On July 7th, 1294, Pietro (Pope Celestine V), the 194th Pope was elected. Succumbing to the pressures of the office, he resigned on December 13, 1294. No subsequent Pope has taken the name 'Celestine.'
Preceded by: Nicholas IV.... 1294 .... Succeeded by: Boniface VIII
He was born in 1215 in the village of Santangelo Limosano, in Molise, 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.
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. When sent for, Morrone obstinately refused to accept the Papacy, and even, as Petrarch says, attempted flight, until he was at length persuaded by a deputation of cardinals accompanied by the Kings of Naples and Hungary. Elected 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. 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 – a right he, at the end of five months and eight days, proceeded to exercise at Naples on December 13, 1294.
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 tranquillity of his former life"; and having divested himself of every outward symbol of dignity, he retired to his old solitude.
Celestine V was not allowed to remain there, however. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303), sent for him, and finally, despite desperate attempts of the former Pope to escape, got him into his hands, and imprisoned him in the castle of Fumone near Ferentino in Campagna, where, after languishing for ten months in that infected air, he died on May 19, 1296. Some historians believe he might have been murdered by Boniface VIII, and indeed his skull has a suspicious hole. He was buried at Ferentino, but his body was subsequently removed to Aquila, where it still lies. Many early commentators and scholars of Dante have thought that the poet stigmatized Celestine V in the enigmatical verse Colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto, Who made by his cowardice the grand refusal (Inferno, III, 59). Most later commentators, however, refute such an identification and believe Dante might have intended the verse to refer to Pontius Pilate or someone else. Celestine V, like Pope Celestine I (422–432), is recognized by the Church as a saint. No subsequent Pope has taken the name 'Celestine.'
Although generally deemed a saintly man Celestine V has received some criticism. As mentioned above, in the Divine Comedy Dante might have placed him near the gates of Hell, but not in Hell precisely, because he deemed him indecisive, and also because his resignation led to the reign of Pope Boniface VIII. Others 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.
Another thing he did which may be noted (it seems to be the only instance in the history of the Church) is that he empowered one Francis of Apt, a Franciscan friar, to confer the clerical tonsure and minor orders on Lodovico (who would later become Bishop of Toulouse), the son of the King of Sicily. However, this decree seems not to have been carried out.
The life of Pope Celestine V is dramatised in the plays L´Avventura di un povero cristiano (The Story of a Humble Christian) by Ignazio Silone in 1968 and Sunsets and Glories by Peter Barnes in 1990.
His canonization came not long after his death in 1296 by Clement V in 1313. His remains were transferred from Ferentino to the church of his order at Aquila, where they are still the object of great veneration. His feast is celebrated on 19 May. To see the full story of this unique Pope who fled back to his mountain shortly after his election, please click here.
A spirit of retirement, or a love of holy solitude and its exercises, and an habitual interior recollection, are essential to piety and a true Christian life. Some, by a particular call of God, dedicate themselves to his service in a state of perfect solitude, in which the first motive may be self-defence of preservation. In the world, snares are laid everywhere for us, and its lusts often endeavor to court and betray us, and the torrent of its example, or the violence of its persecutions, to drive and force us into death. Whoever, therefore, prudently fears that he is not a match for so potent an enemy, may, nay sometimes ought, to retire from the world. This is not to decline the service of God or man, but sin and danger: it is not to prefer ease and security before industry and labor, but before a rash presumption and a fatal overthrow. But entire solitude is a safer state only to those who are animated with such a love and esteem for all its exercises as give an assurance of their constant fervor in them; also who seriously cultivate interior solitude of mind, and will never suffer it to gad abroad after the objects of worldly affairs, vanities, or pleasures: lastly, whose souls are free from envy, emulation, ambition, desire of esteem, and all other busy and turbulent passions, which cannot fail by desires and hankerings to discompose the mind, and muddy the pure stream, and adulterate the relish of a retired life. The soul must be reduced to its native purity and simplicity, before it will be able to taste the blessings of true liberty, of regular devotion, and elevated meditation." (Taken from Vol. V of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, the 1864 edition published by D. & J. Sadlier, & Company)