One of the Avignon popes turned out to be the right man for the right time when the Pestilence came to town.
In this time of pandemic, some people have looked to earlier public health crises for lessons that might be learned. The 14th century offers a few, including the example of one of the popes who lived outside of Rome.
Pope Clement VI was born Pierre Roger in 1291 in Corrèze, France. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he entered the Benedictine monastery of La Chaise-Dieu in Haute-Loire at the age of 10. After studying and teaching in Paris, he embarked on an ecclesial career, rapidly rising from abbot to bishop to cardinal. He was elected pope on May 7, 1342, at Avignon, where the popes had taken up residence in the early 14th century.
The Catholic Encyclopedia pegs him as “more of a temporal prince than an ecclesiastical ruler.”
“Clement was munificent to profusion, a patron of arts and letters, a lover of good cheer, well-appointed banquets and brilliant receptions, to which ladies were freely admitted,” it says.
His love of the “good life” might have supported the perhaps mistaken depiction of him as someone who locked the door to his room while the Bubonic Plague was raging through Avignon in 1348-49. Yet, the Encyclopedia notes, “his courage and charity strikingly appeared at the time of the Great Pestilence, or Black Death.”
An anonymous medieval biographer wrote that Clement “acted very charitably” during the plague, directing his doctors to visit the sick and making sure the poor had what they needed. This in spite of the fact that a quarter of his own staff was wiped out by the plague, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
“For the needy, he arranged for burials, and even bought a piece of land to be used as a plague cemetery,” writes Frans van Liere at Historical Horizons. “Of course he was also a spiritual leader, and he alleviated some of the spiritual anxieties by instituting a special Mass for the cessation of the plague, and, more importantly, he provided a general absolution of all sins for victims of the plague who had died without proper confession or receiving the last rites.”
There were misunderstandings about the origin of the deadly disease that struck people down swiftly. Some people blamed the Jews for it, claiming it was a plot to wipe out Christianity. These conspiracy theorists said the Jews were poisoning wells and springs, and unfortunately, some Jews confessed under torture. Soon, pogroms ensued throughout Germany, van Liere writes.
“While in many places, numerous Jews were massacred by the populace as being the cause of the pestilence, Clement issued Bulls for their protection and afforded them a refuge in his little State,” the Catholic Encyclopedia says.
“It has come to our attention,” Clement wrote, “that Christians, at the inspiration of the devil, have falsely imputed this pest, which God has inflicted on all Christians as a due punishment for their sins, to the Jews. No Christian should dare to harm, kill, or take the possessions of the aforementioned Jews, without due judgement of the Lord of the region. No Christian should compel a Jew to accept baptism by means of violence.”
In a later bull, Clement admonished all archbishops, bishops, and Church leaders to denounce the slaughter of the Jews, and threatened anyone who harmed the Jews with a papal condemnation, van Liere says. He personally took into his protection those who had suffered persecution.
Clement died December 6, 1352.