A peculiar time it was for the Church in the latter part of the thirteenth century. No, there was no shortage of saints, or great theologians, philosophers, inventors, and good rulers; they were plentiful, but for almost three years there was a shortage of a pope.
From the death of Pope Clement IV, November 29, 1268, to the election of Pope Gregory IX, September 1, 1271, the chair of Peter was vacant. The fifteen cardinals making up the sacred college were divided into two camps, with French and Italian interests, and they could not agree on a candidate with the required two-thirds majority. Nor were they even in Rome at the time, but inViterbo, about sixty miles north.
No amount of lobbying could sway either party to choose a compromise candidate. Finally, the mayor of the town locked the cardinals in the episcopal palace and informed them they could not leave without electing a pope. Hence we have the word “conclave,” which means “under key.” Well being locked up did not cure their obstinacy. Neither did the locals’ removal of the roof over the cardinals’ residence in order to let in the Holy Ghost. The next tactic was to reduce their food to one meal a day. Still no compromise. After a few weeks it was just bread and water. The kings of France and Sicily, both good Catholics — the former being the son of Saint Louis IX — had had enough. They came up with a solution. The cardinals were to choose six delegates from among their number and these would must agree on someone to fill the holy office. I do not know what the — or else — was.
It was a given that the cardinals had to go outside the college if they were going to find someone agreeable to both parties. And so they did. They chose Teobaldo Visconti, an Italian, but also the archdeacon of Liège, which is a diocese in France. The fact that he was not even a priest was not a negative factor because it was Visconti’s universal reputation as a man skilled in diplomacy and as one having an keen eye for justice that moved the cardinals to elect him.
The archdeacon, however, at that time was on a pilgrimage to the holy land. It took a long time for the news to reach him and, after accepting the call, a long time for him to come to Rome. Meanwhile the Church waited for their pilgrim pope to come home.
Gregory IX turned out to be a wonderful pope. He was a man of peace who achieved peace in Christendom through his personal holiness and fair-minded arbitrations. He presided over the ecumenical council of Lyons (1274-76), which, for a short time, reunited the schismatic Greeks to ecclesial unity with Rome; and he exacted an annual collection in every diocese in order to raise soldiers to go and win back the Christian lands that were lost after the failure of the eighth crusade. This ninth crusade never materialized. Pope Gregory IX also established laws for future papal elections in order to prevent such a long vacancy in the Papal See from ever happening again. In the diocese of Rome he is revered as a saint and has a feast day, February 16, but he has never been canonized
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