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Peter Celestine

(1210—1296)


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(1210–96),

monk and founder of the Celestine Order and pope. As the only pope in history who voluntarily abdicated, at the age of over eighty and after a reign of only a few months, he has a unique place in the history of the papacy. The eleventh child of a peasant family, born at Isernia, Peter of Morrone was intelligent and devout, became a hermit in the mountains, was ordained priest, and then resumed his eremitical life, this time under Benedictine patronage from Faizola and eventually on Monte Majella. Several times his solitude had been interrupted by others who wished him to be their guide and ruler; in the end he agreed to be abbot of a monastery of hermits at Monte Morone, where the life was based on the Rule of St Benedict, but also encouraged the practice of solitary life. There he lived for about forty years, obtaining approval for his Order, called the Celestines, in 1274. He was widely revered and had some contact with the Franciscan Spirituals and the movements which looked for inspiration in the writings of Joachim of Fiore. In 1294, because of a complete deadlock in the election by the cardinals of a successor to Nicholas IV which resulted in a very long vacancy, Peter, then in charge of twenty monasteries, sent them a message threatening them with divine retribution if they continued to endanger the state of the Church by further delay. To end the deadlock, they chose Peter himself as the new pope (Celestine V).

Immediate acclaim greeted this holy and unworldly abbot as he rode on a donkey to L'Aquila flanked by the kings of Hungary and Naples. But his reign was a disaster. His simplicity, his ignorance of canon law, and his desire to please all and give offence to none were exploited by the king of Naples, who persuaded him to live in his own city, to create thirteen new cardinals in the interests of Naples and France, and to make a number of unsuitable appointments. Indeed he sometimes bestowed the same benefice several times on different candidates. Completely unworldly, he gave away treasure and positions of influence for which he had no use himself, regardless of the difficult political situation in which Christian rulers were at war with each other and each looked for support from the successor of St Peter, who had rights of intervention and arbitration. As Advent came, Peter, miserable with the cares of office and the confusion and disorder which his own actions had caused, decided to retire into complete solitude, asking for a cell to be made inside the palace. Warned that his plan of leaving the rule of the Church to three cardinals could result in the appearance of three rival popes, he consulted the able canonist cardinal Gaetani about the possibility and the legality of his resigning his office. Gaetani replied after consultation that it was permissible, and sometimes advisable, to resign. In spite of an outcry from those in favour of his continuing in office, some of whom were spiritual men who looked to him for renewal, he read a solemn declaration of his abdication on the grounds of age, incapacity, and lack of knowledge. He asked pardon for his many mistakes and exhorted the cardinals to choose a worthy successor.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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