Resignation of Pope Celestine V

Dan Graves, MSL

Resignation of Pope Celestine V

The cardinals were deadlocked. They had been deadlocked for 27 months, since 1292 when Pope Nicholas V died. There were only twelve cardinals and they were evenly divided between two factions of the Roman nobility. Neither side would give way. Each hoped for the perks that would accrue from having one of their number named pope.

And then a message arrived from the mountains. Peter Murrone, the hermit founder of the Celestines, a strict branch of Benedictines, warned that God was angry with the cardinals. If they did not elect a pope within four months, the Lord would severely chastise the church.

Eager for a way out of their deadlock, the cardinals asked themselves, why not elect Peter himself? Finally the cardinals could agree. In a vote that they declared to be "miraculous" they unanimously chose Peter.

When three of the cardinals climbed to his mountain roost to tell Peter he had been chosen, the hermit wasn't happy. All of his life, he had tried to run away from people. Dressed like John the Baptist, he subjected himself to fasts, heavy chains, and nights of prayer without sleep. But when the cardinals and his friend King Charles II of Naples insisted that he must accept the position for the good of the church, Peter reluctantly agreed.

Charles II prompted him to name a number of new cardinals--all of them from France and Naples, changing the consistency of the group which would elect future popes. Peter, who was too trusting, made many mistakes. A babe in political matters, he was used by everyone around him. The Vatican staff even sold blank bulls with his signature on them.

The business of the church slowed to a crawl because he took too much time making decisions. Within weeks it became apparent he had to resign for the good of the church. But could a pope resign? Guided by one of the cardinals, Benedetto Caetani, Celestine as pope issued a constitution which gave himself the authority to resign.

All sorts of rumors followed this resignation. Peter had built himself a hut in the Vatican where he could live like a hermit. Supposedly Caetani thrust a reed through the wall of the hut and pretended he was the voice of God ordering Celestine to resign. Since his mind was undecided as to his proper course, this trick is said to have convinced him.

Celestine stepped down on this day, December 13, 1294, having actually filled the position of pope only three months. He was replaced by Caetani who took the name Boniface VIII. Afraid that Peter would become a rallying point for troublemakers, Boniface locked the old man up. He destroyed most of the records of Celestine's short time in office, but he could not unmake the cardinals.

Peter escaped and wandered through mountains and forests. He was recognized and recaptured when he tried to sail to Greece, his boat having been driven back by a storm. The last nine months of his life he spent in prayer as a prisoner of Boniface, badly treated by his guards. When he died in 1296, rumor had it that Boniface had murdered him. He was about 81-years-old. In 1313, Pope Clement V declared him a saint.

Bibliography:

  1. Brusher, Joseph Stanislaus. Popes through the Ages. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
  2. "Celestine V." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  3. De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2000; especially pp.75ff.
  4. Loughlin, James F. "Pope St. Celestine V." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1908.
  5. Montor, Chevalier Artaud de. Lives and Times of the Popes. New York: Catholic Publication Society of America, 1909. Source of the picture.
  6. Rusten, E. Michael and Rusten, Sharon. One Year Book of Christian History. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2003).
  7. Silone, Ignazio. The Story of a Humble Christian. [Dramatic account with historical addenda.] New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
  8. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated July, 2007

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