So both of my papers carried stories today about the historic resignation of the Pope. Definitely big news. And both of them referred to the occasion by mentioning the last time a Pope resigned, in 1415–when Pope Gregory XII stepped down to end the papal schism (after the election of at least one Pope who had promised he would resign for that purpose–and didn’t, but that’s another story for another day). Personally, I’m fascinated by the story of Pope Celestine V, widely known as the first Pope to resign from the office. (He formalized the process of papal resignation, but was preceded by a couple of other men who were forced out of office–a somewhat different state of affairs.)
Born in 1215, Celestine lived for decades as a monk and a hermit, gaining a reputation for holiness through praying for sixteen hours a day, fasting and wearing a hair shirt–all while living in a cave. Clearly, the kind of religious figure who earned the admiration of many then as now. Alas for him, his fame as an ascetic brought him to the attention of the College of Cardinals, in a desperate search for someone virtuous enough to counteract the charges of materialism plaguing the Church.
The cardinals had been in deliberation for two years already, trying to agree on a successor for Pope Nicholas IV, who died in 1292. Celestine (then known by his original name of Pietro di Morrone) wrote an angry missive to the cardinals proclaiming that the wrath of God would fall upon them if they delayed any longer. Anyone who has ever spoken out against a logjam in any organization knows this could have only two possible outcomes: either termination, or promotion. The cardinals chose the latter, eagerly proclaiming the hermit to be the next Pope.
Pietro resisted them in vain, and finally had to be convinced by a group of cardinals to accept the position. He lasted five months. As a holy hermit, a supporter of privation, and even as the founder of the Celestine Order (an even more strict order under the Benedictine rule), Celestine was in no way prepared for the vast administrative task of being Pope. Celestine finally fled the papacy, noting his own unfitness for the office, and declaring a need to return to tranquility.
Recalled as an especially weak and ineffectual Pope, the hermit was eventually canonized for his other holy works–but he was the last Pope ever to take the name Celestine.