The man who first drew my heart to the Italian south was a hermit monk. A pope. A saint, even. I read just a few paragraphs in an old Penguin Dictionary of Saints, and I was hooked.
The unlikeliness of his path through life intrigued me then, and still does today. A younger son of a poor family, Peter found the religious life suited him. He felt the need to separate himself from the world, and spent several long periods living as a hermit in the remote mountains of Abruzzo.
He couldn’t stay alone, because people kept seeking him out for spiritual wisdom, healing, and prayer. Eventually he founded a monastic order, built several monasteries and churches, and became known as a man of spiritual power.
In his early eighties, he retired to a hermitage near Sulmona. Nothing prepared him for the turn his life took next.
In 1294, there had been no pope for two years. Rome was in chaos, and the continued to bicker but came no closer to agreement. Abbot Peter of Morrone wrote to his old friend Cardinal Latino Malabranca, urging a swift election to avoid the wrath of God.
Malabranca nominated Peter—to the shock of his fellow cardinals, who barely knew who Peter was.
The schemers did know that Peter was unschooled in papal politics, therefore someone who might be used for their own ends. And they knew he was quite old, and not likely to live long if he was elected. So they elected him.
The cardinals were meeting in Perugia at the time, and their next order of business was to notify Peter of his elevation to the papal throne. None of them wanted to make the arduous mountain journey, and the delay of several days gave another interested party
an unexpected opportunity.
King Charles of Naples had been waiting five years for papal approval of a treaty that would free three of his sons from imprisonment in Aragon. His spies in Perugia raced south to Melfi with the news, and Charles raced north to Sulmona, arriving before the cardinals’ delegation. Charles prevailed on the new pope to help him, and offered to host him in Naples.
Peter, who took the name Celestine V as his papal title, was pulled from all sides by men wanting favors, by powerful cardinals protecting their own interests, and by King Charles and others hoping to influence him.
- The coronation of Pope Celestine V
He was crowned in L’Aquila in August of 1294, to the horror of the cardinals, who felt Rome was the proper place for the coronation. He spent months in Naples as a guest of the king, against the cardinals’ wishes again.
His spiritual wisdom could not make up for his political naivety, however, and by December of 1294 Peter knew he was making a mess of his job. All he wanted was to go back to his hermitage. But there was no provision for the resignation of a pope.
For that, he called on one of the cardinals for legal help: Benedict Gaetani, one of the brightest legal minds of the 13th century.
After years of enmity with King Charles, Gaetani allied with the king to ensure the resignation would be accepted—and that Gaetani himself would be the successor.
Then, Gaetani double-crossed them both, forcing Charles to bring the former pope to Gaetani as a prisoner before Gaetani would complete the political maneuvers necessary to free the king’s sons.
Peter spent the last two years of his life imprisoned in a castle in Fumone, one of the Gaetani family holdings, where he died in 1296. Dante consigned him to hell for the cowardice of his resignation, but others considered him a saint—and he was canonized with the name Saint Peter Celestine in 1313. He is even mentioned in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.
I walked the path to his hermitage near Sulmona, and visited the church in L’Aquila where his remains lie in a glass case. I am convinced he was a great spiritual leader, but the church of his day wanted a politician, which he certainly was not. I like to
think of him in his prime, surrounded by people who wanted to learn from him, and who saw him as an example of all the good in Christian life.