Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Pope Who Quit

Yesterday referred to the resignation of Pope Celestine V, and that there was some confusion about it. It was not common for popes to resign, but it did happen.

Pope Celestine is crowned
Celestine V (1215-1296) was born Pietro Angelerio to a family of humble farmers. His mother wanted better for him; it may be through her urging that he joined a Benedictine monastery in 1232. After several years, he chose the life of an ascetic, and lived in a succession of caves, including one at Monte Morone, because of which he was sometimes called Pietro di Morone. His penitential activities were severe: he wore a chain of iron, fasted every day except Sunday, spent four Lents each year while living on bread and water, and prayed continuously. As we have seen previously, such holy men draw others to them, and soon Pietro had a following who wished to live by his example. This following became a sub-order of the Benedictines, and were called the Celestines. He seemed content to live an exemplary life for other devout ascetics.

The simple life would not be his forever. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the turning point:
In July, 1294, his pious exercises were suddently[sic] 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.  [source]
A deadlocked committee of cardinals spent two years and three months after the death of Pope Nicholas IV, unable to agree on a candidate, until Cardinal Latino Orsini (d.1294) proclaimed that a good and saintly man would come to Rome and admonish them if they did not come to agreement. Supposedly, they all knew to whom he referred: the hermit of the Morone. King Charles of Naples liked the idea that one of his subjects would become pope. Thousands of members of spiritual orders believed this was the best election in centuries.

He was crowned August 1294 as Celestine V (note that he was almost 80 years of age), and quickly showed that he was not going to be a good pope. He had no organizational skills, and no memory (he would give the same benefice to more than one person). He would appoint bishops and cardinals without observing proper protocols. He quickly created many cardinals, the majority of them French; this would help lead to the Avignon papacy which led to the Great Schism. He tried to make the cardinals adhere to a strict schedule of prayer, and wanted to give away papal treasure to the poor.

Letter from the cardinals to Angelerio, asking him to be pope
He wasn't exactly enjoying the life. Administrative matters began to press on him, which left him no time for his devotions. Resigning the position seemed like a good idea, but could it be done? Were popes eligible for resignation? Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani advised that common sense and the need to preserve the church allowed for resignation when the pope was incapable of performing the job. The aged pope summoned his cardinals and resigned after only five months and eight days, leaving to them the task of finding his replacement. Within two weeks, they had one: Benedetto Gaetani—who had provided the argument allowing Celestine to resign—would become Pope Boniface VIII. His first acts were to revoke many of the decrees of his predecessor. He also took Celestine into custody, lest the old man become a tool for some unscrupulous person who might challenge the change in pontiff. He imprisoned Celestine for the remainder of his life. To us this seems cruel, but for the reluctant pope it meant a return to the solitary life he had enjoyed for decades, left with silence and the time to pray. He died 13 December, 1294.

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