One of the greatest disasters ever to befall the Church was the Western Schism of 1378-1417. During this period, as the result of faulty church law and nationalistic tendencies on the part of the cardinals, whose duty it was to elect popes, there were at one time two, and finally three claimants to the papacy. Naturally, this meant a double and triple division among Catholics, for if the cardinals didn’t know who was the legitimate pope, how could the faithful know –even the saints among them? What resulted was “utter confusion”, to quote Walter Ullmann, an expert on this sad episode.
Several holy people, distressed by this confusion, sought to persuade the papal claimants to strive more vigorously for some sort of reconciliation for the good of the whole Church. Among those who, upholding the Roman claimants, tried to persuade the “popes” of Avignon and Rome to make peace were such notable women saints as St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden. The youngest of these devout peacemakers was Bl. Ursulina Venerii of Parma.
Ursulina was extraordinarily devout as a child. At the age of ten she began to receive visions and other mystical graces. In 1380, when she was fifteen, a heavenly voice bade her, not once but several times, to go to Avignon, France, and urge the French “pope,” Clement VII, to renounce his claim to the papal office. Convinced at last of her obligation to obey this insistent voice, Ursulina and her mother and two other companions set out on the long journey to southeast France. She succeeded in obtaining audience with Clement, even more than once, but he remained unmoved. The teenager therefore returned to Parma, and then went to Rome to persuade the Roman pope, Boniface IX, to take action. Boniface received her graciously, and apparently urged her to go back to plead once again with Clement VII. This she did, but with no better luck than before. What is more, on this trip she became separated from her mother, and was accused of sorcery. Since she was not brought to trial, she went back to Rome. Still, nobody would budge. Very much discouraged at this point, Ursulina next undertook a rugged pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She hoped, no doubt, that this act of penance might accomplish more for peace than her words had. As far as she could see, it did not.
Blessed Ursulina had fulfilled God’s personal command to intervene when His Church was in crisis. Despite that divine command, she had not succeeded in achieving her aim. But God never promises, does He, that we will live to see our particular prayers granted? What He asks is that we pray earnestly in faith and leave the fulfillment in His hands.
–Father Robert F. McNamara