When the Church fathers abandoned Rome for the comfortable life of comfort next to the River Rhone at Avignon, many across Christendom thought the Church had entered a period of Babylonian exile. It was a disgrace to see the Church and her senior officials awash with cash and enjoying a life of great ease and comfort - certainly something most could not aspire to. Angry voices were raised in protest at what many saw as the abrogation of the Church’s pastoral duties when the Popes moved away from Rome and the seat of St Peter. The voices raised against the Church were not those of hotheads and revolutionaries. Here Dante, the dominant literary figure of his generation, writes to the Italian cardinals berating them for having abandoned the Holy City. And the great poet is not averse to a bit of strident nationalism and overt racism whilst laying down his plea for the good of Mother Church!
How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How she is become as a widow! She that was great amongst nations! In times gone by the cupidity of the rulers of the Pharisees, which rendered the ancient priesthood an abomination, not only took away the ministry from the tribe of the Levites but brought siege and destruction upon the ch“ah, woe is me” too often repeated, lamented over holy Jerusalem as though she were destroyed.
Of a truth, we who profess the same Father and Son, the same God and Man, the same Mother and Virgin, we for whom and for whose salvation it was said, after the question about love had been asked thrice “Peter feed the sacred fold”; we who mourn with Jeremiah, not for those things that are to come but for the deed itself, are now compelled to lament over Rome as widowed and deserted; over that Rome to which after the pomp of so many triumphs, Christ by word and deed granted the empire of the world, which in like manner Peter and Paul the apostle to the gentiles, consecrated as the Apostolic See by the shedding of their own blood; we are grieved alas no less in beholding her thus than in beholding the deplorable wound of heresy itself.
The promoters of impiety, Jews, Saracens and Gentiles laugh our Sabbaths to scorn and as it appears cry out loud “Where is their God?” And perchance they ascribe this misfortune to their snares and to their power opposed to the guardian of angels and what is more horrible, certain astrologers and evil prophets assert that in that you have misused your freedom o choice, of necessity you have chosen this.
You in truth who are centurions of the first rank of the Church Militant, in neglecting to guide the chariot of the Bride of the Crucified along the well-known course, have swerved from the way just as Phaeton did, the unskilled charioteer. And you whose duty it was to give light to the flock following you through the forest of this pilgrimage, have brought it with you to the brink of the precipice. Nor do I enumerate examples to be imitated by you, insomuch as you turn your backs and not your faces to the carriage of the Bride, and with truth can be said to stand with your faces averted from the temple like those who were shown to the prophet - by you who scorn the fire sent from Heaven upon the altars which now smoke with profane fire, by you who sell doves in the temple, where in bartering for those things that are priceless, you have made them venal to your dishonour. But expect the scourge! Expect the fire! Despise not the patience of Him who awaits your repentance. But if you are in any doubting regard to the precipice on the brink of which you stand, what shall I answer if not that you have agreed with Alcimus and Demetrius.
And perchance in your wrath you will rebuke me saying “Who is this who with no fear of the sudden punishment of Uzzah puts forth his hand to the ark, though it is tottering?” In truth I am one of the least among the sheep in the flock of Jesus Christ and surely I abuse no pastoral authority inasmuch as I have no riches. Therefore not through riches but by the grace of God am I what I am and “zeal for His House hath eaten me up.” For already even out of the mouths of babes and sucklings has proceeded the truth pleasing to God and he that was blind from his birth has confessed the verity in regard to which the Pharisees not only held their peace but which they even maliciously endeavoured to distort. What I dare to say I a fully convinced of by these facts and in addition I have the authority of the Master Philosopher, who in treating of all morality taught that truth is to be preferred beyond any friend whatever. Nor will the presumption of Uzzah which someone might believe could be laid to my charge as if I had spoken rashly, contaminate me with his sin because he put forth his hand to the ark, I to the oxen who are refractory and draw out of the path in different directions. Let Him come to the assistance of the ark who opened His eyes to save the labouring ship.
And thus it seems to me that I have provoked no one to contention but rather that I have caused the blush of shame (if at least shame has not been entirely quenched) to mount your cheeks and to those of others archimandrites throughout the world in name alone, since among so many who usurp the office of the Shepherd, among so many sheep which even if not driven off are none the less neglected and untended in the pastures, one voice alone - alone piteous and only a private one - is heard at the obsequies as it were of Mother Church.
And why not? Everyone has taken cupidity to wife even as you have. Cupidity who is never like charity, the mother of piety and equity, but always of impiety and iniquity. Ah most holy Mother, Bride of Christ, what sons dost thou bear of water and of the spirit to shame thee! Neither charity nor justice but the daughters of the horseleech have become your daughters-in-law and all save the Bishop of Luni attest to what kind of sons they have brought forth to you. Your Gregory lies among the cobwebs, Ambrose lies on the neglected shelves of the clergy, Augustine lies forgotten, Dionysius, Damascenus and Bede have been thrown aside and I know not what Speculum, Innocent and he of Ostia preach. Wherefore is this? They sought God as their end and best good, these run after riches and benefices.
But oh fathers, believe me not to be the phoenix of the universe, for all murmur, or ponder or dream of these things that I say aloud. And why do they not tell of their discoveries? Many are lost in wonder but will even these hold their peace and not bear testimony to their Master? The Lord liveth! And he who set the tongue of Balaam’s ass in motion is likewise Lord of the brutes of today.
Already I have become importunate for you have driven me to it. May it shame you then to be rebuked or admonished from so lowly a place and not from heaven, may it pardon you. In truth shame acts rightly upon us when we are touched on that side, where it may play upon the sense of hearing together with the other senses and beget in us repentance, its first born, and where this may engender the resolution to amend.
That this resolution may be cherished and protected by a noble perseverance may you all fix Rome, that city now deprived of both its luminaries, now deserving the pity of Hannibal no less that that of others sitting solitary and widowed as is proclaimed above - may you all fix her before the eyes of mortals such as she is according to the model of your ideal. And to you who as little children knew the sacred Tiber, are my words chiefly addressed. For although the capital of Latium ought dutifully to be loved by all Italians as the common source of their civility, with reason is it accounted your part to cherish it most carefully since it is also the source of your very being. An dif the present misfortune has consumed other Italians with sorrow and overwhelmed them with shame, who will doubt that you who have been the cause of the strange eclipse of her, who is like the sun, must be shamed and grieved. You more than others O Orsini, who so acted that your colleagues, who had fallen into disfavour, might not remain inglorious through you. And that by the authority of the Apostolic See they might once again take up the revered banners of the church militant which they perchance not deservingly but undeservingly had been compelled to lay down. You also, you adherent of the other Trastiverine faction, who so acted that the wrath of the deceased Pilate, like a branch grafted onto a strange trunk might fructify you, as if when you had not yet despoiled conquered Carthage, you could without any inconsistency manifest this spirit towards the land of the illustrious Scipios.
Yet the wound will be healed (though it cannot be otherwise than that the brand and scar of infamy will have been burned with fire upon the Apostolic See and will disfigure her for whom heaven and earth had been reserved) if you who were the authors of this transgression all with one accord, fight manfully for the Bride of Christ, for the throne of the Bride, which is Rome, for our Italy and that I may speak more fully, for the whole commonwealth of pilgrims upon the earth. So that from the palestra where the contest has already begun and which is gazed upon from all the shores of the ocean, you are fighting gloriously and may here “Gloria in excelsis” and that the infamy of the Gascons, who while burning up with so dire an avarice strive to arrogate to themselves the glory of the Latins, may remain to posterity as an example for all future time.
Based on the transcription of Charles Sterret Latham (published 1892) of Dante's letter IX to the Roman Cardinals