Post-classical history



One Sunday morning when Peter Morrone was a young hermit, one of his spiritual brothers had a vision. An angel appeared to him and said, “Have you noticed in the oratory where all of you pray, how the lamp moves back and forth in the air without anyone touching it? This is a sign that God is with you.” From that moment on, Peter’s Autobiography says, all of the hermits in that place were witness to this wonder, and there remained no question about the divine presence in their midst.

Not long afterward, on a Sunday evening, as the hermits were about to rise in the middle of the night to pray vigils, the devil grabbed four of them in such a way, the Autobiography says, that they cried out for help. One of them lifted his hands to the sky in fear and all who saw him witnessed that his fingers were twisted and deformed. The holy men were scared out of their wits. Then Peter (who describes himself humbly as “the brother who was at that time still in his cell”) heard what was happening and went to see it firsthand. Without hesitation Peter told the others, “Whoever is able, keep praying!” By that next morning, prayer had overcome the evil spirits and they were gone from that place.

This was the work of Peter Morrone’s entire life: to keep praying despite whatever happened. In the century after Peter’s death, Petrarch would defend Peter’s decision to abdicate as evidence that he understood his most important calling of all—to be a contemplative:

Renouncing the papacy was an awful burden, he anxiously returned to his previous way of solitude. It was as if he’d freed himself from the clutches of an enemy. One could attribute this to cowardice, but seeing what were his true gifts, I see it another way. I praise him for making himself once again most useful to the world.1

Petrarch praises Peter for leaving the Holy See behind in order to do what he did best. The essential work of a contemplative monk is to pray for the world—to offer up to God, with the utmost attention and persistence, what the rest of us do not bother to offer. It has always been a comfort to Christians to know that men such as Peter are praying for them, even when they do not or cannot pray for themselves.

Is this what we are to make of the life and legacy of Peter Morrone-cum-Celestine V?

There is a miniature painting, a manuscript illumination housed in the Vatican Libraries, depicting James Stefaneschi interviewing the retired Celestine. In the simple, arresting image, James the historian sits at a scribe’s desk with pen in hand before a bearded and slightly confused-looking Celestine, who is peeking out of the small window of his hermitage of Onofrio. The sense is that no one will ever quite know the essence or heart of that essentially very private man.2

In Catholic history, this tale ends in heavenly glory. A Catholic believes that he or she will one day know the truth of all things in the life to come. Saints know this more quickly than others. Less than a decade after Peter’s death, Pope Clement V instructed the archbishop of Naples to begin a formal inquiry into Peter’s sanctity. More than three hundred witnesses appeared before the religious court that was assembled in 1307, representing all walks of late-medieval society, testifying to his character, his witness, and the miraculous nature of Peter’s life.3 The austerities of his life were testified to. Nineteen miracles were presented by witnesses who had prayed to Peter for help to cure their illnesses, and fourteen of these were confirmed as irrefutable evidence, or true miracles, since the diseases were otherwise known to be incurable.4

It is rare that a saint’s reputation is fixed before a century has gone by since his death, and in Peter’s case there were competing claims and visions about his martyrdom, resignation, piety, and incompetence. All of this played out during the hearings, and on May 5, 1313, Clement V declared that God had made Peter a saint. The pope preached a homily that day on a short text from the prophet Isaiah: “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Is. 12:6). Peter Morrone was henceforward to be known as Saint Pope Celestine V and his relics would be permanently housed in the church in L’Aquila.

Alban Butler begins his entry for May 19, the traditional feast day for Saint Pope Celestine V, with this somewhat shocking statement: “In all papal history no figure is more pathetic than that of Peter di Morone.”5 How odd that seems by this time in our story. What happened to Peter was the stuff of pathos, but was he pathetic? It was Edward Gibbon who said, “The pathetic almost always consists in the detail of little events.” It is true that many of the details of the last two years of Celestine’s life were miserable, eliciting pity, but the full meaning of his life, his motivations and decisions, amounts to much more than that. Still, two and a half centuries would go by before the world would see another pope raised to the ranks of the saints (Pius V), and no pope has ever taken the name Celestine, since.

Peter’s Autobiography ends when he was only about thirty years old. What does it mean that he left no record of his doings or feelings beyond that time? It is as if nothing very important happened in Peter’s life once he found his way from the monastery to the mountains. Perhaps in the hermit’s mind that was true. A fierce and independent character, he always valued remote locations as spiritual teachers more than wise elders. He loved his life as a religious man, and he embraced the austerities of eremitism with gusto. And yet he was no simple hermit. Peter had a conflicting relationship with power and position; he had shown an interest in both as a younger man, and then in later life a lack of understanding of both. Lacking a subtle mind, he didn’t trouble himself or his followers with theological or spiritual controversies. This tendency worked in his favor while he was a hermit, but it worked against him in the papacy. While he served as pope, the cardinals and curia must have been both baffled and threatened by how Peter often opted for an evangelical purity that they viewed as too simple.

It is intriguing that a monk who valued humility and privacy would come to sit on the throne of Saint Peter at all—a throne that came with both the keys to heaven and a sword to hold over the heads of all the inhabitants on earth. As Frederick Rolfe once riffed about the character of late-medieval churchmen, “Now we pretend to be immaculate, then they bragged of being vile.” But this angelic pope was cut from a different cloth. To illustrate the point, playwright Peter Barnes has Celestine innocently say to one of his cardinals, “What has Christ’s Church to do with monies and taxes?”

“Everything, Your Holiness. Everything,” the cardinal responds.6

A Saint of Paradoxes

The traditional way of understanding all of this is to say that Peter was a naïve saint: a man who couldn’t function in a world of scheming and sin because of his otherworldly holiness. This sentiment is expressed again and again in the late-medieval chronicles and stories about him. If Shakespeare had written a tragedy about Celestine, naïveté would have been his fatal character flaw. If an opera were written about him, Celestine’s character would sing dramatic arias about his devotion to God without noticing the powerful men scheming in the dark recesses on stage behind him. Eamon Duffy represents this common interpretation when he refers simply to “the saintly but hopeless monk-hermit Celestine V.”7

King Solomon is supposed to have said, “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Prv. 26:7). In other words, just as the legs of a disabled man might be of no use to him, so is wisdom of no use to a fool. Peter was the Don Quixote sort of fool: one who either doesn’t realize his buffoonery or acts the jester in order to make a deeper point. But which was it? He donned simple clothing. He rode an ass to his coronation. He insisted on eating almost nothing while pope—“munching a dry loaf … declaring it the only savory food”8—and acted simply. He behaved in ways that were unlike any pope before or after him. During his brief papal sojourn, he safeguarded the rights of the Spiritual Franciscans who were being physically threatened by leaders of their order and were, themselves, accused of being fools. He refused to fight, to play the political games that his contemporaries expected of him. As a scholar of the Franciscan movement has summarized it, “The reign of this holy but most inefficient of Popes was a short and unhappy one, and his successors were men of a very different stamp.”9 But was Peter foolish?

The hagiographers will say he didn’t know any better—that’s the sort of fool that Peter was. This “innocent as doves” explanation is one way of looking at his failures. Some historians put it most critically: “The fact was that, for all his piety and reputation for holiness, the new pope was hopelessly naïve, almost ridiculously incompetent, and rather ill educated—a dangerous combination in those troubled times.”10

In the end, looking at the full breadth of his life, both of these interpretations miss the mark. There is more to the pope who quit than saintliness and foolish ineptitude. Peter had as much charisma as he possessed piety, and he was bold and perhaps arrogant enough to be a medieval pope. He’d been an able organizer and charismatic leader. He clearly had the ability to stir souls by the power of his personal presence. His ascetic qualities were unflaggingly inspiring to those who were drawn to him, wanting also to renounce a confusing and dispirited worldly existence for the Kingdom of Heaven. By most accounts, “[Peter Morrone] had a remarkable record as the creator of a congregation of hermits within the Benedictine order.”11 Why then did this accomplished man become an incredibly incompetent pope? “His reign was an absurdity; under the thumb of Charles … a few months reduced the Curia to chaos,” quips Edward Armstrong in The Cambridge Medieval History.12

I believe that the solution to this puzzle is not to be found in the theories of foolishness or holy naïveté. Instead, it is hinted at in this comment from contemporary British writer A. N. Wilson: “I bend my knee to the unwilling holy man who knew there was no meeting place between the pursuit of power and the worship of God.”13

Peter clearly wasn’t simple. He wasn’t a mountaintop hermit without regard for public opinion. “Ignorant of the intricacies of papal business, too old and dreamy to shape a resolute policy, he longed for solitude,” as one historian has put it.14 But his story isn’t that easy either. It’s not that he was so adept at mystical spiritual practices that a taste for power and influence had been driven from him. That’s not what comes through most clearly in the stories from those days.

Perhaps he found himself unable to function, psychologically and spiritually, in the midst of the power plays of the loggia and the court. He’d succeeded brilliantly in organizing and leading a monastic order of his own founding, in a situation where he was the only minister-general, but when forced to engage with others holding alternative views, he folded. He became spineless. Was he able to lead only when he would lead completely unchallenged?

Perhaps, but in all of the mess of those fifteen weeks, it is intriguing to consider an alternative possibility. Was Celestine essentially an obscurantist? Perhaps he wasn’t inept so much as he was ruling from a stance of passive protest. Shocked to discover what it meant to be holy father, he may have quietly resolved at some point simply not to do it. Perhaps he believed himself to be the head of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy that he didn’t acknowledge as entirely legitimate as it was structured. This theory would explain many of his actions in office and would also fit the pattern of where he had come from. But ultimately the evidence also points to something that Dante said long ago.

A Moral Failing

Perhaps it was once possible to be a heavenly saint without being a human one. To have spiritual qualities without using them to respond to the world one is confronted with. We wouldn’t allow this contradiction to stand today. And not everyone did then either. For his moral failures, Dante assigned Peter to milling around the vestibule of the Inferno for eternity:

    And after it there came so long a train

    Of people, that I ne’er would have believed

    That ever Death so many had undone.

    When some among them I had recognised,

    I looked, and I beheld the shade of him

    Who made through cowardice the great refusal.15

This “great refusal” (gran rifiuto) was Dante’s way of expressing Peter’s unforgiveable sin: cowardice. He didn’t even have to name Peter in that passage since his readers knew what had happened. The abdication was fresh in their memories.

Still, there are other theories about why Dante didn’t explicitly name Peter. Some believe he intended Pontius Pilate, who, rather than following his own conscience, showed cowardice by releasing Christ into the hands of those who would crucify him. Others have guessed that Dante meant Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, who became known as Julian the Apostate. In any case, none of these characters is great company. The Dante Encyclopedia probably puts it best when it suggests that not naming the object of his contempt was precisely Dante’s intent—it was yet another way to emphasize what he believed to be Peter’s complete lack of character.16 No one likes a quitter. As one historian has pithily phrased it, this means that Peter’s entire papacy was “an act of pusillanimous irresponsibility.”17

Could It Happen Today?

The angelic pope responded to power in the only ways he knew how. He retreated and prayed. But that wasn’t enough.

The New York Times ran a story in April 2010 that began this way: “He is elected for life, by a group of elderly men infused with the will of God. People address him as Holy Father, not Mr. President. After bishop of Rome, his second title is vicar of Jesus Christ. Can a man like this quit his job?” The occasion for the story was to reflect on the possibility that the current Pope Benedict XVI could possibly abdicate.18 It’s not likely that he ever will. Nevertheless, some of Benedict XVI’s most recent predecessors were rumored to have considered stepping down.

Pope Paul VI is the only sitting pontiff ever to visit Celestine’s Fumone castle; he did so on September 1, 1966, and delivered a speech in which he showed admiration for the angelic pope. The precise reasons for this visit were never fully explained, although at the same time the sixty-nine-year-old pope urged all priests to consider retiring when they turn seventy-five, for the sake of the Church. Some in the media speculated that Paul VI might have been considering an abdication himself.19 Six years later his seventy-fifth birthday would come and go. Paul VI died in office in 1978.

Twenty years after the suggestion of Paul VI’s considerations, the hints of Pope John Paul II’s possible abdication began around the issue of his spending too little time focusing on administrative issues, leaving the running of the Vatican to others. Looking back, one observer has reflected: “While he lost nothing of his strength and power, the glory of his office, Wojtyla seemed at times almost sad about his own elevated position, suggesting that his real life was the one he spent alone in prayer and contemplation, the one we had seen when he sat without moving, his face covered. He was offering this rich private life of his to the crowd as the life they could have if they followed him.”20 This sounds almost precisely like the papacy of Celestine V. How intriguing it is to imagine our hermit in the light of this most recent and famous of papal examples. John Paul II’s biographer characterizes what happened during his papacy by saying, “[H]e was reinventing the papacy as an office of evangelical witness rather than bureaucratic management.”21

There are many differences between the two papacies, and the successes of John Paul II are surely much more numerous than were the failures of Celestine V. However, the most profound difference of all is that Celestine lived and ruled long before the digital and television age. There could be no positive effect of a profound personal, spiritual witness in a pope in 1294 that could compare to the effect today, when millions of faithful are able to witness images of piety in their holy father every day, live, streaming on the Internet or broadcast on television. A pope had no hope of saving the world through piety alone seven hundred years ago.

Being too good and holy to put his energy into acquiring the political savvy necessary to a medieval pontiff simply made Celestine appear inept. He was “pious but weak and incapable,” as one historian has written.22

Similar arguments have been recently made about Pope Benedict XVI. Incidents such as the 2006 Regensburg University speech, when he referred to Islam as “evil and inhuman,” and in 2010 as he failed to manage another growing sexual abuse scandal, have led some to say that a lack of administrative and diplomatic skills—the same sort of ineptitude shown by Celestine V—might be grounds for a twenty-first-century pope to resign.

Could it happen today? On a Sunday in April 2010, a parish priest in Massachusetts became the first authority from within the Catholic Church to suggest that this pope should quit. The story ran on the front page of The Boston Globe, with Reverend James J. Scahill of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, telling about how he had received a standing ovation at Mass that day. “The right thing is to be truthful, and if he is not up to dealing with this, then he should have the integrity to resign,” he said, summarizing his sermon from that day.23

Since that time it has become clear that Benedict XVI is willing to engage with the problems that the Church faces. He has never been, and will never be, a leader like Celestine V. Yet Benedict XVI has chosen to align his papacy with the memory of our hermit pope. As you may recall from earlier in this book, he laid his pallium on Celestine’s tomb in April 2009. Also consider this incredible paragraph from Benedict’s first homily at his Mass of inauguration exactly four years earlier:

One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. “Feed my sheep,” says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends—at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more—in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.

It is impossible to read these words now—especially the last sentence—without recalling the life and death of Celestine V.

Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto has said, “Saints exist mainly to perform miracles.”24 And for those who pray to the saints, asking for help in some particular aspect of life, it’s never been quite clear what Saint Pope Celestine V is good for. Alban Butler long ago said that Celestine should be the saint of retirees: “Those who are destined by heaven to a retired life, in it become most eminently serviceable to the world, by proving excellent examples of innocence, and the perfect spirit of every Christian virtue, and by their prayers and continual pure homages of praise and thanksgivings to God, from which others may reap far more valuable benefits than from the labors of the learned or the bountiful alms of the rich.” The hermit pope has also been claimed as the patron saint of bookbinders, and of L’Aquila. None of these is very compelling.

Celestine V’s original coronation took place on August 28, 1294, and to this day each year on August 28 the holy doors of the Basilica of Santa Maria of Collemaggio are ceremoniously opened and pilgrims flood inside. Despite the fact that one of Boniface VIII’s first acts was to rescind what has come to be known as the Saint Celestine Pardon (the plenary indulgence he granted for those who come), the festivities are still broad and colorful. Celestine’s original bull is read out to the public and then publicly displayed until midday the following day. It is an occasion for festive celebration as well as some traditional confession and reconciliation between the devout and their priests. On at least those two days, thousands of people consider who this man was.

There is clearly more to this saint than retirement, bookbinding, or a small town in Italy.

Finally, the story of Celestine V warns us of the dangers of religious power: giving us some insight into how to know when it is being inappropriately wielded, and what to do to appropriately diminish it. Ignazio Silone was the first person to suggest as much in the introduction to his book The Story of a Humble Christian. He recounts saying something to that effect to a simple Italian peasant whom he met along the path toward the Onofrio hermitage on Mount Morrone. And then, “When the peasant finally understood the meaning … he was overcome with irrepressible hilarity,” Silone writes. “Afterwards, he said gravely: ‘Then he’s not a saint for us poor people; he’s for the priests.’ ”25 And perhaps that’s the truest statement of all.

In the end, no life may be easily understood. Does the cowardice of Celestine’s final years of life provide the best summary of who he was? I don’t believe so.

Peter was a man of paradoxes rather than a cookiecutter saint. When the entourage marched up Morrone to tell him of the papal election, perhaps the wisest instinct he’d ever had was the one that told him to flee. He should have run. It wasn’t that he did not know, or was unprepared for, the rigors of the corrupt late-medieval papacy. He knew better.

His sanest expectations were confirmed within weeks of ascending the chair of St. Peter, prompting him to make the decision that would save his soul—if not the Church. He quit. And for that single act, he showed himself to be enlightened, not naïve.26

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