In the wake of Pope Benedict’s resignation yesterday, the world has become re-aquainted with a more famous papal resignation; that of Celestine V, a hermit who proved wildly incompetent as pope and never wanted the job in the first place – but was canonized nevertheless, and received special acclaim from Pope Benedict just three years ago.
Born to Sicilian farmers in 1215 and christened “Pietro Angelerio,” he joined a Benedictine Monastery at 17, then retreated to a nearby cave only seven years later to live a hermit’s life; he moved to Central Italy, just outside Rome, sometime in the 1240’s and spent the next several years in largely uneventful austerity (he did found a new ultra-ascetic order of Benedictine monks, but didn’t want the hassle of dealing with them and turned them all over to someone else to run so he could go back to his cave).
Even so, he heard about and was dismayed by the struggles the church was facing in appointing a successor to Pope Nicholas IV. Nicholas IV died in 1292, but the Papal election – disrupted by plague, Roman riots, and internal power struggles fueled by graft from rival Italian noble families – dragged on for two solid years, long enough that one of the electors died. An incensed Pietro wrote to the cardinals in 1294, warning them that God would punish them if they did not immediately select a pope. When his letter was read aloud to the electorate, Cardinal Latino Malabranca declared out of desperation that Pietro be elected Pope himself. Pietro had no interest in the Papacy, and even tried to run away when his entourage came to escort him to his coronation. But he finally took the name Celestine V and tried to run the church as best he could – which wasn’t very good at all; he would often appoint four clergy to the same post simply because he couldn’t bear to say “no” to any of them.
After five months – reassured by his advisor, one Cardinal Gaetani – Celestine made one final decree affirming the right of a pope to resign, and then stated he was doing just that, moved by “the desire for humility, a purer life, a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, [and] his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” But he had attracted enough admirers that Gaetani – who succeeded Celestine as Pope Boniface VIII – tried kidnapping him to Rome where he could be kept out of the public eye. Celestine went on the run for several months, until a storm swamped plans to escape to Greece. Celestine accepted his fate (“I only wanted a cell,” he observed, “and a cell you have given me”) and died in prison nine months later.
His chaotic stint as Pope gave him a bad rap – Celestine is believed to be the unnamed person whom Dante refers to in Canto III of The Inferno (“I saw and recognized the shade of him/Who by his cowardice made the great refusal”). But his humility and obvious innocence finally won him sympathy, and he was canonized in 1313. His disastrous election lead to the institution of the Papal Conclave, and his resignation formalized the procedure for any other pope who’s wished to do the same. In fact, any time a modern pope makes a visit to his remains, Vatican insiders and theologians take it as a sign they are considering stepping down themselves.