The Great Refusal, Celestine V and Benedict XVI

I saw and recognized the shade of him
Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.

Dante, Inferno III, 59–60

When I heard yesterday the breaking news about the Pope Benedict’s XVI abdication, I immediately thought about Celestine V. Frankly speaking, I’m not at all an expert on popes but if you live in Abruzzo, you should certainly know about him. Naturally, I decided to write a post about Celestine V. When early in the morning, I started browsing through the Internet; I found quite a few articles drawing a parallel between Celestine V and Benedict XVI. So I was terribly late! Nonetheless, I still decided to write my own story about two Popes.

First of all, I would like to share my personal impressions and reflections and maybe add some new details to the whole picture. Last but not least, this “great refusal” has aroused so many questions. After the initial shock and immediate “Why?”, there followed almost existential questions about causes and effects, good and evil, faith and duty. Yesterday evening, I watched on TV a very interesting live broadcast “La Grande Rinuncia” presented by Bruno Vespa. It’s striking how he could manage to create in a few hours such a fundamental and thoughtful talk-show with participation of Vatican spokesman, leading scholars and journalists. I was amazed to realize that after the talk-show, I couldn’t stop questioning myself about these eternal problems. I am sure that moral impacts of the great refusal would only increase in the future.

To say that the news was a bombshell means to say nothing. Italians are very religious people and they feel very personally and even intimately connected with Popes. They were very fond of John Paul II and at first accepted Benedict XVI rather watchfully. Eventually, they started to respect and love him. I asked my Italian friend, how she felt about the repudiation. She said sadly that it was a step towards the end of the world. Yesterday, despite heavy rain many Italians went to St. Peter’s Square. They stood there till late at night looking at two illuminated windows of Pope’s chambers and preyed. They came there to communicate their support and love to the pontiff at this very difficult moment of his life.

In Abruzzo, the most venerated pope is Celestine V, though he lived in 13th century. The fact is that Abruzzians consider him their own saint.

Pope Celestine V, born Pietro Angelerio, was also known as Pietro da Morrone. The exact date of his birth is not known, presumably, he was born ibetween 1209 and 1215 in the Molise Region. Very early he felt a calling to religious life and in 1230 became a Benedictine monk in the Monastery of St. Mary of Faifoli. In 1233-1234, he was ordained priest in Rome. But even the monastic life didn’t completely satisfy his need for solitude and ascetic life. Since 1231-1233, he became a hermit and lived in the solitude in mountain caves in the Abruzzi. In 1233-1240, he lived in a solitary cavern on the mountain Morrone near Sulmona from which he got his nickname. After that he spent 15 years in a cave on the Maiella Mountain (Abruzzo) where later on he founded the Hermitage of Saint Spirit.

In 1244, he founded the order of Celestines, subsequently named after his papal name. He gave them a rule formulated according to his own practices. In 1264, the new institution was approved by Pope Urban IV. Pietro da Morrone became the General Abbot of the order which consisted of 36 monasteries with more than 600 monks. However, as soon as the order was finally established, he transferred his powers to a successor and retreated to a still more remote hermitage of St. Onofrio near Sulmona and dedicated his life to solitary penance and prayer.

At this very time, cardinals were electing a new pope in Perugia. In fact, they were caught in a deadlock since they failed to elect the Pope during 27 months. Morrone sent them a letter, warning that if they did not elect a pope within four months, the Lord would severely chastise the church. At this point Cardinal Latino Malabranca suddenly proposed to nominate Pietro da Morrone for election. Cardinals elected him unanimously and send an official delegation in order to bring him to the Holy See. A humble hermit Pietro da Morrone was astonished to see the deputation of cardinals who delivered him the Decree on his election as a Pope. At first, he firmly refused to accept the papacy. Three days later King of Naples Charles II arrived in Sulmona and persuaded him to take the office. Elected on 5 July 1294, at a rather advanced age of 79 or even 85, he was consecrated and crowned at St. Mary of Collemaggio in the city of Aquila (Abruzzo) on August 29, taking the name Celestine V.

His papacy didn’t last long. After just six months following the election on December 13, he abdicated and decided to retreat to his hermitage. It is symbolical that during his short rule Celestine V had established the formal procedure of renunciation. He was succeeded by Cardinal Caetani who took the name Boniface VIII. The most sad thing about Celestine V was that he wasn’t allowed to live in peace. Boniface VIII ordered to capture him and imprison in the castle of Fumone near Ferentino in Campagna where Celestine V died on May 19, 1296, after 10 months of imprisonment. Some historians presume that his death wasn’t natural. He was buried in Ferentino, but his remains were subsequently transferred to the Basilica of St. Mary of Collemaggio in Aquila. Pope Clement V canonized him as San Pietro Celestino in 1313.

Dante mentioned Celestine V in “The Divine Comedy”. He placed him in Inferno, thus stigmatizing his “cowardice of the great refusal”. It’s a very controversial statement.

Pietro da Morrone spent almost all his life in the mountains of Abruzzo. There are several memorial places connected with him, namely, Basilica of St. Mary of Collemaggio in Aquila, Hermitage of St. Onofrio in Morrone (Sulmona), Hermitage of Saint Spirit in Maiella (Roccamorice), Celestin Abbey of Saint Spirit in Morrone. His feast day is celebrated on May 19. Moreover, every year on August 28-29, the festival of Perdonanza Celestiniana is celebrated in L’Aquila. Thereby is commemorated Celestine’s papal bull granting a plenary indulgence to all pilgrims visiting St. Mary of Collemaggio through its holy door on the anniversary of his papal coronation.

Last summer, we spent a very special day in the Hermitage of Saint Spirit in Maiella. It is situated in a very hard-to-reach place in the National Park of Maiella. The road to the hermitage is almost blocked in winter time. The complex is nested on the abrupt slope of the mountain. The main character of the place, apart from its breathtaking beauty, is serenity and tranquility. The hermitage is now abandoned though there was a wedding ceremony held in a little church. We visited the cell were Pietro da Morrone lived and prayed. He slept on the bare stone floor with a piece of stone or wood under head. When staying there, I began to understand the craving for solitude and ascetic life close to magnificent nature. I could easily imagine his strong reluctance to leave his solitude for the corrupted papal court. I wish he didn’t do that!

Back to our days, the mass media has already underlined a sort of spiritual attachment of Benedict XVI to Celestine V. He is the only Pope who celebrated the memory of Celestine V twice. The first time in the Basilica Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila, which was damaged by the devastating earthquake of 2009. Miraculously, the glass shrine of Celestine V didn’t suffer. The Pope visited Aquila shortly after the earthquake  on April 29, 2009. We can see the fallen fragments of the Basilica on photos. These days, journalists recollect that Benedict XVI preyed before the shrine and afterwards left his pallium, which he wore during his papal inauguration in April 2005 on the glass casket as a gift. You can see this photo here.

On July 4, 2010, Benedict XVI came to Sulmona, another town in Abruzzo , to celebrate the relics of Celestine V in the cathedral of San Panfilo. After the mass, the Pope delivered a speech on the central square of Sulmona before thousands of believers.

It couldn’t be a mere coincidence that Benedict XVI paid such a great attention to the mediaeval hermit. It could be only due to his personal sympathy to Celestine’s life philosophy and aspiration for solitude. Moreover, in order to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Celestine’s birth, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the Celestine year from 28 August 2009 through 29 August 2010.

David M. Perry has compared the wording of Celestine’s and Benedict’s letters of resignation and found striking similarity between them.

And there is one more coincidence. When Celestine V had abdicated, he was presumably, 85 years old, or at the same age as Benedict XVI.

PS I guess that Benedict XVI will become the second most venerated pope in Abruzzo, of course, after Celestine V. First of all, for his special attitude to Pietro da Morrone. And there is one reason more. Benedict XVI was the only pope who has recognized after centuries of suppressionthe Holy Face of Manopello, which is presumably nothing else than Veronica or Holy Shroud.

Related posts

The Pilgrimage to the Holy Face

Viterbo, the City of Popes

Further reading

Angelo Spina. Riflessioni su San Pietro Celestino. Aquila: Edizioni Qualevita, 2009.


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