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St Nicholas of Tolentino and the era of three popes

Features

Mgr John Broadbent
12 September 2011

altSt Nicholas, whose feastday occurs on September 10, was born in 1245 in Sant’Angelo of parents who, though childless and in their 40s, made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Nicholas at Myra to plead for a child. Their prayers were rewarded and a son was born whom they named after St Nicholas.

Young Nicholas showed early signs of interest in religion and as a young boy would go to a small cave to pray in imitation of hermits living in the Apennine hills in central Italy where, at that time, Peter Morrone and many of his hermit disciples lived in caves.

In 1294 a retinue of cardinals arrived to inform Peter that he had been elected Pope. He took the name of Celestine V, but resigned just five months later. Two years after that he died and was canonised in 1313.

Riches eschewed
St Celestine V felt as did many men with a religious vocation including Nicholas, that the secular clergy of his time could, with the right connections, become rich and live in palatial splendour. Nicholas’ family had those connections and, when just a teenager, Nicholas was offered a rich canonry but refused the dignity. Instead he made his profession at 18 with the newly revived Augustinian friars who had a friary in Sant’Angelo. He studied theology elsewhere but annoyed the procurator of the friary by being far too generous to the poor who came begging at the gate.

First miracle
While discharging his labour of love at the gate, he performed his first miracle. Putting his hand on the head of a diseased child, he said, ‘The good God will heal you’ and the boy was immediately cured. Nicholas was ordained a priest in 1270. He was briefly novice master and also travelled about giving missions. One day in prayer he heard repeatedly, ‘Tolentino…Tolentino’. He asked to be sent to the poor friary in the town of Tolentino which had been wracked by recent wars. Here he stayed for the remaining 30 years of his life.

Many conversions on the street
As in many towns torn by strife, religion had suffered and much street preaching was needed. Nicholas’ preaching resulted in many conversions and considerable numbers amended their lives. However, it also aroused much opposition.

One man in particular followed him around constantly interjecting during his sermons. Nicholas bore it all patiently. One day the man staged a duel nearby intending to drown out Nicholas’ voice. After the duel, he sheathed his sword and stood by to listen. So touched was he by St Nicholas’ words that he apologised and reformed his life.
This conversion made a strong impression and Nicholas spent a large part of his days hearing confessions. He went about the slums of Tolentino, comforting the dying, healing the sick, appealing to criminals and resolving quarrels and separations.

Cures abound, thanks to God
One woman gave evidence at the cause for his canonisation that after St Nicholas talked to her husband, who had long treated her cruelly, her husband relinquished his violent ways and treated her lovingly.

Another witness who had three family members cured of sickness through St Nicholas, said the saint had told him after each cure, ‘Say nothing of this. Give thanks to God not to me. I am only an earthen vessel, a poor sinner.’

St Nicholas died on September 10, 1305. His last words to his community assembled around his death-bed were, ‘My dearest brethren, my conscience does not reproach me with anything – but I am not justified by that’. A commission was appointed to investigate his life and miracles.

A papal move
However, the year of St Nicholas’ death was also historic for the papacy which moved to Avignon in France. Philip, King of France, was gradually acquiring power over the papacy and with a French pope elected by a large number of French cardinals, influenced them to keep the papacy in France.

Rome had become a lawless city as various factions of its aristocratic families intrigued and waged war on each other. The French popes continued in Avignon from 1305, always ensuring that there was a large number of French cardinals to vote for the next pope.

A magnificent palace was built and the French papacy lasted some 70 years. It was often compared to the Babylonian captivity – the 70 years the Jews were exiled in Babylon.

Great saints like Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden tried to persuade the popes to return to Rome. Finally in 1377, Gregory XI arrived in Rome. A year later he was dead and the cardinals assembled in Rome to elect a pope for the first time since the move to Avignon.

Historians debate whether the election with a majority of French cardinals was as threatened by the Roman mob outside as later claimed. Rioters reportedly raided the papal cellars and made drunken demands that the next pope be a Roman or an Italian. They elected a former papal diplomat, the Archbishop of Bari in Italy.

Unfortunately just as the papacy was restored to Rome, Urban VI proved to be arrogant and intolerant. He had set himself to reform the cardinals whose opulent lifestyle he had seen in Avignon and within four months of the election most of the French cardinals fled to Milan and elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva who took the name Clement VII before returning to Avignon.

Now there were two popes. Christendom divided its loyalties between Rome and Avignon – the English and French kings and those of Hungary and Poland and the German emperor backed Avignon, most of the Italian states and the kings of Scotland and Castile, Rome. The ‘Babylonian Captivity’ was succeeded by the ‘Great Schism’ of 40 years.

To compound matters, cardinals and followers of both popes, frustrated at neither having the humility to resign, gathered in Paris to elect the real pope and succeeded only in electing a ‘third’ pope in 1409.

Finally, the Roman Emperor called a Council in Constance in 1415 and, by a series of political manipulations, expelled the three popes and voted an Italian, Martin V as the one pope two years later. After a century of strife, the church was united again. Normalcy returned to the Roman curia and St Nicholas of Tolentino was canonised in 1437.