In 1347, the Black Death first struck Europe. Sweeping through Asia and the Middle East, in just three short years it killed almost two thirds of Europe’s entire population.
On the papal throne during the first plague was Pope Clement VI, who attributed it to divine wrath. He consulted prominent academics at the time, who told him to surround himself with torches to block the plague – inadvertently the heat preventing plague-inflected fleas from reaching him.
He stayed in Avignon, supervising care of the sick, burials, and ministered to the dying. Surprisingly, Clement VI never contracted the plague himself.
Still there was so much death that Avignon ran out of space at their cemeteries, so that in 1349 he resorted to consecrating the entire Rhône river so infected remains could be thrown into the river, now considered holy ground, and carried away by the currents.
In another landmark pastoral move, Clement VI also granted the remission of sins to all who died of the plague.