Question: Is it true that the Church went for more than thirty years without a pope during the Western Schism?
Answer: No. If anything, the Church suffered from having too many popes during the period that extended from 1378 until as late as 1429. At that time, two, and even three men claimed to reign as pope; and the situation was such that reasonable people could disagree as to which one was actually the successor of Peter. 1 (See the June 1996 "Q&A" column for a more detailed explanation of the Western Schism.)
However, one might speak of this period as a papal interregnum (the time between papal reigns) in the sense that a sincere Catholic of the time might have found himself in the position of not knowing which pope to look to as the true head of the Church. This is significant in that it demonstrates the falsity of those who hold that the Church must always be clearly and unambiguously lead by a single visible head. It is historical fact that for a long period people, saints included, disagreed over who was in truth the pope. (St. Vincent Ferrer was the confessor of Benedixt XIII, while Saint Catherine of Sienna advised his rival, Urban VI.) "The gates of hell will not prevail," but indefectibility is not packaged up in the person of the pope. Popes, after all, die and take a while to replace, are sometimes replaced with not so good ones, and occasionally are replaced by too many popes. But the Church is indefectible, and, with the passage of time, puts all such problems behind Her.
The longest actual interregnum that we could find began with the death of Pope Clement IV on 29 November 1268 and did not end until the election of Pope Bd. Gregory X on 1 September 1271. In fact, it lasted longer than that because, while papal reigns are calculated from the date of election, on that date the newly elected Tedaldo Visconti was only a deacon and was in the holy land on crusade. He unable to return to Rome and was not ordained priest and consecrated bishop until late March of 1272.
The conclave that eventually elected Bd. Gregory at Viterbo is one of the best remembered in history. It demonstrates the urgency among Catholic people to have a pope:
The Viterbese grew restless. The conclave was being held at the papal palace instead of the cathedral, and each afternoon when the cardinals finished their deliberations for the day, they returned to their own homes. The Viterbese began to throw rocks at them. When the cardinals went a few days without balloting, the people threw rocks at the palace. The allotment of food to the palace was first cut down, then cut out. At their own houses, the cardinals found the same food shortage.
Chagrinned, the English Cardinal John Tolet commented one day that maybe to roof of the palace should be removed to give the Holy Ghost easier access to the minds of the cardinals. Word of his observation reached the people. Next morning when the cardinals arrived at the palace the roof of the conference room was gone....2
Early in his reign, Bd. Pope Gregory established procedures to hasten the conduct of future elections. While not removing the roof so that the cardinals might be rained on, it became the custom to restrict the cardinals to relatively spartan living arrangements so that they might devote their undivided attention to the business at hand.