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Urban Legend

On the needs of the eleventh century—and our own.


Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” So says G.K. Chesterton in his introduction to The Dumb Ox. (It’s a smart insight in an otherwise almost intolerably indulgent little book, best read in five-page snippets and only ever from the seat of a toilet.) Chesterton’s idea is that, if virtue and sanity lie in the mean, then the world needs heroes who “exaggerate whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.” To shock us out of our most prevalent errors, we need signs of contradiction who practically overcorrect them.

The stolid nineteenth century needed the holy hysteria of Saint Francis of Assisi. The skeptical twentieth century needed the levelheaded logic of Saint Thomas Aquinas. And us? What we need today is an authoritative ordering of the will. If despondency was the default sin of the 1800s, and doubt that of the 1900s, then the 2000s are mostly just aimless. Our uncoordinated age wants a leader and a mission.

If it is true that every generation is won over by the saint with which it has the least in common, then my own patron, the namesake I received in religious life and have held onto ever since, may be just the saint to save us. A champion of justice, liturgy, and law, Blessed Pope Urban II by his holy life stands as a correction to the most pervasive heresies of our day.

Pope Urban is mostly ignored by history—and when he is remembered, it is almost always for things that he would have considered somewhat peripheral to his reign. He was first and foremost a reformer of the Church, a crusader for ecclesial sanctity, and everything else he was flowed from this desire for purity. Indeed, so great was his zeal for souls that it eventually merited for Urban, at his death, the honor to be buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica beside the relics of his heroic predecessor Pope Saint Leo the Great. But death and burial are the end of our story. To quote from the solfège-ing fräulein, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

Urban II was born Otto of Lagery, to a knightly family in the diocese of Soissons in the second quarter of the eleventh century. At nearby Reims he studied under Saint Bruno, who would go on to found the Carthusian order and to live in the silent austerity of the Grand Chartreuse (that is, until eventually his old pupil Otto would force him out of contemplative retirement to help advise his program of papal reform). Upon the completion of his studies, Otto was installed as a secular canon at Reims and ordained and promoted to the rank of archdeacon.

Then at about age thirty, the future Pope Urban II left the secular world behind and entered the monastery of Cluny, the center of high liturgical life in the Middle Ages. After professing vows under his abbot, Saint Hugh, and eventually serving as the community’s grand prior for nearly a decade, Otto was sent off to Rome to lend monastic support to Pope—later Saint—Gregory VII. Before long, Gregory created Otto the cardinal-bishop of Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome and the place where beautiful Saint Monica had gone to sleep in the Lord. From that office—the same office held by the reformer Saint Peter Damian just one generation earlier, by the way—Cardinal Otto joined in his predecessor’s mission to purify the Church.

In the eleventh century, worldly laxity plagued the shepherds of Christ’s flock. (Nothing new under the sun.) The investiture controversy gave the reforming popes a chance to address the question of priestly purity more generally. Their idea was to reform the whole Church by reforming the clergy, and to this end, Gregory and Otto emphasized in particular the apostolic life and the evangelical counsels. Lay investiture, simony, private property, and concubinage were the abuses du jour, polluting the clergy and scandalizing layfolk, and the holy remedies prescribed were clerical poverty, chastity, obedience, and common life. The hope was to realize once again the original intention of Christ Jesus for the priests of His holy Church, modeling the medieval clergy on the primitive apostolic Church at Jerusalem. As papal advisor in Rome and then as papal legate to Germany, Otto faithfully served his Supreme Pontiff in all of these labors; one could say that he became Josef Ratzinger to Gregory’s Saint John Paul II.

Then in 1088, after the death of Saint Gregory and the short, mostly uneventful pontificate of Victor III, Otto himself was elected pope of the Universal Church. He took the name Urban, emphasizing his connection with Rome, the Urbs. Pope Urban II ruled Holy Mother Church as the Vicar of Christ for twelve years, from 1088 until 1099.

At the time of Otto’s election, the See of Peter had not seen an Urban in nearly a millennium. Perhaps he wished to hearken back to that third-century icon of Petrine authority in order to set the tone for his own papal program. The mysterious Saint Urban I would have been known to his urbane successor in part through the Acts of Saint Cecilia, but primarily through the proto-ultramontane Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, forged in his name six hundred years after his death. For our Urban, then, this choice of names was both theologically significant and politically prudent, because, thanks to the antipope Clement III, Urban II would not be able to settle in the Vatican—in the Urbs, as it were—until almost halfway through his pontificate.

Urban’s own political acumen would be largely responsible for securing the city. As pope, he steered the Barque of Peter during the reign of Emperor Henry IV, the heresiarch excommunicated four times by three different pontiffs. During Urban’s pontificate, Henry threw all his political weight behind an antipope. Then there were Alexius Comnenus (or “Caesar on the Bosphorus”), who attempted to ban unleavened bread in the Masses of Eastern Catholics, King Philip I of France, an adulterer; King William II of England, a forerunner of Henry VIII who maintained that the English people could acknowledge no man as pope without his royal order; King Eric III of Denmark, a Goliath, a polyglot, and a playboy; Count Roger of Sicily, whose family feuds make the Borgias look like the Brady Bunch; King Alfonso VI of Spain, a fine Catholic monarch of a chaotically disorganized kingdom, and Countess Matilda of Tuscany, Urban’s most faithful and powerful ally, even after the young beau whom he had arranged for her to marry proved himself a Hans to her Ana of Arendelle. But these are other stories for another day.

Like Saint Leo IX, the great reformer half a century earlier, Urban II would be abroad more often than not during his pontificate, convening four times as many councils in Gaul, Lombardy, and Tuscany as in the city of Rome. Some of these councils were concerned with the Church’s ritual worship, dictating, for example, the proper order of the Ember Days on her liturgical calendar. Other synods took up questions of revealed theology, especially the Council of Bari in 1098, where Saint Anselm of Canterbury famously defended the Latin use of the Filioque.

But Urban’s councils focused most especially on clerical reform. He promulgated canons such as the following from Melfi in 1089: “So that the unique bride of our Lord may remain without stain and wrinkle . . . we command that from the time of the subdiaconate it should be permitted to no one to engage in carnal relations.” In a similar vein, he forbade that “anyone constituted in the clerical order or any monk should dare to receive investiture of a bishopric or an abbey, or any ecclesiastical dignity whatsoever, from the hand of a layman.” His reforms extended even to the sartorial: “So that all causes of offense, all suspicions be removed from the laity, we prohibit clerics henceforth to wear cut clothing, and we admonish that they should not dress in ornate garments.” Basically, Urban II was determined that the priests of the Church should be holy as their Heavenly Father is holy.

Six years later at the Council of Piacenza, Urban continued his program of clerical sanctification by pronouncing against the simoniacs: “Whatever, therefore, either in sacred orders or in ecclesiastical matters has been gotten with money either given or promised we decree to be illegal and never to have any power.” Piacenza, by the way, is my favorite of my patron’s councils, because when his mother fell ill just before it convened, this loyal son of Holy Mother Church proved himself to be also a loyal son of his natural mother. Pope Urban brought his mom along to his general council, where she entered eternal rest with him by her side.

Historians refer to Urban as a key figure in the so-called “Gregorian Reform,” but it would be truer to say that Pope Gregory VII played an important role in the Urbanian Reform. We forget that when Saint Gregory died at Salerno in 1085, he had been living in what he considered exile, with the Eternal City in the hands of his enemies and his reform movement for puritas Ecclesiae hanging by a thread. It was his successor Urban who secured the reform, and who made a much larger dent in medieval canon law collections on its behalf. But because Gregory’s official chancery register happened to survive down through the ages, whereas the registers of Urban and most of the other reforming popes were lost, the inadequate “Gregorian” label has stuck.

So be it. Somehow I don’t think my humble patron minds; Urban began his papal reign, after all, by proclaiming of his beloved Gregory: “All that he rejected I reject, what he condemned I condemn, what he loved I embrace, what he considered as Catholic I confirm and approve!”

Without Urban’s zeal for purifying the clergy, in all likelihood the religious order in which I received his name, and of which I am still a tertiary member, would never have come into existence. In recalling this influence, however, we must be cautious not to read our own pluralistic Vatican II-era concept of a “religious order” back into the pre-mendicant eleventh and twelfth centuries, when “ordo” had not yet become jargon. In Blessed Urban’s day, there were basically just clerics and monks—some good, some not. Thus the order’s founder Saint Norbert did not think he was establishing a distinct institute with one unique charism among many in the eclectic ecclesial hodgepodge of consecrated life. He thought he and his confreres simply were living the life that every priest was supposed to be living, in imitation of the apostles at Jerusalem in the second chapter of Acts—and Blessed Urban would have agreed with him.

“We give thanks to God whose mercy surpasses all life,” wrote Urban to another group of canons regular,

because he has inspired you to renew the praiseworthy life of the holy fathers and the institution established by the teaching of the apostles, which flourished at the beginning of the Church and has been reduced almost to nothing in later ages. . . . The holy pontiff and martyr Urban [I] established it, St. Augustine gave it its rules, St. Jerome reformed it by his letters. We must think no less of the reestablishment of this apostolic life, known to the primitive Church, than of the monastic life, maintained in its splendor by the Holy Spirit.

In the final years of his life, Pope Urban’s zeal for reform found a new mode of expression. At his Council of Piacenza in March 1095, the Holy Father received emissaries from the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus. On behalf of the Christian East, they begged him and all the fideles Christi for military assistance against the Seljuk Turks, who already had devastated Christian lands up to the walls of Constantinople. In a delightfully ecumenical answer, Blessed Urban agreed to help. The happy result, in true medieval style, was a pilgrimage. Gibbon dubbed it “the World’s Debate.” We know it better as the First Crusade.

 “The occasion which launched the Crusade,” Belloc wrote,

was the action of one man. It is not often that one can say this so positively in history as one can say it of 1095. Great movements of their nature rise from the profound and infinitely complex organic mass of human things. You see a tendency arising, confused forces at work, some general convergence, a movement of upheaval, the whole thing is like one of those larger waves which heave their shoulders up out of the deep, monsters and blind. So it was with the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, so it was with the Western collapse of central government from Rome in the fifth. So it was not with the Great Crusade.

Too few historians appreciate just how extraordinary was Urban’s ex nihilo creation of the Crusade, but in this instance Belloc recognizes genius when he sees it: “The man who so willed and acted was he who had been made pope to continue the work of the great Gregory. He had taken the title of Urban II, and now, on November 8, 1095, the center of the Gauls at Clermont in Auvergne, he gave the word.”

Deus vult!” “God wills it!” This was the cheer of Pope Urban’s faithful audience at the Council of Clermont, the climax of his Crusade-preaching campaign across France, which included stops at Le Puy, Avignon, Saint-Gilles, and his own former abbey of Cluny. Urban traversed the Way of Saint James to proclaim his own new revolutionary pilgrimage, which would take the form of a religious mission to liberate the holy cities of our Savior’s earthly life from their infidel terrorizers. Celebrating magnificent pontifical liturgies all along the way, the pope aroused in his listeners that same fraternal charity for their persecuted Christian brethren that burned within his own breast.

I will be the first to admit that later wars claiming the “crusade” label are a mixed bag. But we must not let our view of those later excursions color our vision of the First Crusade. Pope Urban’s glorious medieval pilgrimage was brilliant, holy, and, let’s not forget, successful. Although news of the victory did not reach Blessed Urban before his death on July 29, 1099, in fact the holy city of Jerusalem and the holy sepulcher of our Lord finally had been liberated by the crusading forces two weeks earlier. This triumph would not be the last word on the question of who controls the Holy Land (to say the least), but eventual defeats should not obscure the victory of Urban’s mission.

Narrating these events, we must be careful to keep the Crusade in perspective of Urban’s entire pontificate, which was much more concerned with reform at home than with expeditions abroad, the beam more than the splinter. This was a pope whose legal impact far outweighed his military influence. Thanks to that oft-glossed concordance of medieval canon law, the Decretum of Gratian, Pope Urban’s juridical writings became the ordering principles of Catholic clerical life for nearly a millennium—though we should admit, as implemented they lacked some of the rigor and consistency that Urban would have hoped for. Still, his canons remained on the books until the twentieth century, long after the close of the crusading movement.

Thus it would be a grave mistake to try to understand the Crusade outside the larger context of Urban II’s ecclesial reform, as so many have vainly attempted. As with his prescriptions for clerical life, Urban preached the Crusade for the sake of Christian purity. It was, from first to last, an inspiration of love: love of God, whose holy sites were being profaned through anti-Christian sacrilege, and love of neighbor, who throughout the Christian East were daily being mutilated, tortured, and raped by the same invaders. The First Crusade was of its essence an ecumenical saint-making quest to save our Savior’s earthly legacy, and those who insist on seeing in it only political scheming and violent bloodlust miss the thing completely.

Was the Crusade then not a political and military affair? Of course it was. But Blessed Urban understood what we today are prone to forget: namely, that these good natural arts can be put gracefully to the service of supernatural ends. A Christian may be a great political ruler, even a great military general, without being corrupted into a Machiavellian master of the City of Man. At Reims Urban would have been educated in the Augustinian just-war tradition, but it is telling that there is not a single recorded instance of him referring to his Crusade as a “war,” bellum—this word is completely missing from the Urban dictionary. For the Holy Father, it was from origin to endpoint an iter, a peregrinatio, a pilgrimage. The purpose of it all, reform and Crusade alike, was a common return to our common source: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Remember that, in Pope Urban’s mind, first-century Jerusalem had been the icon of clerical sanctity inspiring his reform. For it was there in the civitas Dei that the apostles had dwelt, together with the Mother of God, living that original priestly common life of liturgy, preaching, and fraternal communion. In light of Urban’s longstanding reverence for the city of Jerusalem, we can detect a harmonious movement of providence at work in the terrible occasioning of the First Crusade. (Needless to say, even amid terrors, providence is always at work and is always harmonious, even if it rarely accords with our overrated expectations.) A thousand years after the age of the apostles, the gruesome Turkish invasion allowed Blessed Urban to rescue his beloved Mount Zion, which the Psalmist lauds as the “true pole of the earth.” Here and throughout his papal reign, Pope Urban’s concern was to secure the City of God for the good of His holy ones.

Urban II united his two great projects, purifying Christ’s priests and liberating Christ’s sepulcher, by his devotion to Christ’s Mother, the Queen of Heaven and Earth. Besides composing a Preface to the Roman Canon in Saint Mary’s honor, for the sake of entrusting all of his crusaders to her maternal care Blessed Urban also decreed that every cleric of the Church was henceforth obligated to recite her Little Office every day, in addition to the standard round of psalms in the Divine Office. This was a fitting devotion for the Crusade cause, since one of the most prominent aspects of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the recitation of the Gradual Psalms, namely those that the ancient Jews would have sung every year on their own pilgrimages to the holy city of Jerusalem. After Pope Urban’s reign, the Little Office would remain the duty of every ordained Catholic minister for five hundred years. (The canon was abrogated around the time of Trent, for reasons mysterious even to the mind of God.) Small wonder then that Urban’s primary means of rousing prospective crusaders was preaching. He may not have considered the Crusade to be a holy war, but he certainly considered it holy.

And for the most part, those hundreds of thousands of Western Christians who took up the cross and became crusaders had similarly spiritual motivations. The expedition was not undertaken by disenfranchised younger sons journeying to the Holy Land to acquire the material wealth they could not inherit at home—even the secular academy has finally discredited that tired and tiring story. No, the crusaders crusaded to save Jerusalem, and their souls, and they knew that many of them were certain to lose both their wealth and their lives. They were questing not for earthly luxuries but for heavenly glories—indulgences rather than extravagances.

When Pope Urban finally gave up the ghost, he was staying at the Roman home of his friend and benefactor Pierleone, a financial-political “lion” of Jewish ancestry who would later become consul of the Eternal City. Under cover of night, Pierleone smuggled Urban’s relics across the Tiber and into the Vatican—for even until his death, Urban’s enemies were everywhere. Following the pontifical requiem, Urban’s body was entombed in Saint Peter’s beside the bones of Leo the Great (the same pope, by the way, whose literary style and cursus Urban had commanded his own chancery to emulate, because nothing is so important that it does not matter how it is written—not even papal decretals).

Not long after Urban’s death, we read that abundant miracles were lavished upon pilgrims to his tomb—this is found in the memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, for example, who, one nineteenth-century historian feels the need to assure us, was “by no means credulous, and of a religious cast of mind anything but womanly” (thanks for that). The golden halo adorning the head of Urban II in many twelfth-century paintings suggests that he was the subject of popular devotion almost immediately. Moreover, taking their cue from Urban the orator, many of his supplicants crafted rhetorical epitaphs for their new heavenly protector. “A golden bishop of the finest luster,” said one: “Heretics feared him as the snake the stag.” Another: “As the vital breezes deserted the dying Pope Urban, the most eloquent tongue in the world was ruined. No doctor like him survives upon the earth. His weeping Rome has placed his body here.” Yet the greatest eulogy to Blessed Urban may owe its authorship to that illustrious Pierleone himself:

Otto, a canon of Reims, who was made a monk of Cluny by Hugh, became an excellent pope. While he lived he was the light of Rome; when he died it was eclipsed. The Urbs flourished while he lived, and languished at his death. O Rome! the laws which he gave you, and the peace he cherished, filled you with happiness, preserving you from vices within and from foes without. He was never swayed by the wealth of the rich, nor elated by praises and fame, nor terrified by the threats of the powerful. His tongue was remarkable for eloquence, his heart for wisdom, his conduct for worth, and his carriage for dignity. Through him the way is open to the holy city; our religion triumphs; the pagans are conquered, and the faith is spread through the world. As the rose, the most brilliant of flowers, is soon plucked, so fate swept off this distinguished prelate. Death possesses his mortal part, rest his soul, the tomb his corpse. Nothing is left to us but his glory.

The first crusaders embarked for the Holy Land on the solemnity of the Blessed Virgin: August 15, 1096. Probably there are few moments in Christian history which differ more radically than do 1096 and 2021. Relations with anti-Catholic ideologies may be more fraught now than they were a thousand years ago, but ours is hardly the age of the Crusade. A crusade requires Christendom, and as we are all too painfully aware, the West has not been Christendom in a very long time. This, paradoxically, is why we need this politically adept medieval monk-pope. He contradicts us. He exaggerates what we tend to neglect. He lights up our blind spots. He rouses us from our complacency.

Besides, as dissimilar as our ages may be, ultimately we walk the same pilgrimage as did Blessed Urban. We should let him teach us how to walk it well. Like Urban II, and like all citizens of heaven exiled in this vale of tears, we are at war together in love. At war—for there is no neutrality, and as the Church Militant we must “put on the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Together—for the common good comes first, and as social animals “it is not good for man to be alone.” In love—for love is everything, and “if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” We are at war together in love. Let “Deus vult!” be our battle cry, and may Blessed Pope Urban II lead our charge to heaven.

Urban Hannon is a Catholic seminarian.

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Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Ethika Politika, and other publications. He currently studies theology in Rome.