How St. Catherine Brought the Pope Back to Rome

April 29, 2014 | 10 comments

In the pantheon of great women in Church history, pride of place should be accorded the young mystic from Siena, St. Catherine, whose feast we celebrate today.

Born in 1347 to a humble wool-dyer, Catherine became one the most influential persons of fourteenth-century Christendom. After she became a Dominican tertiary at the age of nineteen she embarked on a life of intense spiritual practices. Her reputation for great holiness spread quickly, and she found herself answering letters from some of Europe's most powerful people, seeking her advice on matters spiritual as well as political and even military (she was a supporter of the Crusading movement).

But the topic which most concerned her was the return of the papacy from Avignon, France, where popes had lived since 1309. Catherine took up the mantle of encouraging the pope to return home to Rome after the death of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), who first exhorted the papal return in 1350 and spent twenty years trying to convince popes to move back to the Eternal City.

Late thirteenth-century Christendom had witnessed a titanic struggle of egos and wills between King Philip IV, “the Fair,” of France (r. 1285–1314) and Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303). Philip and the Boniface clashed over the authority of the pope in France, primarily especially over the raising and spending of clerical taxes. Philip used money raised for Church expenses to finance his personal wars and Boniface responded with a series of biting pronouncements, including a papal bull entitled Ausculta fili, or “Listen, son!” Philip responded by arresting the papal legate and Boniface threatened the king with excommunication.

Eventually, Philip’s chief advisor, William of Nogaret, hatched a plan to kidnap Boniface and install a new pope favorable to Philip. William hired mercenaries who attacked and held Boniface prisoner in the city of Anagni. Townspeople came to the pope’s rescue and freed him, but the rough treatment took a toll on the pontiff, who died a month later. 

The death of Boniface VIII provided Philip IV with the opportunity to influence the papal election of a favorable candidate. Instead, though, the cardinals elected the holy and peaceful Bl. Benedict XI (r. 1303–1304), who worked tirelessly to repair Franco-papal relations until his reign was cut short with his unexpected death after only eight months (there is some speculation he was poisoned on the orders of William of Nogaret). Philip desired that the next papal election would produce a pontiff who could be easily manipulated.

The cardinals responded and elected a Frenchmen, Archbishop Bertrand de Got of Bordeaux, who took the name Clement V (r. 1305–1314). Philip presented the new pope with a list of demands that ranged from the bizarre—putting the dead Boniface VIII on trial—to the shocking: moving the papal residence to France. Clement V agreed to leave Rome and move to France, which he did in 1309. He established the papal residence in the town of Avignon, which was papal territory that had been gifted by King St. Louis IX (r. 1226–1270); so, technically, Clement V just moved the papal residence from one papal territory to another. Practically, though, the relocation was motivated by politics and the influence of the French king.

Christendom was shocked to see the pope engaged in the ecclesiastical abuse of absenteeism (a bishop not residing in his diocese). The popes lived in Avignon for the next seventy years, and over that time they came to be seen as nothing more than puppets of the French king (although history tells us that most were not). Respect for the papacy waned throughout the Church and reached a critical low point by the time Catherine entered the picture.

The popes had lived in France for 67 years, all of Catherine of Siena’s life and then some, when she decided to visit Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370–1378) in the summer of 1376. Catherine spent three months in Avignon tirelessly working to realize her dream of the pope's returning to Rome. Gregory resisted and demurred, but she persisted, and even startled him by telling him that she knew about the private vow Gregory hademade before God that if elected pope he would return the papal residence to Rome. Finally, the humble yet firm saint from Siena convinced him to fulfill his vow, and Gregory made plans to travel to Rome.

Successful in her mission, Catherine left Avignon and returned to France. Later that fall she received reports that Gregory, influenced by the French cardinals, was having second thoughts. Catherine (who, though a Doctor of the Church, was illiterate) dictated letters urging the pope to fulfill his promise and make the hard decision: “I beg of you, on behalf of Christ crucified, that you be not a timorous child but manly. Open your mouth and swallow down the bitter for the sweet.”[1] 

She also encouraged him to cast fear aside and ignore the advice of his cardinals:

I have prayed, and shall pray, sweet and good Jesus that He free you from all servile fear, and that holy fear alone remain.  May ardor of charity be in you, in such wise as shall prevent you from hearing the voice of incarnate demons, and heeding the counsel of perverse counselors, settled in self-love, who, as I understand, want to alarm you, so as to prevent your return, saying, "You will die."  Up, father, like a man!  For I tell you that you have no need to fear.[2]  

Gregory XI listened to the pleadings and prayers of St. Catherine of Siena and returned the papacy to Rome on January 17, 1377. The scandal and shame of the Avignon papacy was at an end. The humble yet powerful mystic from Siena died in 1380, was canonized in 1461 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

[1] St. Catherine of Siena as Seen in Her Letters, ed. Vida D. Scudder (London, 1911), 185.

[2] Ibid., 165 & 166.

Steve Weidenkopf is a lecturer of Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and the creator and author of Epic: A Journey through Church History, an adult faith-formation program on the 2,000-year history of the Church. His book, The Glory of the Crusades,...

Comments by Members

#1  obayi ifeanyi - Enugu, Enugu

Hi steve i realy enjoyed de audio you did for the
Thanks for that.Also thank Sabatino for me(He is a wonderful fellow).Let him try to bring Tim Steeple to do a talk on apologetics,he (Tim) is wondetful at that.You guys are always in my prayers.Thanks again for the educative write-up above.I am cosidering naming my Child "Catherine" after the great saint.i.e anytime God gives me a daughter

May 2, 2014 at 8:09 am PST
#2  Brad Robinson - Tulsa, Oklahoma

I appreciate these blog posts on church history. They are a vital part of apologetics.

May 3, 2014 at 10:22 am PST
#3  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Once again ONE saint can really make a difference. These women saints are tough as nails, they are simple yet so complex, just like our future saint Mother Angelica. Men might have the privalage of the priesthood but the Church could never do without these holy women who nurture and mother our holy Church.

Hi Obayi, hope all is going well your way, my prayers are with you my friend!!!

May 5, 2014 at 9:13 pm PST
#4  obayi ifeanyi - Enugu, Enugu

Hi Christopher,
I am fine.Thanks for your prayers.I read through your debate with 'Ed' Unfortunately i never found time to write a rebutal to some of his lies(you can agree with me that it takes far less time to read than to write)I thank God for some1 like you who posses sound knowlegde of the faith and could spare time to charitably defend it.I am glad you noticed the pattern of denial/argurment usually employed by some protestants when they intend to attack our devine faith;first they deny the primacy of Peter,when cornered (with biblical and extra biblical proof),they insist that the church was built on Peter's proffession of faith when cornered with proof,they deny that the apostle's authority was passed onto anyone,when cornered with proof,they say the church went apostate,when cornered again with proof to the contrary,they attack church doctrine and miss it up with dicipline.They dig up any dirt they can find from history and try to sling the church with it (the scare tactics)
They reject any extra biblical evidence that vindicate the church position yet will not hesitate to use such even if contradicts the church in a most remote sense.The way he tried to divert to another topic is quite typical of them when cornered.
I must commend you once again for your astute and brilliant response.I pray that God will give me the wisdom,patience and humility required for apologetics.You guys in always make my day.
You mentioned something about evil spirits somewhere in your post.In the part of the world where i reside,there is so much hype about it that at times stories become naive and laughable.One gets the impression that they turned to christianity because they are afraid of being harmed by satan and so little attention is paid to love of God and neighour.Such mind set puts many of them at the mercy of and manipulation by very Dubious "Men of God".Do you mind sharing your taughts/experince on this.

May 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm PST
#5  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Obayi, hello again my friend and brother in Christ. Though we are a few miles apart we are one in faith, this is a great gift from God and the very reason we are called Catholic. Thank you for the encouragement and the nice things you say. You are spot on in your asessment of those who argue against the Church. I can tell you will be good at apologetics because you already know and love the Truth. I am still working on being humble, that's my weakness, because of the passion that sets my heart on fire for my faith I some times lose patience with those who oppose it, I'm a work in progress.

I can tell you with all certainty that evil spirits are very real and there is a warfare between principalities. I ask you to read Ephesians 6:10-20. I know people who too think it is funny and laughable, I was one of them until hell decided to become reality in my own home. I now shudder when people take it lightly. For a couple of years before that horrifying night I kept seeing the number sequence 111, I even documented and took pictures long before my conversion. I knew it had meaning but didn't know why. Within a day or so after my conversion, while standing in line at a hobby store, my eyes were led to a little note book on a shelf, the cover of that little pocket note book said it all....Psalm 111:10..."The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." That was so true for me, I had no fear of heaven or hell until that one night it became a reality. And I can honestly say that I had no wisdom of our Lord until I experienced the fear. What I am trying to say is that how can you love something you have no wisdom of? Fear of God=wisdom=love. The fear led me to a deep relationship with God, and how can a person who really gets to know God help but love Him? I fell in love with Him deeply!!!

People should be very affraid of satan because he is an angel, and angels are far more wiser and superior to us. Even the good angels invoked fear upon those who encountered them in Scriptures. From my experience I give you this advice, even though some of the stories may seem to be naive and laughable, be on guard, I can a sure you, some where amongst the hype lies some truth. Evil is cunning and decietful! What is sad is that there are many wolves in sheeps clothing taking advantage of these lost and scared sheep. Be bold Obayi, and let these manipulated souls know the true Gospel, even if only one out of a thousand hear you, that is one soul worth saving. Our Lord set the example by letting us know He would leave the 99 to go after the 1 who got left behind and was in trouble.

May 8, 2014 at 9:32 pm PST
#6  obayi ifeanyi - Enugu, Enugu

Hi christopher,
Thanks for your post,i will try to explain more clearly what i mean and why i requested for your taughts on the subject,when i finish some urgent work i am doing right now.Meanwhile, i would have loved to read about your personel life experince on the subject even though i know this domain is too public for such personel life story
Thanks and may your house be filled with the joy of our lord +Jesus.

May 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm PST
#7  obayi ifeanyi - Enugu, Enugu

Hi christopher,
Thanks for your post,i will try to explain more clearly what i mean and why i requested for your taughts on the subject,when i finish some urgent work i am doing right now.Meanwhile, i would have loved to read about your personel life experince on the subject even though i know this domain is too public for such personel life story
Thanks and may your house be filled with the joy of our lord +Jesus.

May 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm PST
#8  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Obayi, hope all is going well for you, my prayers are with you and everyone else in your part of the world. I have been following what I can in the news and know some of the situation that has made life for Christians there diffulcult.

I would be honored to give you my thoughts on your question on the subject you brought up.

My username on the forum side of this site is Christopher1111. You are most welcome to add me as a friend there and I will share the full story about my conversion. I don't mind the public seeing or knowing, but it is to lengthy for the blogs. I look forward to hearing from you and until next time, God bless and continue to shine the light of Christ!!!

May 10, 2014 at 7:12 am PST
#9  obayi ifeanyi - Enugu, Enugu

Hi Christopher,
Hope u are having a fine sunday.Thanks again for your post.
Now my response to your post;In my opinion,I can sincerely say that i donot detect lack of humility in most of your post that i have read,infact i can go as far as saying that i like your style and wil not recomend that you tone it down.Those who attack our define faith do it with zeal,so i believe we should defend with even more zeal and Charity.This is what i believe you do,so keep it up.
About the evilspirit subject:let me state very clearly that l believe in existence of evil spirits it will be "uncatholic and unbiblical" to belief otherwise.However few illustrations will suffice for contextual bacground to my ealier post(peharps,this will help you understand my interest in your personel experince)Before the advent of christianity in the 1800s,people from my region use to practise african traditional religion(lots of folks still do today)
The horrible part of this practise is that people can&do aproach evil native doctor to use charm and distroy other people's life/business so folks are terified of evil men in the society.Now,such atitude does not seem to have disappeared after 2-3centuries into christianity.Thus,some guy opens a business without a any feasibilty study,trys&it does'nt seem to workout he goes about believing some1 somewhere has sent evil spirit to attack his business.Some young lady could not concieve after years of marriage,she may not have tried nor exhausted medical help,she goes about believing some unknown enemy is blocking her womb through spiritual attacks.A young man tries unsuccessefully to secure employment after several years of graduatation he goes about believing an enemy is after his distiny through evil attack.A dead lizard infront of one's door may well mean evil attack hence an urgent need for a "powerful man of God"
The illustration can go on but the important fact to note is that such people go from one denomination to another seeking for prayer from percieved "powerful men of God" until some end up ultimately with evil native doctors.
Love of Christ ab initio was never the motivation for christianity rather fear of satan was.(more like atrition rather than contrition)please note that this does not represent a full picture of the ever happy&properous people of this region neither do i in anyway categorize your experince anywhere close to that painted above.
Now the reason why i want your view is because i notice you know the faith very well so if you have had first hand expeince on evil attack you might be able to offer practical measure as to how to be on guide and how to evangilize people running from one church to another in search of solution to their "percieved attack" i.e how can they be made to love and trust Christ more in the catholic sense instead of church shopping for solution.
I have added you as a freind in the CA forum my username is Brainman.
Remain blessed.

May 11, 2014 at 1:59 pm PST
#10  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Obayi, now I fully understand what you were wanting to know. Some of that culture concerning curses and evil spirits did make its way from your country to here in the States. One particular case of such actions that comes to my mind and is very popular here in the United States is what we call the Salem Witch Trials. There is also much witchcraft and voodoo in the State of Louisianna, the state in which the majority of slaves arrived when they were brought to this country and sold. I will prepare you my response over the next couple of days because it deserves more than a short reply.

I also want to thank you for your support and encouragment in my defense against those who deny and attack our Catholic faith. I think you are right in that I should continue with zeal and passion, how can I not after what God did to me and has done for me? I think there is a clear distinction between evangelizing and defending, some want to learn about our faith and are open for a better understanding, while others are on a mission to bring our sheep out of the fold. These folks are the wolves we were warned about in Scripture.

As always Obayi, may the peace and love of our Lord be with you. You will be hearing from me soon, God bless.

May 12, 2014 at 5:15 am PST

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