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Eugene IV - An Embattled Pontiff

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Eugene IVGabriele Condulmer was born in 1338 of a noble and wealthy Venetian family. He gave away his wealth and joined the canons regular of St. Augustine. His uncle, Pope Gregory XII made him a cardinal in 1408. He remained loyal to his uncle at the time of Pisa, and went to Constance only after Gregory's abdication. He was elected pope on the first ballot and took the name Eugene IV.

Tall, thin, austere, Eugene's very presence inspired reverence. Generous and religious, he made an amiable pope. He had something to learn about diplomacy and did improve as he grew older. He had agreed to an election capitulation which gave the cardinals more power than they deserved. He took harsh measures against the family of Martin V, but the powerful Colonna fought back so furiously that it took the aid of Florence, Venice, and Naples to beat them down to terms. A revolution broke out in Rome which sent Eugene flying to Florence, but soon the papal government was re- established.

Eugene's greatest problem was the council that Martin had convoked at Basel in Switzerland. The council got out of hand and by a series of revolutionary decrees tried to make a limited monarchy out of the papacy. For a while the situation was dark, but fear of another schism so frightened the best men that when the Pope moved the council to Ferrara, the leaders all obeyed. One cardinal, a few bishops, and a rabble of theologians defied the Pope to remain at Basel and go from absurdity to worse. This rump council deposed Eugene and elected an antipope, Amadeus of Savoy, who took the name Felix V. For a short time this pocket-size schism had some support, but meanwhile great things were in the making at Ferrara and Florence where the council moved in 1439.

The Eastern emperor, John VII, eager for Western help against the Turks, led an imposing array of dignitaries to the council at Ferrara to seek reunion with Rome. At Florence the union was solemnly proclaimed. There was great rejoicing that the Eastern Schism was now healed, but the union, though accepted sincerely by men like Bessarion and Isidore of Kiev, was not popular at Constantinople and lasted only until the fall of the Empire in 1453.

To the council also came an Armenian delegation to renounce the Monophysite heresy and return to Catholic unity. Copts and Abyssinians soon joined the Armenians. These unions, though short-lived, were important, because since Florence there had been at least small groups which stayed faithful to Rome. These are called Uniates. At Basel also the Hussites of Bohemia, having soundly trounced crusading armies, became freely reconciled to the Church. The results of this Basel-Ferrara-Florence Council are highly significant. The excesses of the rebellious Basel group struck a blow at the conciliar theory while the return of the Eastern Churches to unity enhanced the prestige of the papacy.

Eugene did try to reform the Church, but he was preoccupied with the council. He did encourage St. Frances of Rome in her noble work. He himself gave good example by his piety and charity. He tried to get a crusade under way against the Turks, but it was drowned in blood at Varna. He did succeed in negotiating a concordat with the Byzantine Empire.

Now the Renaissance was blooming, and the Pope did his part to encourage art. He ordered the bronze gates which still stand at the entrance to St. Peter's. He also commissioned the famous Fra Angelico to decorate a new chapel in the Vatican.

Eugene IV died February 23, 1431. He had guided the Church through a tempestuous time.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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