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Blessed Urban II – a reforming and crusading pope

Features

Msgr John Broadbent
27 July 2011

altBlessed Urban II was born Odo at Châtillon-sur-Marne (France) in 1042 and studied at the school of Reims under the founder of the Carthusians, St Bruno. He became Canon and then Archdeacon of Reims. But Odo gave it all away to enter Cluny, the largest and most important monastery of the Benedictine Order and the first centralised order in the Church.

On entering a monastery, Benedictines made a vow of stability for life. Odo became Prior of Cluny and in 1078 was called by Pope St Gregory VII (Hildebrand) to become a Cardinal as Bishop of Ostia outside Rome and one of the pope’s chief advisers. Bd Victor III (1085-1088) succeeded St Gregory VII and Urban remained an adviser until the cardinals elected Urban Pope on March 12, 1088.

An historic arrival
Urban II came at an important moment in the history of the Church. Faced with imperial opposition, Urban promised to carry out the revolutionary reforms of Gregory VII which would change the outreach of the Papacy. These remain in force today.

We have written already of how, once the mostly pagan barbarians overran Western Europe, the evangelisation of Europe had to begin again over several centuries. In the first 100 to 200 years there were two prongs – the recently converted Irish monks soon after St Patrick’s time started in Scotland, as we saw with St Columba last month, and then onto the Frankish tribes in France and the Ostrogoths and Lombards in northern Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

In the second prong St Gregory the Great, the Pope in Rome, sent his Benedictine monks led by St Augustine (of Canterbury) to evangelise Britain. They in turn sent St Boniface to Germany and the Netherlands. Other monks like St Willibrord, carried on further into Germany.

In time, German missionaries went further into Poland and Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal had the residue of small Christian kingdoms to fight the Muslims who invaded Spain in 711AD.  The barely Christian Norsemen and Vikings invaded Normandy, South Italy and Sicily at great cost.

Vocations for land
Lacking Christian maturity, their kings and leaders often unscrupulously desiring Church lands, made younger and illegitimate sons bishops for revenue. The clergy with little education, took priestly jobs for the money and prestige and where there had been some custom honouring celibacy, took mistresses or wives in many instances.

Reform movements sprang up, particularly those led by St Peter Damien and Hildebrand. When he became Pope in 1072 Hildebrand as Gregory VII began to centralise papal power arguing that, if good popes could show an example to bishops and the Papacy had a hand in their appointment, you could have good bishops and, with compulsory celibacy, good living priests who did not leave church lands to their children.

The effect was so revolutionary, going against the trends of the previous two or three centuries, that many of the German bishops, created by the emperor and other aristocrats, joined the Emperor Henry IV in fighting against Pope Gregory. An anti-pope, Clement III, was installed in Rome after the emperor’s invasion of Italy and Gregory VII fled into exile where he died. Clement III was still ensconced in Castel San Angelo in Rome when Urban II took possession of the city.

Church money squandered
Through almost all of his reign Clement III, with the support of many of the leading families, drew on the papal revenues and Urban II had little money to live on. However, outside Rome he held many synods to carry out Gregory’s reforms.

The simple-living Urban was revered by the people. During one of his synods, at Piacenza in 1095, the subject of the Holy Land arose. The Muslims in general had tolerated Christian pilgrims going to the Holy Land but in 1073 the Seljuk Turks invaded what is now the Middle East occupying the country known today as Turkey.

The Crusades are born
The Muslims often treated Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and the Holy Land brutally and at times barred their entry. At Piacenza it was resolved to raise an army solely from religious motives and their goods were to be inviolable. Clergy and young married men were discouraged from going. Bd Urban, in an eloquent appeal to the religious spirit of the Franks, carried the people with him. The people replied with shouts of ‘God wills it!’ and large numbers of them ‘took the Cross’ there and then.

The Pope preached the Crusades up and down France and in the words of William of Malmesbury, ‘The Welshman left his hunting, the Scot his comradeship with lice, the Dane his drinking fellows, the Norwegian his raw fish. Lands were left by the husbandmen, houses by those who dwelt in them, even whole cities were on the move’. During the spring of 1097 the four official armies of the first Crusade assembled at Constantinople and a fortnight before the death of Blessed Urban in July 1099, Jerusalem was taken.

Imposters pave the way
Even before the first official army set out, undisciplined gangs had prejudiced the Crusades’ reputation by pillaging and murdering through the valley of the Danube, terrorising Constantinople and the surrender of Jerusalem was celebrated by a frightful massacre of Jews and Muslims. The first Crusade was the only successful one.
Urban must have been saddened by the results and the tens of thousands of bodies strewn across Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, dead from plague, famine and plunder bore testimony to this.

A bid for peace
Just before his death, Urban called a Synod at Bari bringing St Anselm from Canterbury to attempt a reconciliation between Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics. He also brought his old mentor, St Bruno, who encouraged him to found a Carthusian monastery in Calabria in Southern Italy.

Only in Urban’s final years was Rome freed from the anti-pope Clement III. Urban continued his simple life and his dependence on both St Bruno and St Anselm showed his desire for personal holiness.

A devotion to him sprang up after his death, but it was not until Leo XIII beatified him in 1881 that Urban was officially entered in the Calendar of Saints. He has not yet been canonised.