If Pope Celestine V is familiar at all to us today, it’s because his name came up in 2013 during the resignation of Benedict XVI. As one of only a handful of popes who had previously abdicated, the erstwhile Peter of Morrone was perhaps the most hapless selection to the chair of St. Peter in its entire two-thousand-year history.
An undoubtedly holy man, a mystic and a visionary, Peter was elected when the papacy was considered one monarchy among many—a national entity—though he had zero interest in affairs of state. He possessed no feel for delegation, no talent for administration. Painfully aware of his limitations, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to warn the cardinal electors. They had their own plans.
Obscure but for this notorious footnote, those not obsessed with church history might wonder why anybody would delve into the sometimes-contradictory facts of the life of a hermit monk who became pope by default—and failed miserably during his less than six-month reign before mercifully being allowed to step down. The answer, I think, lies in his charism, those gifts of the Holy Spirit, which, as they played out in his turbulent life, seemed perhaps to benefit others more than himself.
Born in a Neapolitan province around 1215, Peter got the name Morrone from the mountain where, after becoming a Benedictine monk at age 17, he retreated to live a sanctified life. His circumstances were extreme even by medieval standards. He wore a knotted horsehair shirt and wrapped a chain around his waist. He slept on a plank and used a rock or sometimes a log as his pillow, so convinced was he that any comfort in this life was a threat to his place in eternity. He survived most of his days on bread and water alone, devoting the daylight hours to copying manuscripts and nights to deep prayer and contemplation. He was ordained a priest in 1246 in Rome, but returned to his cave on the mountain as soon as he could.
The convoluted complexities of the Middle Ages game of thrones that characterized Peter’s era lie beyond the scope of this piece; suffice it to say that the society he chose to live outside of was much mired in the feudal order. Multiple kingdoms that were either aligned with or opposed to the papacy, at war with or in league with one another, presented near-daily challenges to whomever was unlucky enough to be pope—there were many short-lived pontificates in the latter half of the 13th century. Church hierarchy was hidebound by politics, with cardinals advocating for the interests of their kings. Conclaves that followed the death of a pope to decide on a suitable successor were knock-down drag-outs, the result being that the papacy would remain vacant for years at a time.
This worldly understanding of the church found its polar opposite among a radical but influential offshoot of Franciscans referred to as the Spirituals, characterized by their unflinching adherence to St. Francis’s vow of poverty. These two views of how the church should be in the world would inevitably collide. It goes without saying which side of the worldly/spiritual divide Peter of Morrone—who over the years had attracted a widespread following that he organized into what became an offshoot of the Benedictine order—would fall on.
Following the April 1292 death of Pope Nicholas IV, whose reign lasted only four years, the conclave again deadlocked, this time for twenty-seven months. One account has Peter writing a letter to the cardinals in which he reported a vision he had of the church being under severe rebuke from God if the matter wasn’t settled. They responded by electing him to the papacy in 1294.
The ancient hermit—by then approaching 80 years (or more) of age—was aghast. He wrung out every reason why he was the wrong man for the job. But in him the worldly forces saw a dupe they could connive into serving their purposes; the Spirituals, and others more religiously inclined, welcomed his humility. Both sides should have listened to him. His pontificate was a debacle.
“It is wonderful,” one church historian wrote in 1908, “how many serious mistakes the simple old man crowded into five short months.” He created twelve new cardinalates, and almost immediately turned the lucky dozen against him by reinstituting strict protocols that regulated their college, a series of orders that had been previously dissolved. Church offices, largely in the form of bishoprics or abbeys, were flung about willy-nilly, with in some cases two men or more being named to the same office. “We have no full register [of his blunders],” the same writer noted, “because his official acts were annulled by his successor.”
About that successor: A certain Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, who would become Boniface VIII, denied that the idea of Celestine’s abdication originated with him, although he did write the pope’s resignation speech. Overwhelmed by his obligations, the latter had built for himself a hut of boards within the papal palace (which, due to a variety of convolutions, was located in Naples, not Rome). To there he repaired to contemplate Advent and his own soul sickness. His abdication, determined to be licit under canon law—by Gaetani, among others—became effective December 13, 1294.
Afterwards, amidst questions about the legitimacy of his abdication and insinuations that Gaetani, now Boniface VIII, had somehow stolen the papacy, Celestine snuck off to a monastery his order maintained in his beloved Morrone. Boniface, aware of the devotion Celestine continued to command, and fearing it could lead to schism, asked the Neapolitan king to arrest him. Celestine eluded the detail for months, and then tried to escape to Greece, but an Adriatic storm caused his boat to turn back, and he was apprehended.
Rumors of harsh treatment (perhaps spread by the Spirituals) and even murder at the hands of his successor have no foundation in truth, but Boniface did have Celestine confined to quarters for the remainder of his days, which the former pope spent, as always, in solitude and prayer. “I desired nothing in the world but a cell,” he remarked in sanguine acceptance, “and a cell they have given me.”
Even the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has been granted a special place in the heavenly hierarchy as the Queen of All Saints, was a flesh and blood human being. As were all the saints. The ascetic, the recluse, Peter of Morrone, chose humility over the greatest dignity his chosen path had to offer. He preferred poverty to honor. That, to answer further a question discussed above, was his charism. While almost none of us are drawn to a life of extreme self-abnegation, even when we consider our circumstances to be lacking, the solaces of life are abundant—food, central heating, a big fluffy bed.
Celestine died on May 19, 1296, and was canonized in 1313. His story, less sad than it would at first appear, contains another poignant contemporary lesson. Whatever individual convictions we may hold, whether they come from revulsion at our poisoned politics or the corrupt culture more generally; crushing disappointment and or heartbreak; or even a journey through solitude and the practice of virtue that engenders devotion to God—any of these, and more besides, can fool us into believing that we are finished with this world. The world, it turns out, is not finished with us.