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The Great Schism is a term describing two events in church history. The first is the breach between the eastern and western churches that occurred in 1054. The second is the sad period from 1378 to 1417 during which rival popes claimed to rule Christendom. In 1414 one of the claimants, Pope John XXIII, called together a church council in the city of Constance to end this schism.
John packed the conference with his followers, and he felt he would be affirmed as sole pope. As he approached Constance, he said, “Ha, this is the place where foxes are trapped.” He entered the city on a white horse accompanied by 1,600 troops. The excitement was breathtaking. Constance swelled with as many as 100,000 visitors from across Europe, including princes, musicians, and prostitutes. So many people bathed in the city’s lake that 500 drownings were reported.
But John’s smugness quickly faded. The proceedings were dominated by an overriding desire to restore church unity. The council, to John’s surprise, wanted to replace all three popes and elect a new one from scratch. When documents began circulating questioning his fitness for office, John became frightened. On March 2, 1415 he appeared before the council and said, I, John XXIII, a pope, promise and obligate myself, vow and swear—here he dramatically rose from his seat and fell on his knees—before God, the Church, and this holy council to give peace to the Church by abdication, provided the pretenders, Benedict and Gregory, do the same.
Constance erupted in joy, church bells pealing, people weeping and laughing and shouting. John, fearing for his life, fled Constance disguised in a gray coat and hat. But the council tracked him down, returned him to Constance, condemned him for scandalous conduct, and officially deposed him. In time, it successfully ended the Great Schism.
But John XXIII wasn’t the council’s only victim. The same assembly attacked so-called heretics like John Wycliffe and Jon Hus. When Hus himself came to Constance under promise of safe conduct, he was imprisoned, condemned, and handed over to secular authorities to be burned at the stake.
I did not send these prophets or speak to them, but they ran to find you and to preach their message. If they had been in a meeting of my council in heaven, they would have told you people of Judah to give up your sins and come back to me. (Jeremiah 23:21,22)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.1.
*Picture in Header: By JoachimKohlerBremen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39786628.