The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

pope who quit

Celestine V became pope practically by accident.  That he abdicated just 15 weeks later was only a little more shocking than his getting the job in the first place.

The time is the 1292.  The 12 cardinals who make up the College of Cardinals have gathered to elect a new pope. There were only 12 in those days.  Divided evenly between two powerful, competing factions, the cardinals cannot agree.  Meantime, the church goes without a pope for 27 months.  Charles II, king of Naples, offers a list of suggestions, all of which are rejected.  Peter Morrone, a charismatic leader of a slightly renegade Francisco sect and a very famous hermit monk, sends a letter to the College of Cardinals predicting apocalypse if a pope isn’t elected soon.  Impressed by his passion and by his apparent holiness, the cardinals elect Peter as the new Pope.  Maybe a truly holy man can bring reform to the church.

Peter was 85-years-old at the time.  While he was the spiritual leader of a large group of monks, most of whom lived as hermits in the mountains, he had no real experience as an administrator or with politics.  He was escorted down from his mountain where he had spent the last 20 years in prayer, by the King of Naples who uses the naive monk as a pawn in his intended grab at the political power of the Medieval church.  Peter road into Charles castle on a donkey.  Charles led the donky.  Peter stays with Charles II, never entering Rome during his short reign.  Basically, he continues living as a monk by having Charles II build him a small private room within the palace where he can continue to spend his days in prayer.

At first, the cardinals as well as the general public had high hopes for Peter who became Celestine V.  The saw him as a genuinely pious man, which he was, uninterested in the political scheming which had already become a significant problem with the church well before the Reformation.  But Celestine V began issuing bulls that were too controversial for the cardinals and movements against him began.  Was he mad? Why wouldn’t he come to Rome? Was he simply a puppet of Charles II?

In the end, he was basically forced out, convinced to resign his position by Cardinal Gaetani who was then became Pope Boniface VIII.  When he resigned, he stepped down from his throne and sat upon the ground in front of  Charles II.

Celestine V’s 15 weeks as pope are a footnote, a fascinating footnote, to history.  No other pope would resign until Benedict did so just a few years ago.  I remember when that happened, what news coverage there was did say that his was only the second abdication, though a few others had been forced out and a couple may have been murdered.  But the coverage glossed over Celestine V so quickly that it gave me the impression he simply wanted to retire.  The situation was much more complicated than that.

Mr. Sweeney does a very good job presenting the story of Peter Morrone/Celestin V.  His life was a very interesting one.  The story of his papacy is pretty darn amazing, too.  It’s a rise and fall tale.  He went from obscurity, to widespread popularity though he never aimed for fame or power, to finally end up vilified.  Even Dante put him in a special place in his Inferno, condemned to wander outside the gates of Heaven and Hell, unable to enter either as he had refused the position during his lifetime.

It makes for a very entertaining piece of reading.