Today, according to the Roman Martyrology, we celebrate a saint “who protected the freedom of the Church against the encroachments of the laity; fought against corrupt and simoniacal clergy, and, at the Council of Claremont, urged Christian soldiers that, signed with the Cross, they liberate their oppressed brethren from the infidels and free the Lord’s sepulchre.”
That would be the Frenchman, Odo of Châtillon-sur-Marne, in Champagne, better known to history as Pope Urban II, who died on this day in 1099 — not knowing that his valiant knights had just taken Jerusalem. He had outmanoeuvred an antipope and the Holy Roman Emperor; clinched the Gregorian reforms of the Church from within; eliminated simony, investiture, and clerical marriage from high places; and restored Sicily and Sardinia to Christendom.
But this is a long, as well as glorious story, across the top of which I skip.
Even before his election to the papacy at Terracina, this Cluniac monk had accomplished extraordinary things. As legate of his papal predecessors, he had travelled Europe to confirm rightful bishops in their sees, and depose those under anathema, with breathtaking holy nerve. Upon election, he was shut out of Rome, but soon entered in the train of bold Norman soldiers. The victim of a coup once he stepped out again, Pope Urban spent three years in the wilderness of an eleventh-century Europe in terrible disarray, gathering the loyalties for his triumphant return.
One event especially appeals to me. It happened towards Easter in 1094. With the partisans of his opponents still in control of the strongholds of the city of Rome, he returned to the surrendered Lateran — just in time to celebrate the Easter Mass.
Pope Urban was no dawdler. His sense of priorities was sublime. He was a man of majestic fortitude, against whom opposition finally collapsed. To the inspiration of faithful Catholics in all subsequent ages, he defended the sanctity of marriage, and of clerical celibacy, in a time when both were everywhere under attack; excommunicating and often successfully dethroning secular rulers who had attempted divorce and taken second wives. For Henry VIII of England was hardly the first king to defy the unambiguous teaching of Jesus Christ.
Alas, upon Urban’s accession, the crisis in the West was nothing to the crisis in the East. The Seljuk Turks had conquered Byzantine Anatolia, and were pressing towards Constantinople. From there, and from Christian communities across the Middle East, Rome received desperate pleas for help. Christians were persecuted by their Muslim overlords; their peaceful pilgrims to Jerusalem were slaughtered, and the Holy Land closed to them. Then as today, ancient Christian communities faced extinction across a region which had centuries before been Christianized, without the help of swords.
By diplomacy, oratory, and example, Pope Urban roused true men to rally across the Western realms, and march to their defence. In one of history’s most profound acts of Good Samaritanship, the First Crusade was launched. Horrors followed aplenty, of course – then as now, war was war — but in the miracle of events, within the years 1096–99, the Holy Land, lost to Arab conquest in the seventh century, was restored to Christian freedom — crowned with the capture of Jerusalem as the saintly Pope died.