Pope Celestine V, the Other Pope who Resigned

I’ll never forget that phone call. It came around 11am on Monday morning 11 February (just two weeks ago). It was my maritino on the phone. “It’s never happened before! It’s the first time in history….” he shouted down the phone. “WHAT?!” “The pope has resigned!!” or to use his words, “Si è dimesso il papa!!”

 Saint Pope Celestine V, Niccolò di Tommaso, Castel Nuovo

Saint Pope Celestine V, Niccolò di Tommaso, Castel Nuovo

After expressing the appropriate amount of shock, I couldn’t stop myself from correcting my dashing spouse, “Well, actually, it has happened…at least once. You know, Celestine V?” And in the days that followed, many articles swirled around the internet listing all the other popes who have resigned throughout history, but I'm here to tell you only one (until now) did so willingly, and that would be good old Celestine V in 1294. For whatever else you can say about me, I defy you to say I don’t know my popes. I can name them forward and backwards… literally. In order from St. Peter to Benedict XVI or vice versa (in under five minutes if there’s money on it), and I even know all their family names (from 1200 to the present).

Now, to answer the question I know you are all asking yourselves (“Why on Earth…?”), what can I say? I like to memorize things. I figured it would be a useful thing to have at my fingertips, especially as a tour guide. Still, just because I know a particular pope's name and dates, doesn’t necessarily mean I know anything about him. I might not have known a thing about Celestine V had it not been for the unforgettable exhibit at the Capitoline Museums last year, Lux in Arcana.

As I wrote in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, the exhibit brought 100 historic documents out of the darkness of the Vatican Secret Archives and put them on display in my favorite museum in the city. It was a very exciting show for us history addicts. And one of those precious documents concerned Pope Celestine V. But first a little back story:

Upon the death of Pope Nicolas IV in 1292, there were only 12 living cardinals whose task it now was to elect the next pope. The papal election, which was the last not held under lock and key, or “cum clave,” that is, in conclave, took place in Perugia. If these days the College of Cardinals is expected to select a new pope within days, the cardinals of 1292 must not have got the message. So long did the election drag on that one of the cardinals died during the proceedings. After two long years of voting and still no pope, the cardinals received a letter from Pietro del Morrone, a monk and hermit living in the mountains of Abruzzo. Brother Pietro warned that God would wreak his vengence on the cardinals if they failed to name a new pope, and right quick. 

It was as if Latino Malabranca, the dean of the College of Cardinals, suddenly had a vision from heaven (either that or we was so fed up, he figured, "What the hell, he might as well do...") for he immediately exclaimed, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect brother Pietro del Morrone." All the other cardinals seemed satisfied, more or less, with this solution, and the decision was ratified by a unanimous vote. This letter, drafted on 11 July 1294 and affixed with the seals of all 11 remaining cardinals, was delivered to his mountain cave. Still in remarkably good condition, it was on display as part of the Lux in Arcana exhibition for much of 2012, and I saw it with my very own eyes.

 Letter to Pietro del Morrone future Pope Celestine V from Vatican Secret Archives, © Daniele Fregonese

Letter to Pietro del Morrone future Pope Celestine V from Vatican Secret Archives, © Daniele Fregonese

Only problem was, Pietro del Morrone, nearly 80, had no desire or intention to accept the position of pope. According to his biographer, he refused outright, with the humble words, "Who am I to take up such a heavy burden, so much power? I cannot save myself; how can I save the whole world?" When the cardinals insisted, he even tried to flee, but they found him, and more or less forced the honor upon him.

 Coronation of Pope Celestine V in August 1294,  French School

Coronation of Pope Celestine V in August 1294,  French School

After his coronation on 29 August, one of his first acts as pope was to declare an edict making it possible for a pope to abdicate. Clever man. With no political experience, he turned out to be a weak and ineffective pope, which probably came as no surprise to himself. This seems to prove that the most devout and pious priest does not necessarily make the best pope. Remind you of someone? I recall a particular line from a recent post by Vatican-expert Trisha Thomas on her blog Mozzarella Mamma, "Pope Benedict was a bad adminastrator who wrote three books about Jesus while he was Pope, while the men around him in the Vatican were back-stabbing each other."

It surprised no one, I imagine, when he took advantage of his new edict and abdicated before the year was out, divesting himself of all his papal power and authority, and returning to his quiet hermit's life. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII Caetani apparantly didn't trust Celestine's conviction to resign, and he had him imprisoned out of fear he would threaten his reign as an antipope. Celestine died after 10 months in prison, perhaps of old age, or perhaps on order from Boniface as many suspected at the time. Let's hope Benedict XVI's successor is not so insecure.

Although a later pope, Clement V, deemed Celestine's act of humility to be worthy of sainthood, and had him canonized in 1313, other contemporaries were not so generous. Dante Alighieri condemned him to one of the antechambers in hell in book three of his Inferno, verses 59-60, saying "I saw and recognized the shade of him who by his cowardice made the great refusal."

Benedict XVI clearly did not agree with Dante. After the sainted pope's body survived the 2009 earthquake in Aquila (miraculously, many believe), Pope Benedict visited his tomb, leaving behind the woolen mantle he wore at his own papal inauguration. Was he trying to tell us something? Many are now, and rightly so, comparing Benedict XVI to Celestine V, citing that, like his 13th-century counterpart, he is an introvert, a thinker, a scholar, not a born spiritual leader, like his predecessor John Paul II.

Pope Benedict XVI visits tomb of Pope Celestine V Aquila 2009
Pope Benedict XVI visits tomb of Pope Celestine V Aquila 2009

Just in case you are reading this, thinking, I heard that there have been several other popes who resigned in history. Well, yes and no. Others have resigned, but none of their own will. Pope Pontian resigned in 235 after being exiled to Sardinia by Emperor Maximinus Thrax. Pope Silverius was forcibly deposed by Empress Theodora in 537. In 649 Pope Martin I was kidnapped, deposed, and sent into exile by another Byzantine emperor. Then there was one of the most shameful popes in history (even worse than my favorite, the Borgia pope), Benedict IX, who was deposed not once, not twice, but three times, a few contemporaries along with him in the 10th century. And last (well, almost last) but not least, Pope Gregory XII, who was a bonafide pope in the early 1400s, but since he reigned simultaneously with two antipopes (one in Avignon and one in Pisa), he was pressured to resign along with the other two, in order to peacefully end the schism. So no, not really the same thing at all. This makes Benedict XVI only the second pope in the history of the Catholic church to have willingly resigned.

Image sources: 1, 2: courtesy of Zetema Progetto Cultura, 3, 4