On July 7th, 1294, Pietro (Pope Celestine V), the 194th Pope was elected. He resigned on December 13, 1294. No subsequent Pope has taken the name 'Celestine.'
He was born in 1215 in the village of Santangelo Limosano, in Molise (near Isernia), the son of Angelo Angelerio and Maria Leone. He was the eleventh of the twelve children of a family described as "poor but honest, deeply religious peasants". After the father's untimely death he started to work in the fields. His mother Maria was a key figure in Pietro's spiritual development: she imagined a different future for her deeply beloved son than just becoming a farmer or a shepherd. From the time he was a child, he showed great intelligence, and love for his fellow beings. He became a Benedictine monk at Faifoli in the diocese of Benevento when he was seventeen. He showed an extraordinary disposition toward asceticism and solitude, and in 1239 retired to a solitary cavern on the mountain Morrone, whence his name. Five years later he left this retreat, and betook himself, with two companions, to a similar cave on the Mountain of Maiella in the Abruzzi region of south Italy, where he lived as strictly as was possible according to the example of St. John the Baptist. Terrible accounts are given of the severity of his penitential practices. While living in this manner he founded, in 1244, the order subsequently called after him, the Celestines.
He was about twenty years old when he retired to a hermitage near Castel di Sangro. Then he went to Mount Paleno, where he spent three hard winters, in a small, narrow cave which popular tradition calls Taverna and where today is the Madonna dell'Altare. Then he moved his hermitages to remoter place in the Maiella. In 1237 Pietro he founded the hermitage of Sant'Onofrio, under a high rock wall not far from Serramonacesca, near a small fountain - the cave where he lived is behind the altar of the church that now is in the place, and in the cave it is still possible to see two small holes in the ground, made by the saints knees during his prayers. Santo Spirito, this hermitage near Roccamorice was established in a wide grotto below a rock wall. Under the Caldora Chapel there is a small cave where Pietro established in 1241 the underground church of Santa Maria del Morrone, where he lived and celebrated Mass for five years, in connection also with the nearby Abbey of Santa Maria dei Corvoni.
Nearer to Roccamorice (San Bartolomeo), in the same valley where Santo Spirito lies, is another hermitage where Pietro retired with some disciples from 1274 to 1276. Near Caramanico (San Giovanni) there is the last hermitage, at 1227m of altitude, on a narrow rock basement hovering over 20m deep abyss. Here Pietro lived from 1284 to 1293 in two small cells excavated in the rock, near a stone altar that he and his monks had made. Water was collected from the rain through a system of small canals leading to a tank.
In 1264 Pietro had the inspiration from the Lord to establish a new order of monks following the rule of St. Benedict from Norcia. He asked Pope Urbano IV for his consent, which he obtained on 1st May: the new order was called Brothers of the Holy Ghost, then it took the name of Celestines. At that time the Pope was not in Rome but in Lyon for the 14th Ecumenical Council. In late November 1273 he left his Maiella hermitage and walked to Lyon, where he arrived in early February 1274. The Pope examined the new Rule and approved it with his Bull Religiosam Vitam, where the legitimacy of Peter's community of hermit monks was established within the Benedictine order and the possessions of the Celestines were recognized. According to the bull, the congregation had 16 monasteries in Abruzzi and Lazio. Pietro transformed hermitages in churches and monastery, and his order soon spread from the Maiella to wide areas of Southern Italy. The Celestines continued in existence until the 18th century.
The cardinals assembled at Perugia after the death of Pope Nicholas IV (1288–92) in April of 1292. Morrone, well known to the cardinals as a Benedictine hermit, sent the cardinals a letter warning them that divine vengeance would fall upon them if they did not quickly elect a Pope. Latino Malabranca, the aged and ill dean of the College of Cardinals cried out, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect brother Pietro di Morrone." The cardinals promptly ratified Malabranca's desperate decision.
At first he categorically refused and even tried to run away, but he was 79 years old and 200,000 people had flocked to his mountain after the news broke. Finally a delegation of cardinals and two kings (the Angevin King Charles II of Naples and his son, King Charles I Martel of Hungary) convinced him to don the mitre. On August 29th, 1294, almost two months after his election, July 7, 1294, he was crowned at S. Maria di Collemaggio in the city of Aquila (now called L'Aquila) in the Abruzzi, August 29, taking the name of Celestine V.
Charles II hadn’t climbed that mountain just to pay his respects; he was looking to secure himself a pet Pope and secure him he did. Celestine never entered the Papal States, never went to Rome. He moved from L’Aquila, then a territory of the Kingdom of Naples, to Naples proper. He lived in a spare room in the Castel Nuovo — he had a tiny cell built so he could be properly eremitical during Advent.
Unfortunately the new Pope was not prepared for the political, lay aspects of his role, and allowed king Charles to keep him in Naples and exploit him to his ends. For Charles he created 12 new cardinals, seven of them French and three or five of them Neapolitans. That completely altered the makeup of the college, giving the French massive new weight which would directly lead to the disaster of the Western Schism and the Avignon papacy 80 years later.
Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, to gain his confidence, built him a wooden cell in one of the enormous rooms of the Castello Nuovo, the five-towered castle that overlooks the sea. He gave out charges and privileges freely, and let a group of three cardinals manage the things of the papacy, keeping himself in his cell to continue his penitential life. Anyway, he was deeply aware of his unfitness to the secular role of the leader of Christianity, and feared anarchy in the church. The cardinals soon realized their mistake. Celestine was giving away church possessions to unworthy people, like the poor, and the impoverished monks with whom he had always associated. He would bankrupt the church in no time at all. He even kept away from banquets, preferring to nibble a crust of bread and sip water in seclusion.
Something had to be done, and who better to do it than Benedict Gaetani? He bored a hole into the wall of the pope's cell and put a speaking-tube in it. In the middle of the night, he whispered down the tube: "Celestine, Celestine, lay down your office. It is too great a burden for you to bear". After several nights of listening to the voice of the “Holy Ghost”, and a period of deep meditation, he asked Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani to prepare a document which allowed popes to renounce their office.
He issued two decrees – one confirming that of Pope Gregory X (1271–76), which orders the shutting of the cardinals in conclave; the second declaring the right of any Pope to abdicate the Papacy.
In the formal instrument of his renunciation he recites as the causes moving him to the step, "the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life".
Irrevocably convinced of what he was doing, he summoned the Cardinals on the 13 December 1294 and informed them that, out of his humbleness, his longing for a different life and physical weakness, he had decided to leave his high office and give them the chance to elect a new pope. He was sure he had fulfilled the task he had been given, namely to avoid a schism, and therefore was now ready to give place to another person, better qualified for the position. After that, he left the papal ornaments and clothes, put on his old tunic and was again the humble hermit from Mount Morrone. Only a few days later, on 24 December, cardinal Gaetani was made Pope under the name of Boniface VIII.
Celestine headed back to his mountain top but he didn’t make it. The abdication was contentious, and there were factions within the Church and in the temporal world who Boniface feared might attempt to install Pietro as an anti-pope. While still in Naples, Boniface ordered Celestine to be taken to Rome. The old man, remarkably spry considering his age, hair shirt, the chain he wrapped around his body and his only eating on Sundays, managed to escape. He was captured and escaped again. He tried to leave the country but a storm forced his ship ashore in Vieste, in Apuglia, the spur of Italy’s boot. There he was captured yet again and this time Boniface dispatched him to the Castle of Fumone in the Campania region.
By all accounts, this imprisonment was not a gentle one. Even for a man with his taste for the Spartan, Celestine’s cell was tiny, so narrow that the two younger monks who accompanied him got sick. He died 10 months later, on May 19th, 1296. The circumstances of his death were immediately seen as suspicious. Boniface was accused of having had the old man killed to remove the potential anti-pope with undeniable finality. His enemies got their revenge in the end by having Celestine canonized a saint in 1313.
He was buried at Ferentino, but his body was moved repeatedly after death, finally finding a permanent resting place in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, although it didn’t get to rest easily. The silver coffin he was laid in was stolen in 1529; a new one was stolen in 1799; his remains were stolen in 1988 but found two days later, and in 2009, the glass casket that held his remains in public view was buried under the rubble of the church during the earthquake that devastated L’Aquila.
For hundreds of years, a square hole in Pietro’s skull was considered evidence that he had been murdered by a nail driven through his head. Now pathologists at the San Salvatore Hospital’s in L’Aquila can confirm that the nail hole was definitely not the cause of death. Dr. Luca Ventura, son of the pathologist who last examined Celestine’s remains after the 1988 theft, studied the bones. “Our analysis found no trace of the murder engineered by Boniface. On the contrary, we can say beyond doubt that Celestine wasn’t alive when the lesion was made.”
Pope Boniface is responsible for walling up an sickly old man in a tortuously cramped castle cell. Osteological evidence indicates Celestine was 5’5” tall, had chronic sinusitis, parodontopathy (a chronic bacterial infection of the gums), vertebral arthritis and Schmorl’s nodes, herniations of vertebral discs probably caused by heavy labor done as a youth. It is impressive he lasted 10 months, all things considered.
Researchers at L’Aquila University took the opportunity to do a laser scan on the skull so they could make an accurate facial reconstruction. There is a practical reason for this reconstruction beyond just curiosity.When on display, Celestine’s remains are clothed and his skull face covered by a wax mask. The mask was not the likeness of the saint, but rather that of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the Archbishop of L’Aquila(1941-1950). With the new facial reconstruction, artists were able to make a handsome silver funerary mask that is an accurate likeness of the face it now covers.
At the cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, are the relics of Celestine V. Their collection includes 2 reliquaries of Pope Celestine V:
Although generally deemed a saintly man Celestine V has received some criticism. Many felt that his austere hermit-like life made him naive and unsuited for the job as Pope. This criticism may be more fair as he himself wished to retire due to the pressure. Others argue the opposite: his abdication of such immense power, wealth, and material comfort, in pursuit of austere, humble surroundings, was a most pious and admirable sacrifice demonstrating Celestine V's profound and rare degree of spiritual fortitude and virtue.
By his abdication Pope Celestine V made two important contributions, one to church law, the other to spirituality.
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. The only papal resignations, Providentially, have been absolutely minimal.
Spirituality: 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.
His canonization came not long after his death in 1296 by Clement V in 1313. Celestine V, like Pope Celestine I (422–432), is recognized by the Church as a saint. No subsequent Pope has taken the name 'Celestine'. His feast is celebrated on 19 May.
Back on April 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI did something rather striking, but which went largely unnoticed. He stopped off in Aquila, Italy, and visited the tomb of an obscure medieval Pope named St. Celestine V (1215-1296). After a brief prayer, he left his pallium, the symbol of his own episcopal authority as Bishop of Rome, on top of Celestine's tomb.
Fifteen months later, on July 4, 2010, Benedict went out of his way again, this time to visit and pray in the cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, before the relics of this same saint, Celestine V. Few people, however, noticed at the time.
Only now, we may be gaining a better understanding of what it meant. These actions were probably more than pious acts. More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a Pope can hardly deliver any other way.
In the year 1294, this man (Fr. Pietro Angelerio), known by all as a devout and holy priest, was elected Pope (Celestine V), somewhat against his will, shortly before his 80th birthday (Ratzinger was 78 when he was elected Pope in 2005). Just five months later, after issuing a formal decree allowing popes to resign (or abdicate, like other rulers), Pope Celestine V exercised that right. And Pope Benedict XVI choose to follow in similar footsteps of Celestine.