Where three Popes lie

One memorable moment of a visit to Provence is to ascend from the depths of a car park in Avignon, reach the surface, and turn, only to be confronted by the Palais des Papes. Impact immédiat indeed. Everyone knows that the Papacy has not always been based in Rome, that for a period the Popes indeed resided at Avignon, but beyond that ….?

The first Avignon Pope was Raymond Bertrand de Got, who became Clement V in 1305. He had previously been the Bishop of S. Bertrand de Comminges, then Archbishop of Bordeaux. Like all the other Avignon Popes, he was a Frenchman, born at Villandrut, in what is now the Gironde département. In 1309 he moved the papacy from its temporary home in Poitiers to Avignon (initially to Carpentras), on the grounds of security, given the state of Italy at that time. In accordance with his wishes, at his death in 1314 Clement was interred in the collegiate church in Uzeste, close to his birthplace and near to Bordeaux, where his battered tomb remains to this day. After a two-year delay, Clement V was succeeded by the Cadurcien Jacques Duèze, who as Pope John XXII presided over the Catholic Church from 1316 until his death in 1334. John XXII was the greatest of the Avignon Popes. His greatest administrative action was to create a large number of new bishoprics in France in 1317-1318 (e.g. Rieux, Lombez, Condom, Mirepoix, Alet, Saint Papoul, Saint Flour, Saint Pons, Castres, Vabres, Sarlat, Tulle, Luçon, Maillezais ….), mainly by subdividing the archdiocese of Toulouse (one reason was to prevent a resurgence of Catharism). He is credited with the composition of the Anima Christi, which we sing as the hymn Soul of My Saviour. In addition, he canonized S. Louis of Toulouse (1317), S. Thomas Cantilupe (Thomas of Hereford) in 1320 and, above all, S. Thomas Aquinas in 1323. It is believed to be John XXII who popularised the Procession and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at the feast of Corpus Christi. This had been ordered by Pope Urban IV in his bull of 1264 Transiturus de hoc mundo, but it was not until it was reaffirmed by John that the devotion spread. John XXII’s splendid tomb stands in the treasury of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon, attributed to an English sculptor, Hugues Richard. 

The third Avignon Pope, Jacques Fournier, is believed to have come from the region of Foix, in the Ariége. As Bishop of Pamiers (1317) he was involved in the search for the Cathars who had clung on in his area, and documents from his inquisition went into his register, following him to Avignon and subsequently kept in the papal archives in Rome, forming the basis of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s celebrated book Montaillou, village occitan and of Rene Weis’s excellent work, The Yellow Cross. He was translated to the see of Mirepoix in 1326 and was elected as Pope Benedict XII in 1334. His main achievement is probably the promulgation of the apostolic constitution Benedictus Deus which defined that the destiny of the soul is determined at death, rather than awaiting the Last Judgement, as John XXII had suggested. Benedict XXII died in 1342, and his tomb (5) is in a chapel on the north side of Notre-Dame-des-Doms.