Blessed John Dominici: A providential man in the resolution of the Great Schism


June 10, liturgical cult of Blessed John Dominici: the man sent by Heaven to resolve a calamitous situation for the Church.

Newsdesk (10/06/2021 11:13, Gaudium Press) Never in the history of the Church had there been a scandal such as this: thirteen of the Cardinals who had elected Pope Urban VI in April 1378 recanted a few months later and convened a new Conclave, in which the antipope Clement VII was elected. Thus began the Great Schism of the West (1378-1417).

The most painful schism known to the Bride of Christ had already lasted almost three decades, because it affected her Vicar on earth.

Conversation with the Pope by the fireplace

In late 1406, the elder Angelo Correr, the newly elected Pope Gregory XII, was conversing by a fireplace in the Vatican Apostolic Palace with a man he trusted, Father John Dominici, a member of the Order of Preachers, about the uncertainties hanging over his pontificate.

– Father Dominici, I have observed in the course of the Conclave your fine diplomatic skills. As you know, like the other cardinals, I took the oath to commit myself to putting an end to the schism and to initiate for this purpose, within three months, the necessary negotiations to obtain a personal meeting with the antipope of Avignon. I ask you to remain in Rome, because I need your help.

– Holy Father, I am here to serve you. The schism has indeed become an endless nightmare for all Christendom. Your willingness to step down, should it be necessary, for the good of the Church is certainly very important; much more important, however, is that this eventual resignation be presented at the right time, neither before nor after.

The only solution to the schism

After a thorough study of the complex issue, the doctors of the University of Paris came to the conclusion that there were three possible solutions.

First, the via cessionis, which consisted in each of the Pontiffs voluntarily renouncing his rights.

Second, the via iustitiæ, or via conventionis. This consisted in a juridical determination, in a colloquy between the Pontiffs concerned, accompanied by their respective Cardinals, as to which was the legitimate Pope.

Thirdly, the via concilii, that is, giving a universal Council the power to depose the Pontiffs in question, including the legitimate one. Recourse to this way presupposed, however, acceptance of the supremacy of the Council over the Roman Pontiff.

Three “popes” instead of two

The wear and tear caused by the complex situation was aggravated by Gregory XII’s indecision when it came to promoting the expected meeting with the antipope Benedict XIII.

And when, finally, it was possible to fix date and place for the meeting, Gregory XII changed his mind at the last moment, giving in to pressure from some relatives and advisors.

Almost simultaneously, he decided to create four new Cardinals – one of whom was Father John Dominici – because he was suspicious of some members of the Sacred College who showed ostensible signs of disagreement with his decisions.

It was then that seven Cardinals disappointed with the attitudes of Gregory XII joined seven more faithful to the antipope Benedict XIII, with whom they were also disappointed, and decided to put an end to the schism by the deeds: in March 1409, they met in Pisa and convened a Council that excommunicated and deposed – obviously invalidly – Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. Pretending to have thus extinguished the schism, they convened a Conclave in which they elected yet another antipope, Alexander V.

Instead of two, the “popes” were now three! This caused great distress to all those who, like John Dominici, realized that not only the peace and unity of the Church was at stake, but also, and above all, the integrity of the authority of the Papacy.

If the principle were established that a universal Council had the power to depose the legitimate Supreme Pontiff, a thesis contrary to Tradition and true Catholic doctrine would be established. And the tares would be sown to produce schisms in the future. Once the primacy of Peter is denied, the Church would cease to be Church.

The Antipope John XXIII and Emperor Sigismund

On the evening of December 24, 1414, the majestic procession of Sigismund of Luxembourg, head of the Holy Roman-Germanic Empire, arrived in the city of Constance, Germany. In the cathedral, the Supreme Pontiff was waiting for him for the solemn Christmas Mass.

The “pontiff” mentioned above was in fact Baltasar Cossa, the antipope John XXIII, successor of Alexander V at the schismatic See of Pisa.

Segismund, who enjoyed great prestige throughout Christendom, had secretly received instructions from Pope Gregory XII to ask this antipope to convoke the Council, since, surprising as it may seem, John XXIII had the greatest power of convocation at that juncture.

A secret parchment

When the Council convened by the Antipope John XXIII was inaugurated on November 4, 1414, Cardinal Dominici had already become confessor and advisor to Gregory XII. He had also given abundant proofs of fidelity and diplomatic acumen, so the Roman Pontiff decided to send him to Constance as Papal Legate.

By now, almost nobody doubted that the voluntary abdication of the legitimate Pope was an indispensable condition for the extinction of the Great Schism. Only one question remained: when and how to do it?

Cardinal Dominici prepared to leave, but first he asked Gregory XII to sign and seal with the Fisherman’s Ring a parchment he had prepared himself, the existence of which was to remain secret until it was presented to the great assembly.

Dual Concerns of the Papal Legate

When Cardinal John Dominici arrived in Constance on January 4, 1415, he had a double concern.

The first was not to take any action that could be interpreted to mean that Pope Gregory XII was legitimizing one of the antipopes or the Council itself, which had not been convened by the Roman Pontiff and therefore could not be considered universal.

Second, under any circumstances, the absolute superiority of the legitimate Pope over any Council, had to be clearly stated. Now, the atmosphere at Constance was strongly vitiated by the presence of the Councilists, who were eager to take the conclusions of that great assembly as official confirmation of their spurious theses.

In order to rescue Gregory XII from the discreditable situation into which he had fallen, Cardinal Dominici began by communicating that the Pope was willing to abdicate, provided that the antipope of Avignon, Benedict XIII, and the antipope of Pisa, John XXIII, also abdicated. He added that the document of abdication would arrive from Rome in due time, on the condition that it would not be made known at a session presided over by the antipope of Pisa.

Days later, John XXIII had his own declaration of abdication read in the plenary session, which, however, would only become effective when Gregory XII and Benedict XIII did the same.

In reality, the attitude of the Antipope of Pisa was a coup de feat and achieved its desired goal: Segismund immediately rose from the throne and, on his knees, kissed the foot of the pontiff. Afterwards, a Patriarch pompously presented him with the thanks of the entire Council.

The episode put Cardinal Dominici in a difficult situation. In these circumstances, having the abdication document of Gregory XII brought from Rome could be interpreted as a legitimization of the Council and the antipope.

On the other hand, to delay without just cause the arrival of this document would mean giving reason to the detractors of the legitimate Pope. How to get out of the dilemma? Divine Providence came to his aid.

The Council deposes the two antipopes

On March 20, 1415, John XXIII decided to flee from Constance, since the great assembly, at that time dominated by the Conciliarists, was going against his wishes.

In the following sessions, interest was focused mainly on the episode of John XXIII’s flight and the negotiations for his deposition, which took place on May 29.

On the other hand, the manifest obstinacy of the antipope Benedict XIII ended up discrediting him in the eyes of Christendom, so that he was no longer an obstacle to the extinction of the schism.

In any case, he too was the object of a canonical process by the Council, which resulted in his solemn deposition.

An intervention off the agenda

On June 15, Prince Charles Malatesta arrived in Constance as Minister Plenipotentiary of the Roman Pontiff. He had come with instructions from Gregory XII to place himself at the orders of Cardinal Dominici and brought the expected declaration of abdication, whose official reading was scheduled for the first solemn session to be held. The conciliarists were already enjoying the sweet taste of victory.

Two weeks later, on July 4, the XIV Solemn Session began, under the presidency of Cardinal de Cambray.

Blessed John Dominici had requested to make an intervention not foreseen in the agenda and was authorized. Thus, before Prince Charles Malatesta, meticulously guided by him, had read the abdication formula, Cardinal Dominici stood up with a rolled up parchment in his hand. It was the same one that had been signed and sealed by Gregory XII before his departure for Constance.

It was nothing less than a decree convening the Council of Constance. Cardinal de Cambray understood immediately the scope of the words that were being read by Cardinal Dominici. This was also understood by the most radical conciliarists, who immediately began to provoke a commotion in the sacred enclosure, demanding that the session be annulled, because such an intervention was not foreseen in the agenda.

After Cardinal Dominici’s words, Charles Malatesta stood up without wasting a second, and, unimpressed by the uproar, read the official formula of resignation of Pope Gregory XII. This done, if the session were to be annulled, as the Conciliarists wished, the resignation of the Pope of Rome should also be considered null and void.

Cardinal Dominici’s diplomatic maneuver had been precise and effective. The legitimate Pope had officially renounced before a Council that had just been declared legitimate by his pontifical authority.

The Great Schism was substantially overcome. And the doctrine of the Pope’s superiority over the Council was also saved by the facts; not only that of Gregory XII over the Council of Constance, but that of any legitimate Pope over any universal Council.

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n.186, June 2007.

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