Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Feast of St Vincent Ferrer

One month ago today, the Church commemorated the sixth centenary of the death of St Vincent Ferrer. His feast was traditionally assigned to the day of his death, April 5th, but I say “assigned to” instead of “kept on” advisedly; that date falls within either Holy Week or Easter week so often that his feast was either translated or omitted more than it was celebrated on its proper day. [1] For this reason, in 2001 the Dominicans moved him to today; on the general calendar of the Roman Rite, and in the Dominican Rite, he remains on his traditional day.

St Vincent Ferrer and his namesake, St Vincent the Martyr, by Miquel Joan Porta (1544–1616), formerly in the Jesuit house at Valencia, now in the Museu de Belles Arts de València. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, by Quinok.) The banderole behind St Vincent Ferrer contains the words of Apocalypse 14, 7, “Fear the Lord, and give him honour, because the hour of his judgment is come”, for reasons that are explained below.
St Vincent was born in the Spanish city of Valencia in 1350, the descendent of an Englishman or Scot who was knighted after fighting for the reconquest of that city in 1238. After completing his philosophical training at the age of 14, he entered the Dominicans at 17, and was sent to one of the order’s most important houses of studies at Barcelona. After a brief period teaching at Lerida, and the writing of two well-regarded philosophical treatises, he returned to Barcelona for further studies, and was allowed to preach, although still only a deacon. It was here that he performed one of his earliest miracles; the city was then suffering from a famine, but Vincent predicted in the course of a sermon that food would arrive by ship that very day to relieve it. His prediction came true, but also earned him a year-long transfer by his nervous superiors to the order’s house at Toulouse.

Upon his return, he began the association with Cardinal Pedro de Luna which would mark the rest of his extraordinary life almost as much as his teaching and preaching, or his countless miracles and conversions. The year that he went to France, 1377, was the same year the Pope permanently left it, after almost 70 years of Papal residence in the city of Avignon. Gregory XI was finally persuaded to end the scandal of the Pope himself being the most prominent absentee bishop in Christendom, and return to Rome, largely through the influence of another Dominican, St Catherine of Siena. However, he died only fourteen months later.

St Catherine Escorts Pope Gregory XI in his Return to Rome, by Giorgio Vasari, 1573
During the following conclave, a crowd of Romans surrounded the building where the cardinals had gathered, loudly chanting “We want a Roman, or at least an Italian.” In the midst of this and various other disorders, and a conclave split between French and Italian factions, it was Cardinal de Luna, a Spaniard, who proposed as a candidate the archbishop of Bari, Bartolomeo Prignano, known to all as a saintly and learned man. He was thus elected as Pope Urban VI on April 8, 1378, the last Pope to be chosen from outside the College of Cardinals.

Almost immediately upon his election, however, the new Pope underwent a change in behavior so violent, and marked by such an astonishing lack of prudence and charity, that many believed his election had somehow driven him mad. St Catherine herself wrote to him, urging him to behave in a manner more becoming the Father of Christendom. To give a very simple example, he would (not without reason, to be sure) violently upbraid the cardinals for their venality and the luxury of their lives and retinues, yet he elevated four of his own nephews to the cardinalate. [2]

Within a few short months, he had so thoroughly alienated the majority of the cardinals that they withdrew to the town of Fondi, 60 miles southeast of Rome, having persuaded themselves that they had elected Urban not merely in the midst of the unruly Roman crowd, but in fear of it, thus rendering the election invalid. Having declared the election null, they proceeded to choose one of their own number, Robert of Geneva, to replace him, the beginning of the Great Schism of the West. After a failed attempt to seize control of Rome militarily, the new Pope, calling himself Clement VII, withdrew to France, taking up residence in the palace in Avignon recently vacated by Gregory XI. Before long, the entire Western Church was divided in its allegiance; not only were there two blocks of the major states, but within individual religious orders (including the Dominicans), and indeed, within many individual houses, there was one party that backed the claim of Urban, and another that of Clement.

The cosmatesque throne of the church of St Peter in Fondi, on which Clement VII was crowned.
It is tempting to imagine that a person of such sanctity and stature as St Catherine, renowned inter alia as a peacemaker amid the endless factional strife of the Italian cities, might have been able to bring about a reconciliation of this awful state of things; unfortunately, she died only a year and half into the schism. On the Roman side, Urban VI was succeeded in 1389 by a cardinal of his own creation, who took the name Boniface IX; the latter was consecrated by one of Urban’s cardinal-nephews, and was such a flagrant simoniac that his Papal name has never been used again. Boniface was followed in due time by Innocent VII and Gregory XII, while on the Avignon side, Clement VII died in 1394, and was succeeded by none other than Cardinal Pedro de Luna, who called himself Benedict XIII.

It is difficult to make the case that the cardinals gathered at Fondi were acting entirely in good faith, especially considering that in the earlier conclave, both Robert of Geneva and Pedro de Luna had withdrawn themselves from consideration in favor of Cardinal Prignano. Buyer’s remorse is simply not a principle in canon law. But there can be no doubt that in the years that followed, many partisans of both sides did act in the sincere conviction that their Pope was the true one. And the Avignon side could boast that one of its staunchest supporters was none other than the great preacher and miracle-worker Vincent Ferrer. [3]

Even as a member of Cardinal de Luna’s household, St Vincent continued his work as a preacher and teacher; he was confessor to the Queen of Aragon, and numbered among his converts a prominent rabbi named Solomon ha-Levi, who took the baptismal name Paul (for obvious reasons), and eventually became archbishop of Burgos. On the election of his patron as Pope in the Avignon line, he was called to the court, where he continued as he had before, refusing many offers of bishoprics and the cardinalate, but all the while steadfastly defending Benedict’s cause.
The Preaching of St Vincent Ferrer, predella of the polyptych by Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516) dedicated to the Saint in the Dominican church of Ss John and Paul in Venice. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In 1399, St Vincent obtained permission to leave the court, and thus began a twenty-year long career of itinerant preaching throughout Western Europe. In an era when many religious orders were relaxing their discipline in the hope of filling houses half-emptied or more by the Black Death, he lived very much in the spirit of the original Dominicans whose austerity had made such an impression in the 13th century. Travelling on foot, he visited many different parts of Spain, southern France, northern Italy and Switzerland, and everywhere he went, vast crowds would gather to hear him. The same miracles are attested of him that were later done by the patron Saint of missionaries, Francis Xavier, namely, that when he preached, his voice would carry to enormous distances, and he was understood simultaneously by groups of people who spoke several different languages. A company sprang up who followed him from place to place, at times numbering in the thousands, including several priests who assisted him in hearing confessions, and in forming the choir with which he sang the Mass and Divine Office every day. When he moved on, some of “Master Vincent’s Penitents”, as they were called, would often remain behind to consolidate the good work achieved by his mission.

The Roman Breviary states of him that “when the seamless garment of the Church was rent by a terrible schism, he labored greatly that it should be united again, and stay so,” delicately not mentioning that he never ceased from his conviction that the Popes of the Avignon line were in the right. In the meantime, the climate of opinion had shifted throughout the Church towards what was then called the “via cessionis – the way of yielding”, meaning that the only way to resolve the schism was for both claimants to resign. The Roman Pope, Gregory XII, was willing to do so, and did in fact abdicate the Papacy in 1415, the last such event until 2013.

Benedict XIII, however, remained obdurate, and would not yield even at the entreaties of his old and honored friend Vincent. On Epiphany of 1416, in the presence of King Ferdinand of Castile and Aragon, the Saint therefore preached that although Benedict was indeed the rightful Pope, his obstinacy had made the healing of the schism impossible, and that the faithful might therefore justly withdraw their allegiance to him; this proved the death blow to Benedict’s cause. St Vincent did not go to the Council of Constance, which finally settled the matter once and for all, but when it was over, Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris (an institution which had played a leading role in the controversy), wrote to him that “But for you, the reunion could never have been achieved.”

The castle of Peñiscola, 80 miles to the north of Valencia on the Spanish coast. This castle had been the property of Pedro de Luna’s family, and it was here that he withdrew after being chased out of Avignon, deposed by the Council of Constance, and disavowed by all but a handful of supporters. He maintained to the end that he was always the legitimate Pope, and compared his castle to Noah’s Ark, which only had 8 people in it. In Spanish, he is often called “El Papa Luna” from his last name, a word which is also the origin of “lunatic.” (CC BY 3.0 image from Wikimedia Commons by ホセ・マヌエル)
Having thus seen the end of the great crisis of the schism, St Vincent spent the last years of his life continuing his apostolic labors in northern France. He died on the Wednesday of Passion Week, 1419, at Vannes in Brittany, where his relics are still kept in the cathedral. Pope Callixtus III Borgia, also a native of Valencia, whose election as Pope he had prophesied, canonized him in 1455, the fourth Dominican to be declared a Saint. (St Catherine followed very shortly thereafter, canonized by Callixtus’ successor Pius II, the former bishop of her native city, in 1461.)

In his Office in the Dominican Rite, one stanza of the hymn for Vespers says “You were indeed that other angel who flew through the midst of heaven, proclaiming to all peoples and tongues the hour of the Judge.” This refers to a famous episode in his career that took place at Salamanca in Spain, when he declared himself to be the angel of whom St John speaks in Apocalypse 14, 6: “And I saw another angel flying through the midst of heaven, having the eternal Gospel, to preach unto them that sit upon the earth, and over every nation, and tribe, and tongue, and people.”

As told in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “As some of his hearers began to protest, he summoned the bearers who were carrying a dead woman to her burial and adjured the corpse to testify to the truth of his words. The body was seen to revive for a moment to give the confirmation required, and then to close its eyes once more in death. It is almost unnecessary to add that the Saint laid no claim to the nature of a celestial being, but only to the angelic office of a messenger or herald—believing, as he did, that he was the instrument chosen by God to announce the impending end of the world.” The impending end of the world was indeed a favorite topic of St Vincent in his preaching, and this was perfectly reasonable, given the state of things in the Church in his time, but we would do well to remember that that was over six hundred years ago.

A statue of St Vincent as the Angel of the Apocalypse, in the Dominican convent in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
[1] In the 376 years between the institution of the Gregorian Calendar (1582) and the liturgical reform of 1960, while the feast of St Vincent still enjoyed the right of transference on the Dominican calendar, it was moved 201 times because of its concurrence with Passion Sunday, Holy Week or Easter week. After the right of transference was withdrawn from his rank of feast, in the forty-one years from 1960-2000 inclusive, it was omitted 24 times, outside of those places where he is honored as a principal patron.

[2] By comparison, the first two Medici Popes, whose family name has (rather unfairly) become a by-word for the corruption and venality of their era, during their combined reign of nearly 20 years, each made only one member of the family a cardinal.

[3] The Popes of the Avignon line were also recognized by St Colette, who was able to effect an important and long-lasting reform of the Poor Clares with the constant support of Benedict XIII, and by Bl. Peter of Luxemburg, who was made bishop of Metz in France and a cardinal by Clement VII.

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