In 1406 an aged Italian cardinal named Angelo Correr (c. 1327-1417) was elected pope; calling himself Gregory XII, he had a bedeviled nine-year tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church. His ascension to the Holy See came during a tumultuous crisis in Christian Europe usually referred to as the Great Schism, a conflict that divided clerics, royals, and the faithful for several decades. At one period of Gregory XII's rule, there were two other popes elsewhere vying for authority, but his own eventual assent to a compromise helped end the Schism.
Very little is known about the life of Angelo Correr, the man who would later take the name Gregory XII. Sources place his date of birth around 1327, and it is known that his family was among Venice's wealthy and influential clans. At the time, the lagoon city on the Adriatic Sea was a powerful sovereignty that controlled and profited from the busy shipping trade of the Mediterranean. Correr, however, opted for the priesthood, and in 1380-by then in his early sixties-he was made bishop of Castello, a city near Perugia. Ten years later, he was elevated to the title of Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, the Roman Catholic Church's representative in what is now Istanbul. Since 1054 the Eastern Orthodox Church, allied with the Byzantine Empire, had been separated from the Roman Catholic Church. The pope in Rome was known as the Patriarch of the West. In 1404 that pontiff was Innocent VII, a Neapolitan named Cosimo dei Migliorati.
Innocent VII made Correr an apostolic secretary, and then legate, or papal emissary, of Ancona, another Italian port on the Adriatic. In 1405 Correr became a cardinal, the highest position a priest could achieve in the Church before the papacy itself-indeed, popes were elected by the college of cardinals from amongst themselves. Yet over the last century both the Church and the papacy had experienced inner discord. This began in 1309 when a French pope, Clement V, relocated the Holy See to Avignon, France. In 1378 it was returned to Rome by another Gregory, Gregory XI, ending what became known as the Babylonian Captivity. Upon this pope's death, the cardinals chose Urban VII, who berated them for the luxury in which many of them lived. At the time, the Church was a corrupt institution, more often than not in the service of Europe's kings, and profited handsomely from selling all kinds of spiritual services to illiterate believers.
Urban VII was thought to be insane, and his violent rages were well-documented. Historians believe he may have murdered several cardinals after some of them convened elsewhere, declared him an antichrist, and elected a Swiss, Robert of Geneva, as Pope Clement VII. This occurred just four months into Urban VII's rule, and set in motion the Great Schism. Urban VII remained in Rome, was succeeded in 1389 by Boniface IX, whose successor upon death was Innocent VII, the pope who would become Gregory XII's mentor. Innocent reigned from 1404 to 1406, and like his predecessors, had little luck in resolving the papal crisis. Meanwhile, a series of popes remained firmly entrenched back in Avignon; the intervention of kings, future saints, and philosophers had little effect upon the situation.
At next papal election in Rome in 1406, convened upon the death of Innocent VII, every cardinal made a solemn promise that if he were to be elected, he would abdicate, provided that the Avignon pope also resigned, which would allow the two separate colleges of cardinals to reconvene and elect a pope of a united Western church. Correr was elected partly because of his character: he was elderly, and rather severe and pious in demeanor. His fellow cardinals thought him a good candidate for keeping his word. He was elected on November 30, 1406, and took the name Gregory XII. "Anathema to the Schismatics!" he proclaimed to the cardinals, according to Marzieh Gail's The Three Popes, " … Anathema upon me also if I do not use all my efforts to end the deplorable division which harms and dishonors Christianity."
Thirteen days after his election, Gregory XII formally notified the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, of his own intention to resign. The two decided to arrange to meet, the first step in the process, so that they could negotiate the dual resignation-yet could not agree upon a place. Gregory XII made a younger relative one of his envoys for this task, "an unfortunate choice as the nephew had every reason for prolonging his uncle's pontificate, " wrote L. Elliott Binns in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Medieval Papacy.
Gregory XII and Benedict XIII discussed and rejected a number of cities between Rome and Avignon, including Siena, Lucca, Nice, and Genoa. They finally agreed upon Savona, and complex negotiations ensued to set terms: each wanted bring along as much military force as possible, but were limited to eight galleys and a hundred crossbowmen. Their number of servants would also be equal, and each was to have free reign over half of Savona and half of its harbor. Benedict XIII arrived in Savona at the end of September 1407. Gregory XII journeyed to Lucca, a city not far from Pisa, and sent word suggesting they change the venue to Pisa. It never happened.
It is thought that the aging Gregory XII came under undue influence from his family, who wished to see their kin in the prestigious office. A powerful Italian leader, King Ladislaus of Naples, was also interested in seeing Gregory XII remain on the papal throne. In May of 1408 Gregory XII named four new cardinals-all of them his nephews. He was in Lucca at the time, and the incident marked a turning point in opinion against him. Notices began appearing in the city, according to The Three Popes. "They summoned the Pope to appear on a certain day to be degraded, " wrote Gail. "They accused him of being a shedder of blood, a drunkard, a man of dishonor, a slave to carnal appetites, a hypocrite, madman, heretic, even one who sought to overthrow the Church."
The cardinals who had elected Gregory XII in good faith were now angry. Nine of them left and traveled to Pisa for what became known as the Council of Pisa. Several cardinals dissatisfied with Benedict XIII's rule also participated. The Council was convened, though not quite legally according to church law, in June of 1409. The cardinals ordered both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII to stand before them, but neither appeared. They then declared both popes invalid and elected a third, Peter of Candia, who took the name Alexander V. Thus began the era of the three popes-one in Rome, another in Avignon, and a third seated in Pisa. In response, Gregory XII created more cardinals to replace those who had convened the Council of Pisa, and summoned them to his own Council at Cividale. There they declared both Benedict XIII and Alexander V wrongful popes.
A popular saying arose among European Christians-"one Pope is too much for the Catholic world, no Pope would be even better, " according to Gail in The Three Popes. The historian also wrote that public opinion had very nearly turned against the Church itself as a result of the three decades of discord and its inability to resolve the Schism from within. As the division spiraled out of control, its ramifications were felt in other parts of Europe. In Prague, for instance, the rector of its university, Jan Hus, supported Alexander V, while his archbishop was loyal to Gregory XII. For this-as well as Hus's criticisms of the abuses of the clergy-Hus was excommunicated. Later, he was invited to the Council of Constance (1414-18, the massive, pan-Europ ean meeting that eventually ended the Schism) to defend his views, but there he was burned as a heretic.
Alexander V died in 1410-thought to have been poisoned-and then a corrupt cardinal named Baldassare Cossa was chosen as his successor to the Pisa papacy. Cossa, who came from a pirate family, was Bologna's notorious tyrant ruler. His "election" as pope occurred when he told the cardinals to bring him the stole of Peter and that he would put it upon the man most deserving-and then put it on himself. Cossa took the name Pope John XXIII. Meanwhile Gregory XII, now well into his eighties, had grown weary of the Schism and its unending intrigues. His friend and protector, Charles Malatesta, helped sway his mind by appealing to Gregory's religious convictions, reminding him that he had once sworn to do his part to end the Schism.
The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, Emperor Sigisimund, was the authority who finally compelled all sides to come to the table. Sigisimund forced John XXIII to summon the Council of Constance in December of 1413. It met for the first time in the lakeside German city on November 5, 1414. An ecumenical council of massive proportions, its numbers probably included, according to The Three Popes, 2, 300 princes, knights, and deputies, 18, 000 clergy, 242 bankers, 83 tavernkeepers who brought Italian wines along, and 700 prostitutes.
The Council's first order of business was to unseat the Pisan pope, John XXIII, which it did on May 29, 1415. It then named Gregory XII the rightful heir to the Holy See. In return Gregory XII sent a letter to Council of Constance that reconvoked it officially. Yet he refused to travel to Constance in person, fearing imprisonment or even death. During this time, he prayed with a relic dear to him, a tooth that was allegedly the late Catherine of Siena's. Forty years before, Catherine had persuaded the other Gregory, Gregory XI, to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome.
When the Council of Constance accepted Gregory XII's official convocation, it was also tacit recognition of his legitimacy among the three popes. In return for the favor, he abdicated on July 4, 1415. Benedict XIII still remained pope in Avignon, but the Council of Constance eventually declared him guilty of heresy in July of 1417. The Constance cardinals then elected Martin V, and since then the papacy has remained in relatively stable condition, with the exception of one other antipope's claim in 1439 that came about as the result of Jan Hus's martyrdom in Constance. In gratitude, Gregory XII was made bishop of Porto and legate of the March of Ancona, both for life. He died in Recanati, Italy, on October 18, 1417. According to The Three Popes, his last words were: "I have not understood the world, and the world has not understood me."
Binns, L. Elliott, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Medieval Papacy, Archon Books, 1967.
Brusher, Joseph, Popes Through the Ages, Van Nostrand, 1959.
Gail, Marzieh, The Three Popes, Simon & Schuster, 1969.
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI, McGraw-Hill, 1967.