This week’s column highlights a laudable example of papal character and leadership, Blessed Urban V (pope from 1362 to 1370), whose feast day is Dec. 19.
Urban V was the sixth and probably the best of the Avignon popes. Avignon is a city in southeastern France that served as the headquarters of the papacy from 1309 to 1377, a period often described as the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy. It also served as the headquarters for the antipopes during the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), when there were two and sometimes three rival claimants to the Chair of Peter.
Rome at the time was considered so dangerous a place that popes had to relocate temporarily in various cities throughout Italy, as well as in Avignon. In fact, some popes, even before the Avignon period, were forced to spend their entire pontificates outside of Rome because of the unfavorable conditions there. Urban V would restore the papacy to Rome for three years, but returned to Avignon just before his death.
Born Guillaume de Grimoard, he became a Benedictine monk, a canon lawyer, abbot of Saint-Victor in Marseilles and papal legate in Italy before his election as pope. Significantly, he was not a cardinal at the time.
The cardinals had at first elected the brother of Pope Clement VI (1342-52), but he declined. When the cardinal-electors could not agree on an alternative from among their own numbers, they turned to Abbot Grimoard because of his reputation for probity and sanctity. Although he was on a diplomatic mission in Naples at the time, the abbot was elected unanimously.
Not surprisingly, his enthronement and coronation were done without the usual pomp. Retaining his black Benedictine habit and rule of life, he continued his predecessor’s reformist agenda, reducing even further the luxuries of the papal court and enforcing the prohibition against holding more than one income-producing ecclesiastical office at one time.
On the other hand, Urban V exhausted the papal treasury by his generous support of impoverished students, colleges, artists and architects. He also founded new universities in Orange (southern France), Krakow and Vienna.
Although he failed to achieve his goal of reunion with the East and the liberation of the holy places in Palestine from Turkish control, he did return to Rome on Oct. 16, 1367, over the objections of the French cardinals and the papal Curia. The city was in chaos, and the Vatican was uninhabitable. He is said to have wept at the sight of Rome.
All the great churches were in ruins and the Lateran Palace was in such disarray that he took up residence in a section of the Vatican that had been partially restored before his arrival. He remained there for three years, living simply and frugally. In the summer, however, he moved to Viterbo and Montefiascone to escape the intense Roman heat, just as modern popes even today move to Castel Gandolfo during the hottest of the summer weeks.
While in Rome, Urban directed the repairs and refurbishing of churches and other buildings and saw to the rebuilding of the basilica of St. John Lateran, which had burned down in 1360.
Toward the end of his pontificate, with the situation in Rome still unsettled, the pope was forced to abandon the city. At the time, the pope’s adversary in Milan, Bernabb Visconti, was massing his troops in Tuscany. Urban fled to the walled city of Viterbo and then to Montefiascone.
In spite of pleas from the Romans and the warning of the saintly Bridget of Sweden that he would suffer an early death if he returned to Avignon, Urban left Montefiascone for France. Less than two months after his arrival in Avignon, he fell gravely ill and died, just as Bridget had predicted.
He was buried first in the Avignon cathedral, but his brother, Cardinal Angelico, transferred his remains two years later to the abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseilles, where the pope had served as abbot at the time of his election to the papacy. His tomb in Marseilles became the center of a cult, and he was later beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1870.
Urban V is not one of the more celebrated popes in history, but he is surely one who brought some measure of distinction to the office.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.