In the aftermath of Benedict XVI’s historic announcement on February 11th, news agencies noted that it had been nearly six centuries since a pope had resigned his office. The last had been Gregory XII, who abdicated his position in 1415 amid the ongoing turmoil of multiple claimants to the papacy in hopes of bringing the Great Western Schism to an end. And while Gregory XII’s name could be found regularly scrolling across the news-ticker of CNN that momentous Monday, it is an earlier medieval pontiff who serves as a more apt comparison to Benedict XVI.
In 1294 the chair of Saint Peter had been vacant for more than two years as personal enmities and political posturing had prevented the cardinals from achieving the necessary two-thirds majority. As they convened again in July of that year, one of the cardinals informed his brethren that Pietro del Morrone, a hermit priest renowned for his piety, had written them a scathing letter about their prolonged electoral gridlock. Perhaps being rousted from their inertia by his candor or possibly inspired by his reputation for holiness, the cardinals subsequently elected Pietro as the new pope.
Though Pietro ardently protested this development and initially refused to leave the small grotto on the mountain in southern Italy where he lived, he eventually accepted the decision and was consecrated as Pope Celestine V. Indeed, there was great excitement in Christendom about the new pope. However, as James Hitchcock astutely observed, the pontificate of Celestine V serves as “a caution against the attractive assumption that holiness alone is sufficient for a good shepherd.” He was easily manipulated by the king of Naples into doing his bidding, such as ratifying favorable agreements like the treaty of La Junquera or naming some of the monarch’s lackeys to important positions in the papal state. The new pope’s administrative inexperience, lack of Latin fluency, and old age further contributed to a chaotic and short tenure. In December 1294 he resigned from the papal office after only five months, citing among his reasons, as noted in Jon Sweeney’s book The Pope Who Quit, “the desire for humility …the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, [and] his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” Though Dante may have assigned Celestine V to hell for this abdication in the Divine Comedy, the Church canonized Celestine as a saint in 1313.
In spite of having one of the shortest and strangest pontificates in history, Celestine V’s personal piety and historic resignation has made him more than just an ecclesiastical footnote. In fact, the last 3 popes have all shared some connection to Celestine. In 1966 Paul VI visited the castle of Fumone, the place where his medieval predecessor had lived and died following his resignation, and spoke admiringly of the holiness and example of Celestine. At the time, some media unsurprisingly interpreted this as a sign that Paul VI was himself considering resignation. Celestine’s resignation was likewise highlighted by those who (often self-servingly) suggested that John Paul II should have considered a similar path as he battled with Parkinson’s disease. However, the connection between Benedict XVI and Celestine V is the most instructive. Both resigned from the papacy at age of eighty-five, and Celestine’s example seems to have been resonant with Benedict in recent years. In 2009 during a trip to Aquila, Italy, Benedict left his pallium — a symbol of the pope’s Episcopal authority — on the former’s tomb. That same year in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Celestine’s birth, the pope proclaimed that August 28th would mark the beginning of the Celestine year. In July 2010 he visited the cathedral of Sulmona to venerate the relics of Celestine V.
Perhaps Benedict’s actions pertaining to Celestine are reflective of nothing more than a personal devotion to this saint. Certainly their backgrounds and respective papacies place them in stark contrast. However, their resignations will forever link them in history and reflect similar concerns. As Pope Benedict explained, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” This love for the Church and profound humility that each of these popes displayed in their resignations is something for all of us to emulate.
Dr. Ryan delivered a lecture to the public on February 26, 2013 on Marian Devotion in the Age of the Crusades for the Aquinas College Lecture Series. Full audio of the lecture is available below.