It is the 14th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1363.
On yesterday's show, we saw what happened when there was no Pope. Today's remembrance coincidently revolves around a time when there were too many Popes.
The 14th century was the age of Chaucer and Dante, Boccaccio and Brunelleschi, Ockham and Petrarch. The great artists and thinkers of that day had drawn on challenging experiences in that century. Historian Barbara Tuchman has written a popular history of the century entitled, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.”
The century kicked off with the Great Famine. Heavy rains destroyed crops and drowned cattle across Europe. Inflation and price-fixing led to runaway costs, and up to 5% of the population is said to have starved to death. There were also rumors of cannibalism, the popular children's story of Hansel and Gretel is supposed to have originated from this time.
The century kept coming, the great famine gave way to the black death, and all the while, the Hundred Years War was intermittently causing havoc on either side of the English Channel.
The papacy began the century by moving to Avignon, France. This is what would later be called the "Babylonian Captivity" of the church. Fun fact: calling any kind of exile a "Babylonian captivity" was once a standard practice for referring to anything temporarily out of place. Let's bring this back. For example, I could say that I was a fan of the Rams, even during their Babylonian captivity in St. Louis from the years 1995-2015. See? It's fun.
We won't give a blow-by-blow account of how a Pope soon popped up in Rome, and then a new Pope was supposed to cancel out the first two, but he just became the 3rd Pope in Pisa. Why does this matter? Because picking the wrong Pope to follow, if indeed he wasn't the Pope, meant being in the wrong church. And your soul was at stake. Perhaps it felt a bit like a divine shell game with "real" authority hidden under one of the cassocks.
The existential question of that age (and so many others) was one of authority. Questions like "who says?" And "do I have to?" might seem juvenile, but it can be the whole ballgame in the church.
And so, into this breach, we find one of the essential characters in the Medieval church, although we might suggest he straddled the Medieval and Renaissance churches. This man can represent the transition out of the old world and into the new. It was on this day, the 14th of December in 1363, that Jean Gerson was born. A popular public speaker, preacher, and pious academic, Gerson would reflect the theology of his day atop his post as the chancellor of the University of Paris. Gerson drank deeply from the ancient philosophers. For example, in a discussion of church government Gerson reflects that Aristotle's teachings can be instructive. Just as Aristotle believed that a mixed form of government was ideal, so too did Gerson write that a hybrid form of ecclesiastical government was also preferable. And this meant diluting power, even the power of the papacy.
Regarding the papacy, Gerson was at his professional apogee as the schism became the question across Europe. Perhaps a church council should be called? It was thought that the Pope had to do that, but which one would it be? If the wrong Pope calls the council, it would be invalid. But how would we know? And for all the other things we could say about Gerson, here was his genius. He taught that authority in the church is derived from the whole body, not just one part. Thus, while we have traditionally located that authority in the person of the Pope, Gerson believed that it didn't need to be that way. Gerson wanted a Pope, but he felt that the authority might be better established elsewhere in situations like this. This did not become an established doctrine, but it did offer a way out of the schism. Unfortunately, Gerson was too radical for the later Catholics and too traditional for the later Reformers, and thus for a time, he fell between two stools. Today we remember him for his role in helping the church work its way out of a pickle. Too many Popes called for the church council's countervailing power, and this "conciliarism" is what we might best remember about Jean Gerson. A child of the tumultuous and calamitous 14th century, Jean Gerson was born on this, the 14th of December in 1363.
The reading for today is a poem entitled "Advent" by Sr. Christine Schenk.
with quickened hope
for crooked paths
keepers of the keys
(If such a thing were possible.)
and will not be
For tiny shoot
of Jesse tree
took root in me
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man in Wisconsinite Captivity, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.