Feast of Blessed Eugene III, Cistercian Pope
Today we commemorate Saint Eugene III, the earlier of the two Cistercian Abbots who became Pope. The story of his life includes many features of interest, not least of which is the circumstance surrounding his election as Bishop of Rome in the year 1145. Born in Italy in 1080 near Pisa he was named Bernardo Pignatelli and was educated in that prominent city. He became a religious and served as Prior in the monastery of St Zeno in 1128. After he met Saint Bernard of Clairvaux he was so impressed with his person and teaching that he joined the monastery of Clairvaux in 1135. Where he spent ten years as a monk, living the regular life of that fervent abbey. His talents and spiritual fervor were obvious and he was appointed abbot of the ancient monastery of Tre Fontane, located a short distance from the Basilica of St. Paul at the south city wall. The Pope of Rome, recognizing his abilities, sent him as his representative on certain missions that he performed with such success as enhanced his reputation. So when the Pope Lucius III died, the cardinals elected the Cistercian Abbot as his successor on the same day of the death of his predecessor, so as to avoid interference from the agitators in control of the Capital City. However, due to the serious disturbances that were so prominent in Rome, he was forced to leave Rome and promptly establish himself in Pisa.
Eugene was not the only one surprised by his election, St. Barnard at Clairvaux promptly wrote his former pupil to encourage and support him in the unexpected burden of the Papal office. Since the newly elected Pope refused to compromise with the demands of the Roman secular authorities, he remained in exile, finally establishing his residence and court in Viterbo, Italy. Later in that same year 1145, he proclaimed the Second Crusade. Six months later the Pope renewed that bull and commissioned Bernard of Clairvaux to preach the crusade. Eugene himself actively sought to further the cause of this second Crusade, going to France where he enlisted the support of King Louis VII who agreed to join the Crusade. Although Bernard succeeded in enlisting King Conrad III of Germany among the crusaders, the Christian forces were not successful in their siege of Damascus. As a result they were unable to proceed to the Holy City of Jerusalem. This brought to an end the Papal involvement in the Middle East. Eugene resisted the effort of Western leaders who sought to enlist his engagement in another attack, this time of a eastern Christian Empire of Byzantium. In spite of attempts of monarchs
to have the Pope enter upon fur crusades, he effectively resisted and worked effectively for the welfare of the Church in the few remaini9ng years of his life, encouraged by the support of St. Bernard.
The example of Pope Eugene Ill continues to influence the spirit and life-style of our Cistercian order through the centuries in that he continued faithful to the spirit of austerity and simplicity of twelfth century Citeaux. Free of pompous display he continued wearing the simple habit of the Order to the end of his life. His death took place in 1153, the same year in which his mentor and fellow defender of Christ’s Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, departed to be with the Lord they served so faithfully. May their intercession obtain God’s grace and care for us as we honor them today in this Eucharistic sacrifice.