St. Peter Celestine V

(A.D. 1210-1290)

Popes are elected to office. Can a pope resign the papacy?

In the ancient church there were a couple of popes who are presumed to have resigned in difficult circumstances: St. Pontian in A.D. 235 and Pope John II in A.D. 535. But there was one utterly clear case of papal resignation that set a legal precedent: the abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294. His story is not merely of interest to church lawyers; it is a parable of Christian humility.

Peter was the eleventh child of peasant parents, born at Isernia, in southern Italy not far from where St. Benedict founded the great monastery of Monte Cassino. A devout young man, he undertook, at twenty, the life of a hermit. Having then gone to Rome and been ordained to the priesthood, and been clothed in the Benedictine habit by the Abbot of Faifula, he settled down in a cave on Mount Murrone (or Morrone) near Sulmona, one of the picturesque retreats of which there are so many in Italy’s wild central mountain range. Thereafter he was known as Peter of Murrone.

In his case, as in the case of so many pioneering hermits, other men who learned about Peter’s project came to visit him and requested to embrace the same lifestyle under his guidance. He consented, and drew up a plan of life for them that combined aspects of Benedictine community life and aspects of the solitary life. In 1274, indeed, he traveled to Lyons, France, where the 14th general council was in session, in order to request from Pope Blessed Gregory X the confirmation of his monastic foundation. Peter’s foundation was called the Celestines. He ruled and expanded the Celestines until 1293. Then he retired as superior in order to return to his beloved hermitage on Mount Murrone. The Celestines continued in existence until the 18th century.

Meanwhile, the College of Cardinals had been in conclave for two years for the purpose of electing a pope to succeed Nicholas IV. These were turbulent days for the Church, but a main cause of gridlock in the papal conclave was that there were only twelve Cardinals voting, and the electors were so torn by personal and family loyalties that they were immobilized. Now the unworldly hermit of Mount Murrone, by this time the head of 20 monasteries, felt impelled by the Spirit to rebuke the Cardinals for dereliction of duty. He warned them that God would surely punish them if they did not act without further delay.

The warning had its effect, but it was a surprising one. Unable to agree on any current Cardinal for the post of supreme pontiff, the Cardinals decided to go outside their body of Cardinals for a pope. Their choice, made on July 5, 1284, was Abbot Peter of Murrone himself.

The election of a hermit and non-Cardinal was not simply a further illustration of the electors’ irresponsibility. Actually, the Cardinals and many contemporaries too, were at least half persuaded that God was telling them that what worldly popes had not been able to achieve, a deeply spiritual pope might accomplish. The fact that Peter was then 85 was not unusual in the annals of papal elections. Even a pope on the edge of the grave could at least hasten to name new Cardinals and thus furnish a wider choice of candidates for the next papal conclave.

Peter accepted the election tearfully as the will of God, and took the name Celestine V. His installation was slated for Aquila in the Abruzzi Mountains rather than Rome. The kings of Naples and Hungary personally led the donkey on which the pope-elect rode into Aquila’s church of S. Maria di Collemaggio. Here he was both consecrated bishop and crowned pope. Two hundred thousand people are said to have attended, hopeful that with Celestine V the Church might finally be entering an age of glory and peace. It would soon become clear, however, that Celestine V was not truly the man of the hour!

Did the holy hermit Peter Celestine succeed as pope where more sophisticated popes had failed?

Unfortunately, no.

Charles II of Anjou, the French king of the “Two Sicilies” had backed the election of Celestine V because he cynically planned to manipulate the aged hermit to his own advantage.

Having seen to it that the pope was consecrated and enthroned at Aquila in the Abruzzi rather than at Rome, he next persuaded the pope not to go to the Eternal City but to take up residence in Naples. Celestine was so guileless and so unwilling to offend that he accepted the suggestion and took up residence in Naples’ new royal palace, the Castel Nuovo, that still stands as a landmark on the Neopolitan seaside. Thereafter, trusting the king implicitly, he accepted most of his recommendations.

Charles wisely urged the naming of 12 new Cardinals. Regrettably, most of them were partisans of France and Naples. This antagonized the Cardinals in Rome against Celestine. The Pope was indeed able, by his singular gentleness, to reconcile Guido da Montefeltro to the Church, after he had withstood previous popes. But Church office seekers, seeing that the pope was a pushover, hastened to ask him for promotions. For want of experience, he named some who were incompetent. On occasion, he even awarded the same position to more than one person. To Louis of Anjou, the son of Charles II, he gave the administration of the archdiocese of Lyons in Prance, although Louis was only 20 years old. Here again, However, was another exception. Young Louis was a very holy man. Eventually he became a bishop and is today venerated as St. Louis of Toulouse. Celestine likewise proved too ready to give away church funds, failing to distinguish, apparently, between what monastic poverty demanded and what the business of his office required.

Peter of Murrone, in other words, was in beyond his depth. Piety is praiseworthy but it is no substitute for competence. As the weeks went on, he himself realized that he was a misfit on the Chair of Peter. In the fall, therefore, he turned for advice to the Italian Cardinal, Benedict Gaetani, an able canonist.

“May a pope resign?” he asked.

Gaetani replied that popes could resign and sometimes should resign. Personally, however, he would recommend that Celestine not do so. Like many another, he still thought that the goodness of the man would outshine his inexperience.

Peter had his answer, however, and set about acting on it. Summoning a papal consistory at Naples on December 13,1294, Celestine V, clothed in full pontifical vesture, read from the papal throne a formal document of abdication. He declared that because of his advanced age, his lack of adequate knowledge, and his incapacity, he was resigning the office of supreme pontiff. He asked pardon for his many mistakes. Then be divested himself, one by one, of his papal regalis, went out of the room, put on his monastic habit, returned, and sat on the lowest step of the dais.

“Behold, my brethren,” he said. “I have resigned the honor of the papacy. Now I implore you by the blood of Jesus and by his holy Mother, quickly to provide for the Church a man who will be useful to it, for the whole human race, and for the Holy Land.”

This declaration by the ancient hermit brought to an end his six-month pontificate. Because his was a free act, it was of unquestionable validity. On December 24, 1294, the Cardinals met in conclave and elected Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani himself to the papacy. He took the name Boniface VIII.

Unfortunately the transition was not without its problems. Some of the new pope’s enemies were determined to deny the validity of Peter’s abdication and to use the retired pope as a weapon against his successor. Peter thought to avoid the problem by taking flight across the Adriatic. Pope Boniface, not knowing what was in his predecessor’s mind, had him “arrested” and conducted to a remote monastery near Anagni. The hermit was disappointed by this curtailment of freedom, but he raised no fuss. “I wanted nothing in this world but a cell,” he sighed, “and a cell they have given me.” His captivity was, of course, honorable, and he was treated with due respect.

Peter of Murrone died, aged 86, on May 19, 1296. He was first buried at Ferentino, but after his canonization by Pope Clement VI is 1313, his remains were reinterred at Aquilla, in the church of S. Maria di Collemaggio, where he had been consecrated and crowned.

By his abdication Pope Celestine V made two important contributions, one to church law, the other to spirituality.

As for church law, his formal resignation established the legal principle that a pope is free to relinquish his office. The 1963 Code of Canon Law, the official law book of the Catholic Church, States the rule thus: "If it should so happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone. " (Can. 332.2). In such a case it is unnecessary to ask what happens to the papal powers when the pope abdicates. Those powers are attached to the papal chair. When a bishop is elected to the chair, he comes into possession of them. When a pope resigns the chair, be forfeits them. Providentially, papal resignations have been absolutely minimal.

St. Peter Celestine’s resignation had also set a sterling example of humility for the good of others. When the hermit pope realized that he was not competent to hold the office of pope, he hastened to resign it, lest thousands suffer because of his incapacities. By his action he counseled not only future popes but every human being who finds himself occupying a position for which he is unqualified. Be humble enough, he tells us, to cease imposing yourself on others.

--Father Robert F. McNamara