Bernardo Pignatelli, born in the neighbourhood of Pisa, elected 15 February 1145; died at Tivoli, 8 July 1153. On the very day that Pope Lucius II succumbed, either to illness or wounds, the Sacred College, foreseeing that the Roman populace would make a determined effort to force the new pontiff to abdicate his temporal power and swear allegiance to the Senatus Populusque Romanus, hastily buried the deceased pope in the Lateran and withdrew to the remote cloister of Saint Cæsarius on the Appian Way. Here, for reasons unascertained, they sought a candidate outside their body, and unanimously chose the Cistercian monk, Bernard of Pisa, abbot of the monastery of Tre Fontane, on the site of Saint Paul’s martyrdom. He was enthroned as Eugene III without delay in Saint John Lateran, and since residence in the rebellious city was impossible, the pope and his cardinals fled to the country. Their rendezvous was the monastery of Farfa, where Eugene received the episcopal consecration. The city of Viterbo, the hospitable refuge of so many of the afflicted medieval popes, opened its gates to welcome him; and thither he proceeded to await developments. Though powerless in face of the Roman mob, he was assured by embassies from all the European powers that he possessed the sympathy and affectionate homage of the entire Christian world.
Concerning the parentage, birth-place, and even the original name of Eugene, each of his biographers has advanced a different opinion. All that can be affirmed as certain is that he was of the noble family of Pignatelli, and whether he received the name of Bernardo in baptism or only upon entering religion, must remain uncertain. He was educated in Pisa, and after his ordination was made a canon of the cathedral. Later he held the office of vice-dominus or steward of the temporalities of the diocese. In 1130 he came under the magnetic influence of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux; five years later when the saint returned home from the Synod of Pisa, the vice dominus accompanied him as a novice. In course of time he was employed by his order on several important affiars; and lastly was sent with a colony of monks to repeople the ancient Abbey of Farfa; but Innocent II placed them instead at the Tre Fontane.
Saint Bernard received the intelligence of the elevation of his disciple with astonishment and pleasure, and gave expression to his feelings in a paternal letter addressed to the new pope, in which occurs the famous passage so often quoted by reformers, true and false: “Who will grant me to see, before I die, the Church of God as in the days of old when the Apostles let down their nets for a draught, not of silver and gold, but of souls?” The saint, moreover, proceeded to compose in his few moments of leisure that admirable handbook for popes called “De Consideratione”. Whilst Eugene sojourned at Viterbo, Arnold of Brescia, who had been condemned by the Council of 1139 to exile from Italy, ventured to return at the beginning of the new pontificate and threw himself on the clemency of the pope. Believing in the sincerity of his repentance, Eugene absolved him and enjoined on him as penance fasting and a visit to the tombs of the Apostles. If the veteran demagogue entered Rome in a penitential mood, the sight of democracy based on his own principles soon caused him to revert to his former self. He placed himself at the head of the movement, and his incendiary philippics against the bishops, cardinals, and even the ascetic pontiff who treated him with extreme lenity, worked his hearers into such fury that Rome resembled a city captured by barbarians. The palaces of the cardinals and of such of the nobility as held with the pope were razed to the ground; churches and monasteries were pillaged; Saint Peter’s church was turned into an arsenal; and pious pilgrims were plundered and maltreated.
But the storm was too violent to last. Only an idiot could fail to understand that medieval Rome without he pope had no means of subsistence. A strong party was formed in Rome and the vicinity consisting of the principal families and their adherents, in the interests of order and the papacy, and the democrats were induced to listen to words of moderation. A treaty was entered into with Eugene by which the Senate was preserved but subject to the papal sovereignty and swearing allegiance to the supreme pontiff. The senators were to be chosen annually by popular election and in a committee of their body the executive power was lodged. The pope and the senate should have separate courts, and an appeal could be made from the decisions of either court to the other. By virtue of this treaty Eugene made a solemn entry into Rome a few days before Christmas, and was greeted by the fickle populace with boundless enthusiasm. But the dual system of government proved unworkable. The Romans demanded the destruction of Tivoli. This town had been faithful to Eugene during the rebellion of the Romans and merited his protection. He therefore refused to permit it to be destroyed. The Romans growing more and more turbulent, he retired to Castel S. Angelo, thence to Viterbo, and finally crossed the Alps, early in 1146.
Problems lay before the pope of vastly greater importance than the maintenance of order in Rome. The Christian principalities in Palestine and Syria were threatened with extinction. The fall of Edessa (1144) had aroused consternation throughout the West, and already from Viterbo Eugene had addressed a stirring appeal to the chivalry of Europe to hasten to the defence of the Holy Places. Saint Bernard was commissioned to preach the Second Crusade, and he acquitted himself of the task with such success that within a couple of years two magnificent armies, commanded by the King of the Romans and the King of France, were on their way to Palestine. That the Second Crusade was a wretched failure cannot be ascribed to the saint or the pope; but it is one of those phenomena so frequently met with in the history of the papacy, that a pope who was made to subdue a handful of rebellious subjects could hurl all Europe against the Saracens. Eugene spent three busy and fruitful years in France, intent on the propagation of the Faith, the correction of errors and abuses, and the maintenance of discipline. He sent Cardinal Breakspear (afterwards Adrian IV) as legate to Scandinavia; he entered into relations with the Orientals with a view to reunion; he proceeded with vigour against the nascent Manichean heresies. In several synods (Paris, 1147, Trier, 1148), notably in the great Synod of Reims (1148), canons were enacted regarding the dress and conduct of the clergy. To ensure the strict execution of these canons, the bishops who should neglect to enforce them were threatened with suspension. Eugene was inexorable in punishing the unworthy. He deposed the metropolitans of York and Mainz, and he for a cause which Saint Bernard thought not sufficiently grave, he withdrew the pallium from the Archbishop of Reims. But if the saintly pontiff could at times be severe, this was not his natural disposition.
“Never”, wrote Venerable Peter of Cluny to Saint Bernard, “have I found a truer friend, a sincerer brother, a purer father. His ear is ever ready to hear, his tongue is swift and mighty to advise. Nor does he comport himself as one’s superior, but rather as an equal or an inferior… I have never made him a request which he has not either granted, or so refused that I could not reasonably complain.” On the occasion of a visit which he paid to Clairvaux, his former companions discovered to their joy that “he who externally shone in the pontifical robes remained in his heart an observant monk”.
The prolonged sojourn of the pope in France was of great advantage to the French Church in many ways and enhanced the prestige of the papacy. Eugene also encouraged the new intellectual movement to which Peter Lombard had given a strong impulse. With the aid of Cardinal Pullus, his chancellor, who had established the University of Oxford on a lasting basis, he reduced the schools of theology and philosophy to better form. He encouraged Gratian in his herculean task of arranging the Decretals, and we owe to him various useful regulations bearing on academic degrees. In the spring of 1148, the pope returned by easy stages to Italy. On 7 July, he met the Italian bishops at Cremona, promulgated the canons of Reims for Italy, and solemnly excommunicated Arnold of Brescia, who still reigned over the Roman mob. Eugene, having brought with him considerable financial aid, began to gather his vassals and advanced to Viterbo and thence to Tusculum. Here he was visited by King Louis of France, whom he reconciled to his queen, Eleanor. With the assistance of Roger of Sicily, he forced his way into Rome (1149), and celebrated Christmas in the Lateran. His stay was not of long duration. During the next three years the Roman court wandered in exile through the Campagna while both sides looked for the intervention of Conrad of Germany, offering him the imperial crown. Aroused by the earnest exhortations of Saint Bernard, Conrad finally decided to descend into Italy and put an end to the anarchy in Rome. Death overtook him in the midst of his preparations on 15 Feb., 1152, leaving the task to his more energetic nephew, Frederick Barbarossa. The envoys of Eugene having concluded with Frederick at Constance, in the spring of 1153, a treaty favourable to the interests of the Church and the empire, the more moderate of the Romans, seeing that the days of democracy were numbered, joined with the nobles in putting down the Arnoldists, and the pontiff was enabled to spend his concluding days in peace.
Eugene is said to have gained the affection of the people by his affability and generosity. He died at Tivoli, whither he had gone to avoid the summer heats, and was buried in front of the high altar in Saint Peters, Rome. Saint Bernard followed him to the grave (20 August). “The unassuming but astute pupil of Saint Bernard”, says Gregorovius, “had always continued to wear the coarse habit of Clairvaux beneath the purple; the stoic virtues of monasticism accompanied him through his stormy career, and invested him with that power of passive resistance which has always remained the most effectual weapon of the popes.” Saint Antoninus pronounces Eugene III “one of the greatest and most afflicted of the popes”. Pius IX by a decreed of 28 December 1872, approved the cult which from time immemorial the Pisans have rendered to their countryman, and ordered him to be honoured with Mass and Office ritu duplici on the anniversary of his death.
- James Loughlin. “Pope Blessed Eugene III”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 4 July 2015. Web. 26 April 2017. <>