|Innocent III blessing Francis and his|
Innocent was born into a noble Italian family, the counts of Segni, in 1160 and was elected pope in 1198. He died in 1216. His family’s stronghold was only about forty miles south-east of Rome and over the centuries there were nine popes from this family, among them being Innocent, Gregory IX, and Alexander IV. They were a remarkable family and Innocent is often considered to be the most powerful pope in the history of the Church. Fortunately, for the most part, he used power well. His nephew, Ugolino dei conti de Segni, who became Gregory IX, was a great friend and patron of Francis of Assisi and also served the Church well both as a Cardinal and later as Pope.
There is basis for criticizing Innocent for some of his decisions—the Crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians), the categorization of the Waldensians as heretics at Lateran IV and subsequent persecution, and the Fourth Crusade which ended up attacking and sacking Constantinople. We will look at these events in future posts, but these events, flawed as they are from our contemporary perspective, should not be allowed to overshadow a magnificent program of Church Reform which probably prevented a Luther-style Reformation for several centuries.When Innocent ascended the papacy in 1198 he inherited a Church that was deeply fractured. Personal hostility between the Kings of England and France had overflowed into Church life and led to a deterioration of the state of the Church in the two kingdoms as Church offices were bestowed by the kings on candidates for no reason better than the political needs of the respective monarchs. Moreover, a centuries-long feud between the papacy and the empire similarly was sapping energy, especially where the Emperor could hand out religious benefices to his political allies to cement their loyalty.
The politicalization of the Church was not only filling major posts with many unsuitable candidates, but was leading to a divide between the ordinary faithful and the hierarchy. The political alliances of the bishops weakened their authority over the faithful who were looking for good and honest guides for their spiritual growth and, not finding it among the pastors of the Church were turning elsewhere.
In the Rhineland and in the French Languedoc and Pyrénées massive numbers of Christians were deserting the Church for the gnostic Cathar movement. The rigid and austere morality ascribed to the Cathar Perfecti or Holy Men gave them a credibility that the wealthy and powerful Catholic prelates lacked. Catharism, while strongest in the Rhine and South-west France, was spreading even into Italy, undermining the Church.
Cathars were Gnostics and their beliefs were, from a Christian perspective, bizarre, but more orthodox were the Waldensians. Peter Waldo was a wealthy merchant of Lyons France who took the gospel injunction to “sell all that you have, give to the poor, and follow me” seriously. Doing precisely that, he ran afoul of Church authorities for preaching while not ordained. Waldo’s charismatic personality and dramatic conversion gave him a credibility that brought him many disciples in France and northern Italy. A lay movement, the Waldensians soon found themselves decried as schismatics and indeed were broken off from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, they grew and even many faithful Catholics admired them for their pacific ways, simple lives, and generosity to the poor.
Among Innocent III’s reforms, and perhaps the most important of them, was the encouragement of new religious orders that were strongly evangelical in their simple life and service of the poor. Francis of Assisi was introduced to Innocent who admired him greatly and helped advance the Friars Minor—Francis’ brotherhood of poor preachers who went out and worked with lepers, the lame, the sick poor and others on the margins of society.
Another order that Innocent encouraged were a society of priests under the leadership of Dominic de Guzman, a Spanish priest working in the south of France to win people back from the Cathar heresy. Like Francis’ friars, Dominic’s priests and their coadjutor brothers lived lives of model simplicity. Dominic, unlike Francis, stressed the importance of education and many of his priests were both brilliant scholars and good preachers.
The first new order that Innocent encouraged with the Trinitarians—a community of priests and brothers who were dedicated to freeing captives captured in the Crusades and held by the Muslims. They raised money with which to buy Muslim prisoners and then exchange them for Christian prisoners. Their kindness to the Muslim prisoners gave them great credibility on both sides of the wars.
The emphasis of these new communities was living a life in imitation of Jesus and his apostles in prayer, fellowship, and simplicity of life. Perhaps what we need most in the Church today are new—or renewed—religious orders of men and women who take the gospel seriously. Men and women who will lead simple lives, give themselves to prayer, and dedicate themselves to the service of the poor. In the years since Vatican II many of the Sisters’ communities have done just that. Now maybe it is time for the men to follow their example.