Pope Gregory XII: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who leads the Catholic Church? Well, depending on when you asked this question, you may have actually gotten different answers. In this lesson, we'll examine the life of Pope Gregory XII, who held the papacy in one of its most tumultuous times.

Pope Gregory XII

In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI voluntarily resigned and gave up the papacy, and in doing so he entered into a rare history of retired popes. This doesn't happen often. The papacy is usually held for life, and in fact, it had been almost 600 years since any pope had voluntarily resigned before Pope Benedict XVI. The last pope to give up the office was Gregory XII, a 15th-century leader who held the papal seat at one of the most turbulent times in church history. In most careers, retirement is something you look forward. In the papacy, it's something most want to avoid.

Pope Gregory XII
Pope Gregory XII

Early Life and the Western Schism

Pope Gregory XII was born to a noble family of Venice around 1327 CE under the name Angelo Corraro. He became entered into church service and was eventually named the Bishop of Castello, before becoming a cardinal and finally being elected pope in 1406.

Before we go any further, we need to understand the world that Pope Gregory XII was living in. In the early 14th century, the papal office was banished from Rome and relocated to Avignon, France. In 1377, the previous of the Gregories, Pope Gregory XI, managed to finally bring the papacy back to Rome. However, this was not without conflict. Pope Gregory XI died soon after relocating the papal seat and the Church broke into factions. Some moved back to Avignon and claimed that Benedict XIII was the true head of the Catholic Church. The men whose legitimacy was never recognized by the Catholic Church, like Benedict XIII, are remembered as antipopes in Church history. The other faction were those who claimed that the true papal seat remained in Rome. This major division within the Church is remembered as the Western Schism.

Antipope Benedict

Pope Gregory XII and the Western Schism

The Western Schism divided the Church in some pretty major ways. In fact, when Pope Gregory XII was elected, the conclave that elected him only included fifteen cardinals. From the get-go, all of Pope Gregory XII's attention was on resolving the Schism. He had even accepted the papacy under the understanding that if the antipopes agreed to give up their claims, he would too so that a new election could be held.

Pope Gregory XII and Antipope Benedict XIII began trying to negotiate an end to the Western Schism. However, this wasn't easy to do. Both came from powerful families, families with ties to nobility across Europe, and each feared that any meeting could turn into an ambush by rival armies. As Gregory XIII dealt with these negotiations, he also had to convince his own cardinals not to abandon him, and ended up ordering them not to leave the city of Lucca where they had been convened. Some of Gregory's cardinals snuck out to meet with other cardinals to begin discussing ways to end the schism. They organized a council to resolve the conflict within the Church, but neither Pope Gregory XII nor the antipopes came. The council elected its own pope, Antipope Alexander V, and Pope Gregory XII went about appointing new cardinals to build up his support.

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