Two saints who simply could not agree

“People who profoundly love the church can profoundly disagree.” Of course, such a statement appears obviously acceptable to most people at first blush. There are analogues to be drawn with democracy, albeit limited ones, because the essence of the church is different from the essence of a nation, or any other social body.

But, when pushed a bit, the notion of “legitimate pluralism” within the church sometimes precipitates some rather boisterous resistance, to put it euphemistically. Some of this is due to vestiges of ultramontane ecclesiological impulses that arose out of well-warranted concerns about the centrifugal historical and theological forces emerging in the 16th-19th centuries. Some of it is simply the human tendency toward tribalism which is a natural (not supernatural) part of life.

But this week’s memorial of Saint Vincent Ferrer (April 5) gives us a powerful moment to meditate upon this reality of theological polyphony.

Ferrer was a Spanish priest in the Middle Ages, who was widely revered for his learning, zeal and miracle-working. A member of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, he traveled through Europe inspiring countless people to penance and conversion of heart and mind. His devotion to the Passion makes his feast day in 2017 particularly timely, on the cusp of the holiest week of the year.

Yet, this canonized and respected figure spent most of his adult life at odds with another saintly hero, Saint Catherine of Siena. The issue over which they vehemently disagreed? No less than who was the legitimate pope!

The historical events in the 1300s had led the papacy to flee from Rome to Avignon in France for a generation. After Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome and eventual death, the locals clamored for an Italian pope, which the cardinals provided in the Neapolitan Urban VI. Regretting their decision and citing invalidating pressure, some of the very men who elected him fled to Anagni and elected a Frenchman, who took the name Clement VII.

Clement was insistent to remain in France, and triggered what has since been named the Western Schism. After Urban’s and Clement’s respective deaths, their successors Boniface IX and Benedict XIII continued the rivalry. The situation became even more complex when the Council of Pisa chose to depose both of them and elect a third person, Alexander V. His successor, Antipope John XXIII, was supposedly one of the reasons the historian Angelo Roncalli chose that name to “salvage” it when he was legitimately elected pope in 1958.

During all this chaos, Catherine and Vincent supported different men and were convinced of their competing claims to the Throne of Peter. It was not an easy time, Vincent was so distraught over these controversies that it led to physical and mental infirmities for him. But eventually, the church’s ultimately indefectible existence was ensured both by the Holy Spirit and the tireless commitment of the faithful to rectify the problems.

History now recognizes which men were “popes” and the “antipopes” are relegated to curious footnotes. And while Vincent and Catherine were not “both right” about everything, they are today “both saints.” My instinct is that our ecclesially and politically partisan times may do well to reflect prayerfully upon this reality.

Holiness is deeper, and broader, and more profound than simply being on the right side of an argument. In what could be seen as either an amazing twist of fate or living testimony to this fact, today a recently-clustered parish in New York City’s upper west side is called Saint Vincent Ferrer and Saint Catherine of Siena. The two churches may be named after people who disagreed in life, but today their unity around the Eucharistic table is the more important countersign to division and rancor.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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