Benedict and Celestine — two popes who resigned

There are interesting parallels and connections between Benedict XVI and the last pope freely to resign the papacy, over 700 years ago – Pope Celestine V.

Celestine, known as Pietro di Morrone was a hermit monk who lived in isolation in the mountains of Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

When Pope Nicholas IV died in 1292, the cardinals assembled in conclave could not agree on his successor. After two years of deliberation and in-fighting, they received a letter from Pietro di Morrone, warning them that divine vengeance would fall on them if they did not quickly elect a Pope.

At that, the elderly Dean of the College cried out, “In the name of God, I elect Pietro di Morrone!”  All agreed, and the Cardinals persuaded him to accept the office. He took the name of Celestine V.

But he was a hermit, and craved the contemplative life. He was no administrator and could not deal with his Curial cardinals. He resigned after 5 months. Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, placed Celestine in hell for making “the great refusal” of the papacy.  But the Church canonized Celestine a saint in 1313.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Church which contains the remains of Celestine. In a gesture which, with hindsight, could hold all sorts of meaning, Benedict placed on the tomb of Celestine the woolen pallium, the symbol of his office as bishop which he had worn during his own papal inauguration.

In the formal letter of his resignation as pope, Celestine cited as the causes for his decision: “The desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”


  • Fr. Craig Larkin s.m., who is based in Rome, writing exclusively for CathNews NZ Pacific
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