprisonment in 1380-1381 as a hostage for his elder brother, a prisoner of the English.
When the schism broke out in 1378, Peter, like all the French, acknowledged “Clement VII” as the real pope. Peter had been early admitted to the clerical state, although he had no ambition to become a churchman. But Clement VII decided to use the talents of this young nobleman to strengthen his own papal claim; so, although Peter was only 15, he named him bishop of Metz in 1384 and then a cardinal. (Choosing important juveniles for the episcopate and cardinalate was a widespread abuse in those days.) Nevertheless, out of obedience to “his” pope, young Peter did his best to rule his diocese and reform it. Though not ordained a priest or a bishop, he delegated Mass and the administration of the sacraments to his priests and auxiliary bishop.
He was, in fact, so obedient to Clement that when the pope of Avignon advised him to cut down on his austerities, he followed his advice, replacing his program of fasting with an enlarged program of almsgiving. His motto was “Contempt of the world, contempt of yourself: rejoice in your own contempt, but despise no other person.”
In 1386, declining in health and weary of the problems generated by the Schism, Peter resigned his bishopric and retired to a nearby Carthusian monastery. There he died a few months later at the age of 18. Pope Clement VII, the valid pope of that name, beatified him in 1527.
Today we may think that the Church is laboring under confusion. But at least we are in not doubt as to who is pope. Blessed Peter solved his personal problem sensibly in serving Christ with his whole heart through the person who seemed to him to be Christ’s true vicar. In a confusing era, we have the assurance that our present pope is both our valid and our authentic guide.
–Father Robert F. McNamara