I started reading The Pope Who Quit out of sheer curiosity. I can remember discussions about the possibility of John Paul II resigning towards the later part of his years as his health deteriorated. At that time I didn’t even know a pope had quit. Jon Sweeney’s book does a marvelous job not only telling the story of Peter Morrone (Pope Celestine V) and the circumstances surrounding his coronation and resignation but he also provides the reader with a rich understanding of the culture of the day and the state of the Catholic Church during this time.
Sweeney doesn’t sugar coat the times or the church during which we find our beloved hermit, Peter Morrone. He freely acknowledges, “[i]n the thirteenth century a cardinal was more likely to be a scoundrel than a saint.” (33) “But,” as Sweeney observes “the Catholic Church has never claimed that the Holy Spirit infallibly guides the choosing of popes.” (47) In 1294 the people had fresh in their memories a particular period of time called an interregnum. This is “the time that lapses between the death of one pope and the election of a new one.” The particular incident in the minds of the people occurred between 1268 and 1271. The cardinals could not decide on a new pope. Desperate measures were called for. The people locked the sixteen cardinals inside and bricked up the entrances insisting the cardinals get the job done (they left space to provide bread and water). As time progressed but still no decision was reached the people began to remove the roof above “letting in the hot sunshine and the rain.” Three days later they had elected a new pope. Now in 1294 the church was experiencing the same thing—deadlock. Two years had expired since the death of the last pope (Nicholas IV) and there was little sign of the twelve cardinals coming to any decision. Seeing this, Peter wrote a scathing letter to the cardinals urging them to come to a decision. The letter is no longer extant but whatever it said it got the job done. When the letter arrived in July of 1294 Cardinal Latino Malabranca read it first quietly to himself and then told the other Cardinals of the contents. Following some discussion of Peter, Cardinal Malabranca proclaimed, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I elect Brother Peter of Morrone!” (43) This was a rare form of electing a pope called quasi ex inspiratione (Latin for “from inspiration”). There were three methods of electing a pope: 1) quasi ex inspiratione, 2) “A sort of electoral college would be nominated by the larger group of cardinals, and this group of representatives would meet to choose the man.” And, 3) by ballot where all the cardinals vote with the newly elected pope being selected by a two-thirds majority. All three of these methods had been valid up until as late as 1996 when John Paul II put an end to the first two methods leaving only the third method as a valid method for electing a pope. (49)
Celestine V (“Celestine” means “heavenly one.” No pope has taken the name Celestine since.) ruled for “fifteen disastrous weeks from August 29 to December 13, 1294.” (161) He was a man out of his element. To begin with he didn’t have the “family heritage, connections, and influence that previous popes of his time enjoined.” (81) His education was poor and subsequently his Latin was rough. To top it off he didn’t “have a political bone in his body.” (178) This made him extremely vulnerable to strong political figures like Charles II, king of Naples and strong-willed cardinals such as Benedict Gaetani who would eventually be Celestine’s successor. When Peter began to talk of resigning it caused an immediate buzz. Could a pope resign? [Although Sweeney doesn’t mention them both Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) and Pope Pontian (235) resigned which does raise a question about his statement that Peter was “the only man in history to walk away from his job, vacating the chair of St. Peter before he died.” (1) I owe this observation to an Amazon reviewer.] The canon lawyers were working overtime come to terms with this situation. But the inevitable happened and on December 12 “Celestine resolved in his decision” and on December 13 he read his statement of resignation. (195) This was a weight off of his back. All he wanted to do was to return to his former life of solitude and spend time in prayer. But, regrettably, this was not to be. The College of Cardinals (which Celestine V had doubled in size) elected Cardinal Gaetani who took the name Boniface VIII. Boniface was not comfortable with having a “former pope” running around the country side. How would the people view him? What if he decided to come back, having changed his mind? (201) Boniface asked for a meeting with Peter. Peter must have suspected something because he stayed on the move but eventually Boniface’s men caught up with him. Boniface had Peter locked up at Castle Fumone and he was guarded by “a garrison of thirty-six men.” Sweeney writes, “Within the span less than a year, Peter had been a renowned hermit, a failed pope, and a wandering hermit, and finally finished up wasting away in prison.” (208) After ten months of lock up Peter died on May 19, 1296. Sweeny considers the theory that Peter may have been murdered. This was certainly not as uncommon as might appear. He lists the names of some twenty popes who were probably murdered. (208-11) Any theory is, however, mere speculation since there “is no corpse, and there were no direct eyewitness accounts and no autopsy.” (214) In 1998 an Italian monk produced a theory “that Celestine’s death may have been caused by a nail driven into the side of his head.” (213-14) Peter’s skull is “treasured at L’Aquila” and “scholars have long known about the hole in his skull” but it is “beyond question . . . of later manufacture.” (214) Sweeny thinks Peter was probably poisoned by Boniface. As for Boniface, on “September 7, 1303 he was abducted at his home in Anagni.” There he was “beaten for three days, leaving him humiliated but still pope.” He died a month later. (220-21)
The subtitle of the book says it all: “a true medieval tale of mystery, death, and salvation.” This is no simple chronicle of a fifteen week reign of a hermit-pope. Sweeney paints a portrait giving that fifteen weeks character, depth, and significance. I end with Celestine’s resignation letter.
“I, Celestine V, moved by valid reasons, that is, by humility, by desire for a better life, by a troubled conscience, troubles of body, a lack of knowledge, personal shortcomings, and so that I may then proceed to a life of greater humility, voluntarily and without compunction give up the papacy and renounce its position and dignity, burdens and honors, with full freedom. I now instruct the Sacred College of cardinals to elect and provide, according to the canons, a shepherd for the Universal Church.” (195-96)
The Pope Who Quit is from Image Books. It is a paperback with 288 pages and sells for $14.00.