Today is the feast day of Blessed Urban V. Ora pro nobis.
Blessed Urban V (Guillaume de Grimoard) was born at Grisac in Languedoc. He was born of a knightly family, he was educated at Montpellier and Toulouse, and became a Benedictine monk at the little priory of Chirac near his home.
While we know little about his early life. A Bull of 1363 informs us that he was professed at the great Abbey of St. Victor at Marseilles, where he imbibed his characteristic love for the Order of St. Benedict; even as pope he wore its habit. He was ordained at Chirac, and after a further course of theology and canon law at the universities of Toulouse, Montpellier, Paris, and Avignon, he received the doctorate in 1342.
As abbot of the Saint-Victor community in Marseilles, he was chosen as a papal legate, and sent on various missions to Avignon and Naples.
His first mission was to Giovanni Visconti, Archbishop and despot of Milan, and this he carried out successfully; in 1354 and 1360 he was employed on the affairs of the Holy See in Italy; in 1361 he was appointed by Innocent VI to the Abbacy of St. Victor at Marseilles, but in 1362 was once more dispatched to Italy, this time on an embassy to Joanna of Naples. It was while engaged on this business that the abbot heard of his election to the papacy. Innocent VI had died on 12 Sept. The choice of one who was not a cardinal was due to jealousies within the Sacred College, which made the election of any one of its members almost impossible. Guillaume de Grimoard was chosen for his virtue and learning, and for his skill in practical affairs of government and diplomacy. He arrived at Marseilles on 28 Oct., entered Avignon three days later, and was consecrated on 6 November, taking the name of Urban because, as he said, “all the popes who had borne the name had been saints”. The general satisfaction which this election aroused was voiced by Petrarch, who wrote to the pope, “It is God alone who has chosen you”.
Remembered as deeply spiritual and brilliantly intellectual, Pope Urban immediately set about enacting reform. A severe disciplinarian, he encouraged the clergy to shed the privileges and wealth of their positions, and to live more simply and modestly. He further enacted reforms in many Orders, restored churches and monasteries, founded several colleges and institutions of learning, and made great strides in reconciling rifts between the Eastern and Western churches.
The Benedictine pope was a lover of peace, and much of his diplomacy was directed to the pacification of Italy and France. Both countries were overrun by mercenary bands known as the “Free Companies”, and the pope made many efforts to secure their dispersal or departure. His excommunication was disregarded and the companies refused to join the distant King of Hungary in his battles with the Turks although the Emperor Charles IV, who came to Avignon in May, 1365, guaranteed the expenses of their journey and offered them the revenues of his kingdom of Bohemia for three years.
War now broke out between Pedro the Cruel of Navarre and his brother Henry of Trastamare. Pedro was excommunicated for his cruelties and persecutions of the clergy, and Bertrand Duguesclin, the victor of Cocherel, led the companies into Navarre; yet they visited Avignon on their way and wrung blackmail from the pope. The Spanish war was quickly ended, and Urban returned to his fomer plan of employing the companies against the Turk. The Count of Savoy was to have led them to the assistance of the King of Cyprus and the Eastern Empire, but this scheme too was a failure. Urban’s efforts were equally fruitless in Italy, where the whole land was overrun with bands led by such famous condottieri as the German Count of Landau and the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood. In 1365, after the failure of a scheme to unite Florence, Pisa, and the Italian communes against them, the pope commissioned Albornoz to persuade these companies to join the King of Hungary.
In 1366 he solemnly excommunicated them, forbade their employment, and called on the emperor and all the powers of Christendom to unite for their extirpation. All was in vain, for though a league of Italian cities was formed in September of that year, it was disolved about fifteen months later owing to Florentine jealousy of the emperor.
Rome had suffered terribly through the absence of her pontiffs, and it became apparent to Urban that if he remained at Avignon the work of the warlike Cardinal Albornoz in restoring to the papacy the States of the Church would be undone. On 14 September, 1366, he informed the emperor of his determination to return to Rome. All men rejoiced at the announcement except the French; the king understood that the departure from Avignon would mean a diminution of French influence at the Curia.
The French cardinals were in despair at the prospect of leaving France, and even threatened to desert the pope. On 30 April, 1367, Urban left Avignon; on 19 May he sailed from Marseilles, and after a long coasting voyage he reached Corneto, where he was met by Albornoz. On 4 June the Romans brought the keys of Sant’ Angelo in sign of welcome, and the Gesuati carrying their branches in their hands and headed by their founder, Blessed John Colombini, preceded the pope. Five days later he entered Viterbo, where he dwelt in the citadel. The disturbed state of Italy made it impossible for Urban to set out to Rome until he had gathered a considerable army, so it was not till 16 Oct. that he entered the city at the head of an imposing cavalcade, under the escort of the Count of Savoy, the Marquess of Ferrara, and other princes.
The return of the pope to Rome appeared to the contemporary world both as a great event and as a religious action. The pope now set to work to improve the material and moral condition of his capital. The basilicas and papal palaces were restored and decorated, and the Papal treasure, which had been preserved at Assisi since the days of Boniface VIII, was distributed to the city churches. The unemployed were put to work in the neglected gardens of the Vatican, and corn was distributed in seasons of scarcity; at the same time the discipline of the clergy was restored, and the frequentation of the sacraments encouraged. One of Urban’s first acts was to change the Roman constitution, but it may be questioned whether “the sacrifice offered to the Pontiff as the reward of his return was the liberty of the people” (Gregorovius).
On 17 October, 1368, the emperor joined the pope at Viterbo. Before leaving Germany he had confirmed all the rights of the Church, and Urban hoped for his help against the Visconti, but Charles allowed himself to be bribed. On 21 Oct. the pope and emperor entered Rome together, the latter humbly leading the pontiff’s mule. On 1 Nov. Charles acted as deacon at the Mass at which Urban crowned the empress. For more than a century pope and emperor had not appeared thus in amity. A year later the Emperor of the East, John V Palaeologus, came to Rome seeking assistance against the infidel; he abjured the schism and was received by Urban on the steps of St. Peter’s. These emperors both of West and East were but shadows of their great predecessors, and their visits, triumphs as they might appear, were but little gain to Urban V. He felt that his position in Italy was insecure.
The death of Albornoz (24 Aug., 1367), who had made his return to Italy possible, had been a great loss. The restlessness of the towns was exemplified by the revolt of Perugia, which had to be crushed by force; any chance storm might undo the work of the great legate. At heart, too, the pope had all a Frenchman’s love for his country, and his French entourage urged his return to Avignon. In vain were the remonstrances of the envoys of Rome, which had gained “greater quiet and order, an influx of wealth, a revival of importance” from his sojourn; in vain were the admonitions of St. Bridget, who came from Rome to Montefiascone to warn him that if he returned to Avignon he would shortly die.
War had broken out again between France and England, and the desire to bring about peace strengthened the pope’s determination. On 5 Sept., 1370, “sad, suffering and deeply moved”, Urban embarked at Corneto. In a Bull of 26 June he had told the Romans that his departure was motived by his desire to be useful to the Universal Church and to the country to which he was going. It may be, too, that the pope saw that the next conclave would be free at Avignon but not in Italy. Charles V joyfully sent a fleet of richly adorned galleys to Corneto; the pope did not long survive his return (24 Sept.) to Avignon. His body was buried in Notre-Dame des Doms at Avignon but was removed two years later, in accordance with his own wish, to the Abbey Church of St. Victor at Marseilles. Miracles multiplied around his tomb. His canonization was demanded by King Waldemar of Denmark and promised by Gregory XI as early as 1375, but did not take place owing to the disorders of the time. His cultus was approved by Pius IX in 1870. (1)
Image: Portrait of pope Urban V, Avignon, France, author: Henri Segur, 18th century. (5)
Research by REGINA Staff