Palace of Popes, Avignon

The third Avignon pope, Pope Benedict XII was born around 1280-1285 in the county of Foix, southern France near the Pyrenees Mountains. Nothing is known of his immediate family. His name was Jacques Fournier.  The first we know of him is when he entered the Cistercian Order, possibly because his uncle was the abbot of a Cistercian abbey. As a young man, he left the abbey to study at the University of Paris, where he earned a doctorate in theology.

At between age 26 and 31, Jacques became the abbot of Fontfroide Abbey. He was soon recognized for his intelligence and organizational skills. In 1317, he became the Bishop of Pamiers, in southern France. It was at this point that he started to help with the Cathar problem.

Now, the Cathars, or Albigensians, were a heretic group. They believed that there were two Gods, one of good and one of evil. The evil god made the physical world, basically was Satan. They taught that people were trapped in the material realm of the evil god, destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through a baptism when death was imminent. Pope Innocent III attempted to send missionaries and tried to persuade local authorities to staunch the flow of people leaving the Catholic Faith. This ended abruptly with the papal legate being murdered. Then, the Albigensian crusade  launched in 1209.  It weakened the movement but did not stop it.

As the new Bishop of Pamiers, Jacques assisted Bernard Gui, the chief inquisitor for the southern France district. At the same time, King Philip IV of France wrote an edict against lepers. They investigated a water-poisoning at a leprosarium. Torture forced the director of the place to confess to the deed.

In 1326, Jacques became Bishop of Mirepore. Not much more than a year later, 1327, he became a cardinal, but still dressed in the habit of a Cistercian monk. Soon after, he became an advisor to Pope John XXII on doctrinal matters, like the nature of magic. During the years that Pope John fought the evangelical poverty claims of the Franciscans, Jacques studied that.  

A conclave was set up within two weeks of John’s death, in 1334. Most of the cardinals did not want to move back to Rome due to the chaos there. They offered the position to one of their own if he would promise not to move back to Rome. He would not. As an alternative, on a dare, they voted for Jacques. He got the 2/3 majority vote. He warned them of his inadequacies. But on 8 January 1335, he was consecrated Pope.

His Papacy

Jacques, now Pope Benedict XII, wanted to move the curia back to Rome. It was not possible, due to the continued fighting there. So, he sent money to repair St. Peter’s, the Lateran Palace and money to feed the starving Romans. He tried moving the curia to Bologna but that failed. Then he began the expansion of the Palace of Popes at Avignon.

One of the new pope’s first reforms targeted the religious orders. Over the years, clergy avarice, nepotism, and the abuses of granting benefices had ruined some orders. He introduced reforms, which caused hostility. In the end, soon after his death, many reforms were removed.

The difficulties that Pope John had with the Holy Roman Empire, France and England did not disappear on his death. Pope Benedict tried on several occasions to negotiate peace with the leaders, unsuccessfully.

Benedict spent a large portion of his time on Pope John’s questionable theology of the Beatific Vision. He thought no soul saw the Lord until the Last Judgement. Benedict defined the teaching that the soul went to its eternal reward upon death.

The Cathar Crusade was still continuing in 1336. But it was hampered by conflicts in Aragon, Genoa, Naples and Sicily. Pope Benedict asked King Philip IV of France to help bring peace. Eventually the crusade was cancelled and in December of 1336, Benedict cancelled the 6-year crusading tithe, a tax.

1337 marked the beginning of the Hundred Years war between England and France, with the invasion of Scotland by France. Benedict tried to warn Philip without success.

To keep paperwork flowing smoothly, Pope Benedict moved the papal archives from Assisi to Avignon. The new center of papacy was rapidly becoming entrenched.

Pope Benedict XII died in Avignon on 25 April 1342. His remains are in that city.

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