An ascetic reluctantly agrees to serve as pope

The patron saint of St. Peter Celestine Church in Cherry Hill, Pope St. Celestine V, was a fascinating figure in the history of the papacy. Born in the early 13th century, before his election he was known throughout all of Italy as Pietro di Morrone because he spent time as a monk living a strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict alone in the wilderness of Abruzzi’s Mount Morrone.

When Pope Nicholas IV died in April of 1292, the College of Cardinals remained deadlocked in debate over his successor for over two years. When no candidate could be agreed upon, the electors decided to nominate the saintly and ascetic Pietro, who lived in emulation of John the Baptist. As the Catholic Encyclopedia points out: “His hair-cloth was roughened with knots; a chain of iron encompassed his emaciated frame; he fasted every day except Sunday; each year he kept four Lents, passing three of them on bread and water; the entire day and a great part of the night he consecrated to prayer and labour.”

The cardinals hoped that this deeply spiritual man could reform the decadence of Rome at the time. Again the Catholic Encyclopedia elucidates: “In July, 1294, his pious exercises were suddenly interrupted by a scene unparalleled in ecclesiastical history. Three eminent dignitaries, accompanied by an immense multitude of monks and laymen, ascended the mountain, announced that Pietro had been chosen pope by unanimous vote of the Sacred College and humbly begged him to accept the honour.” Pietro reluctantly and tearfully agreed and took the name of Celestine V.

Noted historian Eamon Duffy describes the electors’ thinking: “Celestine was a visionary, the founder of a brotherhood of hermits with strong links to the radical Franciscans. He therefore represented precisely that dimension of the 13th-century church which most detested the wealth, worldliness and legal and political entanglements of the papacy.  His election fed apocalyptic hopes of a Papa Angelicus, a holy and unworldly pope who would cleanse the church and prepare the world for the advent of Christ” (Saint and Sinners, 159).

More interested in piety and prayer than in the administration of the church, the day-to-day business of the church, including the workings of the Curia and diocesan appointments, fell into chaos while Celestine remained on his knees alone in his chapel. Fearing the burden of leading the church was beginning to weaken his closeness to God and endanger his soul, he began to think of abdicating the papacy. Even though such a decision was drastic and quite uncommon in the first 1,200 years of Christianity (scholars suggest murky precedents did possibly exist in the reigns of Pontian, Marcellinus, Liberius, Benedict IX and Gregory VI), the cardinal electors shared Celestine’s opinion that he was not well-suited for ecclesial administration. They accepted his resignation of office after less than six months.

Because his successor Boniface VIII feared fractioning the church if believers refused to accept his authority and still identified Celestine as pope, he had the elderly hermit confined and closely guarded, a crime for which Dante would condemn Boniface to hellfire in his Inferno. The saintly Celestine never wavered in his faith and eventually died in his relative captivity at the age of 90. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death in the prison at Fumone, May 19.

His remains were eventually brought to Aquila, where they survived the recent earthquake despite the destruction of most of the basilica in which they rested, in what some have deemed miraculous circumstances. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the demolished Italian town, he donated the woolen emblem of his pastoral authority called the pallium, which he received at his own inauguration, as a sign of his spiritual solidarity with both Celestine and the victims of the natural disaster. To celebrate the 800th anniversary of Celestine’s birth and to remember the tragedy which impacted his town, the current pope symbolically opened the Holy Door and proclaimed a year of honor, prayer, and forgiveness in his predecessor’s name. This Perdonanza e l’Anno Celestiniana [Pardon and Year of Celestine] continues until August of 2010.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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