Saint Celestine V Biography: The Hermit who became Pope, the Pope who resigned.


This Biography is an abridgment of The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages published in 1902 by Father Horace Mann DD, that has been cut, edited, rearranged and sometimes supplemented with the Editor’s (Noah Moerbeek) own remarks, ideas and expressions.  However, all the facts of her life are taken from the section on Saint Celestine from the original book published in 1902.  It also serves as the transcript for our Audiobook on the Life of St Celestine V Seek Ye First the Kingdom of Heaven.CelestineV

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Part 1: A Boy Named Peter

St Celestine the Fifth baptismal name was Peter. The year of his birth seems to have been 12 10 (or 1209). His parents, Mary and Angelerius, both virtuous, were poor and of humble station. They had twelve children, of whom Peter was the eleventh,  and they had always prayed that one at least of their children might be ” a true servant of God “* To his mother’s joy, for his father had died when Peter was very young indeed, her eleventh child soon began to show signs of his future sanctity. At the early age of five he was already fond of the Bible and holy books. His attachment to books, however, was not viewed with favor by his brothers. Besides their father, six of their brothers and sisters were already dead. The family was poor, and could not afford, they urged, to have one of its number brought up in idleness. Moreover, they reminded their mother that a rich man had taken a fancy to Peter, and had promised to make him his heir. But she, recalling to mind that the boy had been born with a call, persevered in her determination to bring him up for the service of God, the more so that her husband had expressed the same wish before his death. The boy corresponded with her desires, and by the time he was twelve knew the Psalms by heart. But about this time his mother was much troubled by seeing him, still a beardless youth, feeding a flock of snow-white sheep. She recovered her serenity, however, when she reflected that it was a question of the flock of Christ.

Daily did Peter grow in goodness, so that his disciples assure us that, even in his youth, he was old in virtue. Peter felt drawn to a hermit’s life. He was, however, deterred at first from carrying out his project, because, even at home, when alone he feared ” the phantoms of the night “. He did not realize that one might be a hermit in a cave and still have a companion. But when he was about twenty (c. 1230),  he persuaded a companion to leave home with him and seek the real “sweet things of life” in solitude. They agreed to go first to Mother Rome to get a sanction for their proposed mode of life. But after a day’s journey, his companion returned home, and Peter had to go on alone. Hearing that there was a hermit near Castel del Sangro, he went to consult him. But enlightened from above, he left him, and, timid though he was, passed the night in the open. Comforted and encouraged by heavenly visions, he thenceforth lost all fear of darkness, and dug out for himself a cave beneath a great rock, but so small was it that, though he was not tall, he could not stand upright, nor lie down at full length within it. Here, clad in a rough tunic, he remained for three years, with no companions but snakes, toads, and lizards.

Often was the young hermit here tempted by evil spirits, and and often too, did he receive “great graces”.  Peter’s sanctity spread abroad, and the many who came to visit him urged him to get ordained a priest. He accordingly went to Rome, and, returning to the a priest, took up his abode in a cave on Mount Morrone,  where now stands the Church of St. Spirito.

The chronology of the life of Peter previous to his election as Pope is obscure ; and it is not possible to say exactly in what year he was ordained or in what year he became a monk. With regard to the latter event, we know at least that it took place before the year 1251, 3 and we know further that he was received into the Benedictine Order in the abbey of Our Lady of Faysolis (or in Faivolis).

Finding that his solitude which he loved so much was to too much disturbed on Monte Morrone, as it was comparatively near a town, Peter retired to the still more inaccessible range of the Majella. He was certainly there by the year 1256.

Even here men followed him, and a number of them The put themselves under his direction. The Celestine  congregation was born.  With some strict interpretation Celestine, the Saint placed his followers under the rule of St. Benedict which he had himself embraced; for, say his biographers, it was the will of God that this rule, which many had trampled in the mud, should be brought to light by these His new servants.  As the number of his disciples increased rapidly, brother Peter had to seek out suitable places in which they could live; and when they were established in their new homes, he used to visit them frequently, in order, we are told, to strengthen their weakness and to encourage them to bear their poverty by his words and example. These, indeed, were the two things that had drawn attraction of ° Bro. Peter, them to him — the sight of his austere life, and the irresistible sweetness of his words and manner. His disciples and tell us at length of his love of prayer, how he spent much of the night as well as of the day praying, how the devotion with which he said Mass inflamed the piety of the bystanders, and how he recited the Divine Office on his knees with the greatest fervor  His austerities were rigorous. He brought his body into subjection by hairshirts, knotted leather girdles, and even iron chains. When his exhausted frame could no longer stand or kneel he lay down on boards in a cramped position, with a stone or a block of wood for a pillow, and, in the bitter winter on an exposed mountain, with coverings utterly insufficient to keep out the cold.  At no time did he eat more than was barely enough to support life. Often the bread that he ate was so stale and hard that it had to be broken with a hammer, and during the four or six “Lents” which, he kept every year, he often ate only twice a week, and then took nothing but bread and water. Sometimes he even went without bread, and took but some raw vegetables and apples.

On Sundays and festivals, he and his disciples partook of cooked vegetables flavored with poor oil; but, as far as he himself was concerned, he generally ate the vegetables without any kind of flavoring  When not occupied in prayer, he was always engaged in reading or in some kind of manual work. He was never idle. If he was not engaged with visitors he was either reading the Bible or some pious book, or copying or binding books, or making or mending his own poor coarse clothing, or that of the brethren. He knew that idleness was the source of all evil.  Except during his “Lents ” his time was very largely taken up in receiving people who came to see him from all parts. All sorts and conditions of men flocked to him. The fame of his goodness and sanctity, of his miraculous powers, and of his engaging manners  drew both men and women to him in the hope of getting health of body or consolation for their stricken spirits. Not only did kings and nobles come to consult him, but even the clerics and what is the greatest miracle of all, many men of evil life were converted as soon as they came in contact with him. In fact, we are assured that no matter how dissolute some of those who visited him might be, they all left him better men.

Part 2  The Spiritual Father of Many

Brother Peters Love was not limited to those who sought him out for spiritual advice.  He had the greatest love and care for the poor, and, though none so poor as he, he was able to help them with money that was given to him, and by the effect which his words had with the rich and powerful whom he ever urged to greater regard for the poor. The poor got alms from Brother Peter, the sick health, the perplexed advice, and the sorrowful comfort, his time and attention were largely absorbed by the crowds that flocked to him for these blessings. But over and above these lesser worries, his ever-growing congregation gave him much more concern. From his first house of St. Maria del Morrone, and especially from his second of St. Spirito di Majella, his religious family began to spread steadily.  The Saint’s congregation had spread over Italy.  In the lifetime of its founder, brother Peter’s Order counted thirty-six monasteries and six hundred monks.

It must be confessed, however, that the Order of St. Damian,  or, as it was afterwards called, that of the Celestines, was not a great asset to the Church. After the effect of brother Peter’s personal example had worn off, the Order began to decay steadily. It has been pointed out that he made no definite regulation about the regular practice of mental prayer, nor about the reception of novices, nor about study. Hence, though the various houses were dependent on the abbot-general of the monastery of the Holy Ghost on Monte Morrone, they were independent of one another, and often small, unfit subjects were very frequently received, and at length profound ignorance even of the proper principles of the spiritual life became manifest among considerable numbers of the brethren of the Order. Despite the efforts of St. Robert Bellarmine, who became Protector of the Order in 1666, to reform it, disunion and corruption led to its suppression in France in 1766, and to its entire extinction in the course of the following few decades.

The first Pope who was brought into contact with the new congregation was Urban IV. In accordance with the new a request which had been laid before him on behalf of the Order. he commissioned the Ordinary Nicholas, to incorporate them with the Benedictine Order, without prejudice to the rights of any one, seeing that at present, he wrote, they are not subject to any Order whatsoever.

Wherever the Saint retired, men followed him; and, whether he wished it or not, kept him in touch with the things of the world. Thus he learnt of the great council which Pope Gregory X. had summoned, and also of his intention to suppress a number of Orders that had been recently started. In fear for his own Order, Bro. Peter with two companions walked all the way to Lyons where the council was to be held. Like other men, Gregory fell under the charm of the simple monk; and, to Peter’s great satisfaction, readily confirmed his adaptation of St. Benedict’s rule.  Protected from robbers by snakes and by an angel in the guise of a beautiful horseman,  the Saint and his companions returned in safety to his monks.

Soon after his return to the Majella, Peter was called to become abbot of the monastery of St. Maria in Faysolis in, which he had received the Benedictine habit. The  monastery had fallen into complete decay. Its buildings and finances were ruined. After the Monastery had been handed over to brother Peter, it began to revive, and, before he left it, its possessions had been recovered, over forty monks were in residence, and he had made accommodation for sixty in about 2 years time before returning  to solitude.

Though the affairs of his  of his Order, however, soon called him forth monasteries again before the eyes of his fellow men.When the rumour that Gregory X. intended to suppress newly-founded religious Orders took Peter to Lyons, a number of bishops who had monasteries of his Order in their dioceses promptly declared that it had been suppressed, and laid hands on its property. However, on his return with a papal bull of approval, the bishops “with very great shame ” restored what they had seized, and most of them, moreover, ceased to worry the monks as they had done before. The Bishop of Chieti, however, was an exception, and ” so persecuted the servants of God ” that, in preparation for moving out of his diocese, they sent elsewhere their bells which they had got from Venice, their books and other properties. When, however, he was taken ill, he expressed his sorrow to Bro. Peter for the treatment he had meted out to him and his monks, and by way of satisfaction, exempted the monasteries of the new Order from episcopal jurisdiction.

Br. Peter became much occupied with a Fraternity or sort of ” Third Order ” which he established. This he founded for those who could not take the religious habit, but desired to be connected with his Order. Its members had to say every day a certain number of Our Fathers ” for the living and for the dead “, to keep from grievous sin, to give alms, to love each other, looking after one another in sickness, helping their poorer brethren, and practicing the works of mercy as far as they could. This society rapidly spread everywhere, and in some places soon counted a thousand members. Bro. Peter had retired from one place to another seeking out retreats where he could not be disturbed.

Finding, however, that the people would come to him, winter or summer, wherever he went, he decided to return to Monte Morrone, in order, says his biographer, that they might have more easy access to him. He caused a cell (St. Onofrio) to be built by a cave on an old fort (cast rum), a half a mile from the monastery of the Holy Ghost. When he came to this new abode, he was received, we are told, ” like Christ come down from heaven,” by the whole countryside (June, 1293). Here he remained for thirteen months, till the day he left it as Pope (July, 1294)

 Part III The New Pope

When Brother Peter had been duly elected Pope, the formal election decree was at once drawn up and signed by all the cardinals (July 5, 1294). But, no sooner was this done, and the excitement of the extraordinary moment had passed away, than the cardinals began to regret their impulsiveness.

News of the wondrous event had, of course, already reached the whole neighborhood  and Brother Peter himself. Everyone, say his disciples, was filled with joy at the news, except the hermit. He was in despair, and could not rid himself of his distress day or night. He called together his brethren, and told them that he could never accept the dignity. They, however, declared that schism would follow if he did not. ” This selection,” they argued, ” has been brought about not by you, but by God. If you refuse to accept it, you are going against the will of God.”

He accordingly resolved to fly with a single companion. But the people of the district, knowing his humility and fearing he would attempt flight, watched him day and night. He could do nothing but await the course of events, dreading on the one hand to act against the will of God, and on the other to be unable to benefit the Church.  Kings and Envoys sent from different kingdoms arrived on the slopes to put immediate pressure on the new Pope as well.

Brother Peter had found in the soft rock a cave close by a well of water.  Here, where in the summer no sound is heard but the scream of the hawk, and in the winter none but the howl of the wolf, he had already lived for more than a year, when he was called to his iron-grated window to receive kings and bishops.

Whilst, with the sweat pouring from them, the kings and envoys were toiling up the narrow track which led to the hermit’s cell.  It is not difficult to imagine the curiosity with which Colonna and the delegates peered through the window of the little cell to see what sort of a man was the new Pope, or their wonder at what they saw. Behind the bars stood a man evidently of very great age, seemingly dazed at the sight of the dignified throng before him, and by the knowledge of the errand on which they had come. Bearded was he, and pale, with cheeks and limbs emaciated by long fasts, and with the lids of his dark eyes swollen with much weeping. Yet with all this, and with his stiff coarse garments, he was venerable; for his form and features, dress and dwelling, all bespoke the Saint.

Uncovering their heads, all present bent their knees before the pious recluse, while he in turn bowed down to accept the the earth before his visitors. Then the archbishop of Lyons told him that he had been unanimously elected Pope, handed him the decree of election, and implored him to undertake the ruling of the Church. After cardinal Colonna had added a few words of his own, brother Peter, receiving the election decree, begged the delegates to add their prayers to his that God would enlighten him as to what reply he should make. For a time he prayed prostrate on the ground, and then quietly told his hearers that he bowed to the wishes of the Sacred College and accepted the dignity of the Papacy. For the sake of his own peace of mind, he concluded, he would not allow the Church of Rome to suffer further wrongs.  Straightway the assembled company hailed him as Pope, kissed his feet, and received in turn the kiss of peace. Meanwhile the mountain was alive with people swarming up its steep sides to gaze on the new Pope. Toiling up the steep slopes under the blazing July sun might be seen bishops and clergy, nobles and peasants.  The new Pope left his cell, and came down the mountain to the monastery of the Holy Ghost.  There he remained a few days, and then prepared to leave it, in order to be consecrated and crowned. To judge from the narrative of his disciples, he had naturally thought of going to Rome to be enthroned.  But that was not to the mind of Charles II., and perhaps it is not to be wondered at that the mind of the King should impress itself on that of the new Pope. If brother Peter was never “the keeper of the King’s conscience “,  he was very friendly with him,  and must have been very well disposed towards him for what, certainly up to this, had been his disinterested kindness to him, and interest in his Order. At any rate, subsequent events seem clearly to prove that, in his utter ignorance of the ways of the world and of affairs of state, he put himself completely in the hands of King Charles and his lay lawyers. The members of his Order, too, did the same, as they feared that, if power again came into the hands of the College of Cardinals, they would suppress them. Accordingly, both the King and the monks persuaded the Pope that at his age he should not travel to Rome in the summer, and that he should be consecrated at Aquila instead. A letter, therefore, to that effect was dispatched to the cardinals.

Without waiting for the cardinals’ reply to his letter, the Pope decided to go to Aquila. King Charles, accordingly, sent word that the Pope and he were about to proceed to that city, and that, therefore, especially in view of the fact that people would crowd to it from every quarter to see the new Pope, he must look to it that there was an abundant supply of the necessities of life.

Despite the protests of the two kings and the great ones in the Church and State “who take delight in fine horses “, the Pope insisted on riding on an ass. Some regarded such an act as derogatory to the Papacy, though it was a profitable example to some priests and bishops.   At any rate, the Pope had his own way, he entered Aquila on the 27th, with a King on each side of him leading his ass, and accompanied by three cardinals, ” counts, barons, and a countless number of people.” The  reply to his letter now reached him from the cardinals  a. They pointed out that it was not desirable for the Roman Curia to go into the kingdom of Naples and begged him not to give ear to men who were working simply for their own ends.  Further, the bishop of Orvieto, in the name of the cardinals, begged the Pope to come at least into papal territory if the journey to Perugia was too much for him. Finally, as a last resort, the cardinals even besought the King, by all that he and his father owed to the Holy See, to support their petition.

Deceived, however, by those around him , the simple Pope would not listen to the cardinals’ reasons, but renewed his declaration that he would be crowned at Aquila, and requested the cardinals to send him the papal insignia.

As soon as the red mantle and the other papal insignia reached him, they were conferred by cardinal Orsini on the new Pope, who thereupon took the name of Celestine. Clad now in all the state that became his high office, he received the solemn homage of bishops and priests, kings and nobles, and imparted over and over again his solemn benediction to the assembled people.

In and around this Church on the Feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist (Aug. 29) in the year 1294 stood some two hundred thousand people of whom Ptolemy of Lucca was one. 1 They had come from every hill town to this solitary little plateau to see their well-beloved saint and countryman raised to the highest throne on earth.  After the ceremony in the Church, Celestine mounted a platform which had been erected outside it from which he could give his blessing to the expectant thousands. Thence, this time on a white horse, he returned amidst the joyous acclamations of the multitude to the city, in order to hold the traditional banquet.

Saint Celestine tried to lead his old style of life despite being a far way from his hermitage. A contemporary poet, Francesco da Baberino, a man in his day (1264-1348) well known in royal courts, lets us know of what magnificence were Celestine’s ordinary banquets. He tells us that he saw him walking about in his room munching a piece of dry bread whilst a monk from a little pitcher of wine gave him to drink. And he heard him say, as his mother had been wont to tell him, that eating and drinking in that manner was the most enjoyable way in the world to eat and drink. He was also wont to say to his monks: But for you I would not be Pope. Asked why, he replied: It is a greater annoyance to me to command than it was a pleasure to do everything for myself.

 Part 4 A Rough Start.

A few days after his consecration, Celestine announced his election to the Catholic world, writing among others to King Edward of England. After emphatically calling attention to the inscrutable ways of God, and to the unfortunate delay in the election of a successor to Nicholas IV., he told how the cardinals were suddenly moved to elect him. Although he knew that the burden that had been put upon him was far too heavy for his weak shoulders, especially as for a very great length of time he had been leading the life of a hermit, he had accepted it, as he knew that a longer vacancy of the Holy See would be most detrimental to the Church. He also feared resisting the call of God, trusting that the Almighty would help his inexperience. Meanwhile he urged Edward to reign with justice, to work for the peace of his people and surrounding nations, promising him that he would do all he could to promote his interests.

Among the many letters of congratulation which the Letter of new Pope received one has come down to us. It was from the Archbishop of York. sent by Romanus, archbishop of York, a man who had been in favor with five Popes from Innocent IV. to Nicholas IV. Addressing his father and lord in Christ, subscribing himself the Pope’s lowly servant, and professing his complete subjection to him, he told him how the Church at large was rejoicing at the close of the long vacancy of the chief See, and how much that joy was shared by the Church of York, directly dependent as it was on the Roman Church. Praying God to grant the Pope a long and happy life, he begged him to give a favorable reception to his proctors.

Unfortunately, as a rule, neither one’s own prayers, nor those of others will make up for want of training, and Celestine had had no manner of education for the post he was called upon to fill. Despite anything that could be done by his more serious and conscientious advisers, Celestine was misled by his monks, more well-meaning than well-informed, and deliberately deceived by many who were bent solely on advancing their own interests by any means. With the place and favor seekers, with the benefice hunters, and with all that tribe, many officials of the papal chancellery cooperated for gain. They sold documents drawn up in due form and sealed which could be filled in as the purchasers desired. Although this last fact is not mentioned by the Saint’s disciple, he does tell us that ” cardinals and prelates . . . kings and magnates began to ask the Pope for benefices and fiefs (beneficia) , churches, and prebends. And he, inasmuch as he was simple and straight, generously granted all their requests “.

The more spiritually minded, such as many of his monks and laymen, sought spiritual favors  It was noised abroad that he had granted a plenary indulgence to all who had assisted at his consecration. Accordingly crowds flocked to Aquila from all parts, anxious ” to drink from the fountain ” of mercy which Celestine had caused to flow, and so “on the octave of his coronation he granted a similar indulgence “. Then, adds his disciple, when he reflected how the rich ceased not to beg from him temporal goods, he bethought him how he might grant spiritual goods to the poor. He, therefore, granted a plenary indulgence to all who should visit the Church of St. Maria di Collemaggio on the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. This indulgence never became operative, as it was revoked by Boniface, who ordered the Celestines to hand over to him the bull granting it. In a word, to cite the conclusion of the famous contemporary canonist, Joannes Andreas, “He acted like an animal that lacks the light of reason (unum pecus). He would grant a favor in the morning, and in the evening recall it, and grant it to another.”

By degrees it must have filtered into the mind even of such a simple soul as Celestine that this wholesale concession of favors of every kind could not be quite in order. Before he resigned, this had become clear to him, and so, on the day of his resignation, he told the assembled cardinals that ” of the many things he had done, he would like to undo those that he had not done well, but that, as he could not be sure which those were, he left it to his successor to decide the question.” Creation of Another disastrously unwise act was his creation of cardinals. He did well in creating cardinals and in creating twelve at once. Indeed, he would have done better if he had created four or five times that number. But circumstances spoilt his otherwise useful act. Celestine’s disciple tells us that he made the new cardinals because the Church was not well served (disposita) by the existing ones, and that those he created were among the best men that were to be found. He does not, however, tell us what other historians do, i.e., that they were chosen for him, for the most part at least, by King Charles. But even if other contemporaries had been as silent on the subject as Celestine’s disciple, the list of the new cardinals’ names would have spoken for itself.

Speaking generally, the new cardinals were at any rate a body of estimable men; though, to judge from the fact that seven of them died in the course of the five years following their election, they would appear to have been advanced in age. Then the Sacred College was called together suddenly on Friday, Sept. 17, and the names were so sprung upon them that they could do nothing but accept them. The whole twelve were thereupon solemnly acclaimed on the following day. Whatever truth there may be in these details, it is made certain that the twelve were proclaimed on Sept. 18, and that one of them, the Celestine Ronci, died on Oct. 13. Then, says the author of the Golden Legend, the Pope who, in the plenitude of his power, had made twelve cardinals, in the plenitude of his simplicity made another” in the same way as he had made the others — irregularly and at the suggestion of another. This thirteenth cardinal was of a very indifferent character, John of Castrocceli, the archbishop of Benevento, who became cardinal- priest of St. Vitalis. One reason, perhaps, why Celestine made one mistake after another was that, though not altogether ignorant, he was in awe of the Sacred College, and so presumably did not consult them much ; and, though not without some skill in speaking, he would only address them simply in his mother tongue, and not in Latin, and would never himself make a public reply to any important question. No doubt, too, the relations between him and the older cardinals, especially, must have gone from bad to worse as they saw him, without or contrary to their advice, doing one imprudent thing after another. They had been particularly annoyed at the promotion of John of Castrocceli. They had seen how, to ingratiate himself with Celestine, he, Benedictine as he was, had put off his black habit and had clothed himself with that of the Pope’s Order. Then, too, he had been given the hat after dinner (post cenam) in Celestine’s private residence in Aquila. At first some of the cardinals refused to sit with him. But, says his biographer, ” patience made the Pope great.” It was finally agreed to hold an inquiry into the custom regarding such appointments, and that meanwhile John should cease to wear the cardinal’s hat. After a brief inquiry, the cardinals ” rehabilitated the man “, partly, says our poet, from fear, and partly ” from a secret hope “—a hope, perhaps, that the Pope would soon resign, or perhaps more probably that the schemer would not long enjoy his honors  At any rate the ambitious man did not enjoy them long, as he died within a few months after he had received them.

Finally, in view certainly of his contemplated resignation of the Papacy, and to take away every chance of the cardinals being able to find a subterfuge for evading the conclave, Celestine issued another decision on the subject a few days before his resignation. He decreed that the conclave regulations were to hold good for ever and whether the Papacy became vacant by death, resignation, or any other way.

Despite the helplessness of the Pope, much of the work of the Church went on as usual through the instrumentality of the cardinals and the permanent officials.

Part 5 Politics as Usual

Bitter rumors of quarrels between the Kings of England and France, as well as preparations for war had wrung the heart of the Pope. He feared the gravest losses for the souls and bodies of many, and disasters for both realms and the Holy Land. He was anxious indeed that all Christian princes should live in peace, but especially that the Kings of England and France should remain at peace, as Mother Church is specially attached to them. Accordingly, he decided to send suitable persons to them to try to restore concord. “Would that we ourselves could go to you, and, putting aside all other business, thus give proof of our earnest desire for peace. But the length of the journey and our advanced age will not permit this.” He then exhorts Edward to avoid actions which will hurt the Church that had done so much for him and his predecessors. It would be hateful in the sight of God and man if violent dissensions should break out between princes so nearly related in blood. He begs him as “a soldier of Christ, a zealous supporter of the true faith, an earnest champion of the Church,” to abstain from acts which will cause such a conflagration that it will be well nigh impossible to find a remedy. “ So, therefore, devoutly incline your ears to our words, and hearken to the prayers of the Apostolic See, that you may not offend God, nay rather that you may please Him by your filial devotion, and may henceforth win His blessing more fully and that of the Apostolic See.” As the bearer of his letter, he sends Bertrand canon of Lyons, our chaplain, and Edward’s ardent partisan. He will give the King further evidence of the Pope’s mind.

Celestine did all he could to further the cause of peace among Christian Princes, especially seeing that, he was anxious about the expulsion of the infidel from the Holy Land. He was accordingly overjoyed at the prospect of the close of the Sicilian trouble, and accepted at once the treaty which had been made between the Kings of Sicily (Naples) and Aragon. Writing to Charles II. on October 1, he praised him for his unsparing efforts to make peace with James of Aragon, and for his success in having made it. As the treaty between them, he said, concerned the Roman Church, he enumerated and confirmed its terms.

On the following day (Oct. 2), and here again is manifest the paramount influence of Charles in the Papal Curia, Celestine, with regrets certainly, granted him for a year the ” Saracen ” tithes from France and England to help him recover Sicily. These were granted on the ground that its recovery would be of the greatest service to the Crusades on account of its neighborhood to the Holy Land, its fertility, and its possession of all the materials useful for war.

A few days later he wrote to the Kings of France and Aragon urging them to put no obstacles in the way of the final conclusion of the peace, and taking advantage of the opportunity to exhort James to break off his illicit connection with the daughter of the King of Castile. But even if Celestine was beguiled into doing many unwise things, his personal sanctity was still working wonders. It subdued the indomitable Guido of Montefeltro. On account of his continual active hostility to the subjects of the Church, he had again been excommunicated by Pope Nicholas IV. Hitherto he had paid no heed to the censure. Now, however, he presented himself before Celestine, and, professing his sorrow and readiness to make satisfaction, begged absolution from him. The Pope received him most kindly, and promised that he should be duly absolved. But, before the formalities had been completed, he had ceased to be Pope. This, however, was one of his undertakings which Pope Boniface his successor did not annul. Guido was duly absolved by him, and began his life of exemplary penance.

During this unhappy period the needs of the states of the of the Church were not forgotten. In the days of Martin IV., the twelve consuls of Benevento, unmindful of their recognized powers, aspired to the supreme control of the city. As a result, the Pope suppressed them altogether. But, taking advantage of the long vacancy of the Holy See, the people re-elected their twelve consuls. However, they brought down upon themselves a severe reprimand from Celestine. He annulled their election, and severely prohibited them from again choosing consuls.

Let it not be misunderstood that St Celestine V was not a tremendously effective ruler during a time that the Popes had great political and temporal power. One of the first acts of Boniface his successor was to undo all of the work which St Celestine had done during his pontificate, only later to have to reinstate certain things that he had done well despite his short pontificate.

Part 6 Saint Celestine V Resigns

When St. Celestine arrived in Naples, he was lodged in the Castel Nuovo. In one of its great halls, the Pope ordered a wooden hut to be constructed, and decided to remain in it alone, as he had done in the past.  But however he might wish to be alone, he was not hidden because, like the ostrich, he had only buried his head in the sand. King Charles could still get at him and persuade him to do as he wanted.   However, Celestine did contrive to remain at peace in his cell, and to find time to think over the many situations in the Church.

In the retirement of his cell, Celestine began to realize that he could not defend himself. He could not understand the language of those around him, even less the questions of law and politics that were brought before him. He began to wonder if there was a way he could step down from the burden he was bearing without danger to his soul.

Among the very few books that he had ever possessed was a little compendium of Canon Law. After consulting this, Celestine came to the conclusion that if, for good reasons, other clerics could lay down their office, so, too, could a Pope. However, having no superior into whose hands he could resign his office, was not quite sure. He then asked a friend who did agree that a Pope could resign for a suitable cause, and was of opinion that to resume one’s former mode of life was reason enough. For greater security, he consulted a second friend, who confirmed the first, and thus Celestine made up his mind. He would resign. With his mind now made up ‘ Celestine consulted some cardinals regarding his resignation. Of these, one was naturally cardinal Benedict Gaetani, who was acknowledged generally to be the most learned of his brethren, and who, even by Celestine’s disciples, is called ” the wisest and most upright cardinal of his time “,  Benedict assured him that it was permissible, and even adduced instances of some Popes who had already done so. He gave him the only answer that reason and common sense, informed by the records of history, could have given. If, however, cardinal Benedict correctly assured the Pope that he could resign, he urged him not to do so, protesting that his sanctity would suffice to instruct and enlighten the Sacred College.

Word of Celestine’s intention to resign spread. When his monks found out,they tried earnestly to divert him from his purpose. His “rustic crowd” implored him not to abandon them, his “untutored flock.” They feared being classed as heretics by some of the cardinals. The monks stirred up the people of Naples and by the command of the King, a great procession in which were to be seen many bishops of the neighborhood  with all the religious and priests, made its way from the Cathedral to the Castel Nuovo. Arrived at the Castel, appeal was made by it “in the usual way ” for the Pope’s blessing. Showing himself with three bishops at one of the windows, Celestine duly blessed the assembled multitude. He then listened to an address from one of the bishops of the procession, who in a voice so trumpet-like that it was heard by all the people in the square, begged the Pope in the name of King, clergy, and people, not to consent to resign “as he was the glory of their kingdom “. To this one of his attendant bishops gave, in the Pope’s name, an ambiguous answer. Supposing that his petition had been granted, the King’s orator intoned the Te Deum, which was taken up by the whole procession. This took place about the feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6).

As a result of the agitation of the Pope’s monks, a disorderly mob had broken into the Castel and made the same request that was afterwards made in form by the organized body of the clergy of the city.  Celestine summoned the whole body of the cardinals a day or two after the dismissal of the mob. When he had put before them his previous mode of life, he asked them whether old age, formed habits, ignorance of Latin, or of polished speech, limited intelligence, experience, and training were not reasons enough to justify his resignation. Though the cardinals could not but agree that the reasons adduced were sufficient to justify resignation,  they urged him to test his powers, and to remain in office for a time longer, and meanwhile, refraining from following bad advice, to pray himself and order prayers to ascertain the will of God for the good of the world.

Public prayers were accordingly ordered, and for some eight days Celestine so acted as to allay all suspicion  that he still entertained any idea of resigning. Meanwhile, however, with the aid of cardinal Gaetani, he drew up a deed of renunciation. The cardinals were ordered to meet the Pope on the feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 13). Swinging open the very door which still gives entrance into this magnificent apartment, they found the Pope seated on his throne in full pontificals. When he had signified that he did not wish any interruption, Celestine suddenly produced the deed of renunciation which, with pale face, he read out clearly to the assembled fathers. He told them that of his own accord and free will, he resigned the papacy, as his age and other defects rendered him incapable of fulfilling its duties, and he wished to put an end to further disasters, and to attend to his soul’s salvation. He then exhorted the cardinals to show their care for the world by electing a worthy pastor who would lead the flock to pastures abundant and fresh, and who would correct the many mistakes he had made. Then, to the profound astonishment of the cardinals in front of him, straightway descending from the throne, he took off, one after another, the insignia of the papacy — his mitre with its crown, the red mantle, the ring, and the other pontificalia, even to the alb.  All this he did with every sign of joy. If he took the chair of Peter with sorrow, he left it with gladness.

He then withdrew, and returned wearing the simple garb of his Order, and taking the lowest step on the throne, said “Behold, my brethren, I have resigned the honor of the Papacy; and 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 for it, for the whole human race, and for the Holy Land.”  When he had said this, he rose to go, but the cardinals who had not been able with dry eyes  to look at this scene so touching in its simple humility, entreated him not to leave them until he had duly provided for the future.

To put the situation in order, it would be well if he would decree that a Pope could resign, and that the cardinals could accept such resignation. A decree to that effect was accordingly at once drawn up, and signed, and afterwards inserted by Boniface VIII. in his Liber Sextus of the Canon Law.

Celestine’s best deed was his self-sacrificing acceptance of the papacy, thereby putting an end to its disastrous vacancy, and his second best act was his humble resignation of it, whereby he saved himself from inflicting irreparable harm on it and the Church.

 Part 7 Pope Boniface VIII is Elected as his Successor : Brother Peter Runs away

Shortly after the resignation of Saint Celestine, Pope Boniface the VIII was elected.  Though St Celestine wanted to retire and resume his former mode of life according to the disciples of St Celestine, Pope Boniface had other designs in his regard, and said that he did not wish him to return to his cell, but that he should accompany him into Campania. They even insinuate that Boniface began to bully the saint.  The fact merely was that no one better than the new Pope understood how simple Peter was, and how liable he was to be influenced by those in whom he trusted. He naturally feared that designing men who hoped everything from Peter de Morrone might succeed in persuading him that he could not resign the Papacy, and so that, especially in view of his popularity with the multitude, a dangerous schism might be brought about. He was aware that many had disapproved of Celestine’s renunciation,  and so he judged it better to keep him under his eye.

Peter’s subsequent conduct showed how well founded were the suspicions of Boniface. The new Pope had naturally decided to leave Naples as soon as possible, 1295 and to go to Rome. Bidding Peter accompany him, he left Naples perhaps before December was out, but, at any rate, in the beginning of January, 2 1295, as he reached Rome on January 17.  Having told Peter to journey in his company, Boniface presumed that he would do so, and evidently did not order any very strict watch to be kept over him. Meanwhile, however, Peter had allowed himself to be influenced by those around him. They had put all kinds of ideas into his mind as to what Boniface intended to do with him. Among other things they said that he was taking him into Campania to imprison him there.  Arguing that he had only resigned in order that he might be able to lead the same sort of life as he had done before his election, Peter decided to return to it, despite anybody. He had left with quite a large company, including his former disciple, Angelarius, Abbot of Mt. Cassino. When, however, he reached San Germano, he quickly, with the aid of a priest, slipped away, and returned to his cell on Mt. Morrone amidst the greatest manifestations of joy on the part of the people of all the country around.

On hearing of his secret departure, Boniface was perturbed, and justly annoyed. He feared that the simple monk had been induced to resume the Papacy.  He, accordingly, straightway dispatched his chamberlain, Theodoric of Orvieto, and the abbot of Monte Cassino to seek him. They had no difficulty in tracking him to his cell, where they found him giving thanks to God that He had brought him back there. They upbraided him for having gone off without the Pope’s permission, and bade him return at once lest Boniface should be angry with him. Peter, however, replied by pointing out that he had resigned in order to be able to return to his former mode of life, and he begged the Pope’s messengers to entreat him to allow him to end his life in solitude as he had begun it. He undertook, moreover, not to speak to anyone but to his monks. Extracting a promise from him that he would not leave his cell till they should return with the Pope’s answer, the messengers departed.

On their return journey, they were met by another papal messenger, who informed them that they were to bring Peter back with them whether he wanted to come or not. Before the chamberlain could retrace his steps, word of his errand had reached the hermit ; so that when the messenger reached the cell, Peter was not to be found. It was to no purpose that the chamberlain scoured the country, uttered threats and offered rewards. Peter’s hiding place was not to be discovered. However, the irate official seized the two monks whom he found in the hermit’s cell. But, as one was too ill to travel, he carried off the other, Presumed to be privy to Peter’s flight, the unfortunate monk was imprisoned in the rocky islet of Martana, one of the two little islands in lake Bolsena. Here he died in a few days.

Meanwhile, Saint Celestine was making his way to ” a certain wood in Apulia in which there were a number of good servants of God “, and which was about four days’ journey from his cell. Though clad “in a most vile cloak “, he was, we are told, everywhere recognized as he walked along, even by people who had never seen him before. In the wood he remained concealed till Palm Sunday (March 27), but when on that day a Benedictine Abbot, searching for him, passed through the wood, Peter resolved to fly across the sea to Greece.  Some of his monks, accordingly, engaged some sailors of Rodi, on the coast below the northern slopes of Mt. Gargano, to convey him across the Adriatic. For five or six weeks, however, storms and contrary winds prevented their putting to sea, and when, at last, they sailed out they were driven back, and had to come ashore close to Viesti only fifteen miles from Rodi round the promontory.

Again, for several days, the sailors were unable to launch their boat, and word reached ” the Captain” of Viesti that the ex-Pope was in the neighbourhood. Overjoyed at the news, the Captain, seized him, and at once sent word to the Pope and to the King of Naples and his officials regarding his capture.

Saint Celestines disciples tell us on the one hand that “those good lords “, the King’s Commissioners, treated Peter with as much deference as if he were still Pope,  and on the other hand that ” many men ” were constantly urging him to reclaim the Papacy, as he had no legal right to renounce it. “All men were on his side.”  But, adds the biographer, I myself heard him reply : “Far be it from me to cause dissension in the Church. I did not give up the Papacy to take it back again ; and I am still of the same mind come what may.”  So great were the number of the Saint’s admirers who came to salute him on his journey, that at length his escort had to insist on travelling by night. By night also was he brought secretly into where the Pope was residing, and lodged close to him.  The next day he was brought before Boniface, and it was decided by the Pope that Saint Celestine should be kept in safe confinement. He was, therefore, after being retained two months, whilst such a place was being prepared, conveyed by night to the castle on Monte Fumone, some eight miles above Ferentino.  The little town of Fumone, standing on a round, stony isolated hill, and commanding the whole district, forms, like the Italian hill-towns generally, as it were a large fortress, with its castello as a sort of citadel in its centre. It was in a very small room in this castle that the ex-Pope was confined (c. August, 1295). When he saw it, he gave thanks to God, exclaiming : “I have longed for a cell and a cell I have got.”  At his request, two of his brethren, with whom he could recite the divine office, were allowed to remain with him. At first, they had to be changed frequently, as they could not endure the close confinement. But at length two stronger ones were found who remained with him till his death, which took place some ten months after his arrival.  Though it is true that in brother Peter’s cell there was barely room to turn, we are assured that he never made any complaint about it,  and it may certainly be said that, to say the least of it, it was no worse than his cell on Mt. Morrone. Hence it is, that though Peter’s cell was so narrow, and though no one was allowed to converse with him or his two companions, still contemporary historians, as a body, assert that he was treated with consideration.  Death came in ten months, brother Peter bore his confinement without any inconvenience.

Part 8 The Holy Death of Saint Celestine V

St Celestine now in his 80’s had already long outlived the allotted span of human life, and God now thought fit to bring his sixty-five years of penance to a close. The Saint’s disciples narrate how, after he had celebrated with great devotion the feast of Pentecost (May 13), for which he had prepared himself by special prayers and fasts, he fell ill before the day had expired. A doctor was sent for at once, but he declared that there was no hope. The Saint was suffering from an abscess in his right side which gave him great pain. Predicting his death to his brethren, he received the last sacraments, and bade his companions disturb him as little as possible  so that he could devote all his thoughts to preparing for his last end. After lying thus for a week, he died on the Saturday, at the hour of vespers, just as he said the words : ” Let every spirit praise the Lord ” of the psalm : ” Laudate Dominum in Sanctis suis ” (May 19, 1296).

From the day before till the hour of his death, soldiers on guard declared to Pope Boniface and everybody that they had seen a golden cross suspended in the air in front of his room.  The disciples add that by this miracle the Almighty wished to show that He was pleased with the way in which His servant had for so many years borne the cross of penance. They also state that the brothers who were with the dying Saint were so much concerned with his state that they had no wish to leave his room in order to see the shining cross.

This apparition of a luminous cross is given as miraculous in the bull of Celestine’s canonization,  Another somewhat different account was also given by several others these men asserted that before the death of the Saint there had appeared before the door of his room a ball of fire which gradually formed itself into a cross of a golden color  and remained suspended in the air for more than an hour.

Word of the Saint’s death was immediately sent to Rome, and, though the disciples themselves assure us that Boniface showed signs of grief at the news, they, in some way best known to themselves, concluded that he was ” exceedingly rejoiced ” at it.  At any rate, the Pope straightway dispatched to Mt. Fumone, cardinal Thomas and his chamberlain, Theoderic, with orders that all honor should be paid to the body of the one-time Pope. Meanwhile, he himself with great solemnity sang Mass in St. Peter’s for the repose of his soul.

St Celestine V had not been long dead when an agitation began for his formal canonization.  It was taken up by princes and people alike. At length on May 5, 1313, Pope Clement V., preached on the saintly life of Peter of Morrone ; and afterwards, on the same day, issued the bull ” Qui facit magna “, by which, ” relying on the power of Almighty God, and on the authority of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and on our own, we decide that he (Peter of Morrone) is to be enrolled in the Catalogue of the Saints.


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