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ST. CELESTINE V

1294 AD

Once more the cardinals cruelly hurt the Church as their wrangling left it without a pope for over two years. The deadlock was finally broken in a manner quite startling. Cardinal Orsini told his colleagues that a holy monk had warned him that God had revealed that they would be punished if they did not put an end to their differences and elect a pope. Moved, the cardinals did elect a pope--the holy monk himself, Peter of Murrone!

Peter was the son of poor parents. Born early in the century, he was the eleventh of twelve children. Right from the start he delighted his good parents by manifesting signs of real sanctity. He became a hermit on Mt. Murrone; then to avoid the crowds which flocked around him, he withdrew to even more remote Mt. Majella. Here he lived an austere life, filled with prayer, long fasts, hair shirts, and iron chains. But since crowds still pursued him, he formed a branch of the Benedictine order, later called the Celestines. For lay folk he founded a sort of "third order."

Such was the man elected by the cardinals to rule the Church. One requisite Peter certainly had--sanctity. But could a simple old man who had lived his life in the mountains cope with the complex situations faced by medieval popes?

Peter naturally was overwhelmed when the cardinals' delegates, after a weary climb through the mountains, announced his election. He wanted to refuse, to fly, but his monks told him roundly that it was his duty to end the long vacancy. King Charles of Naples, overjoyed at the election of a friend, hastened to add his pleas to those of the monks. Torn between fear of acting against God's will and of being a mighty poor pope, the old man was sadly distressed. At last he accepted and took the name of Celestine V.

Trouble started at once. Charles of Naples had been a good friend of the monk, but he could not resist taking advantage of the pope. It was as if poor Celestine were his mouthpiece! The cardinals reluctantly had to come to Aquila in the Kingdom of Naples for the consecration on August 29. Celestine then proceeded, not to Rome, but to Naples. He created new cardinals who were all French or Neapolitan. But if the king found Celestine a puppet, unscrupulous curial officials found the simple old man a gold mine. Soon they were selling blank bulls!

Celestine longed only for peace, and if he was no ruler, he was still a saint. He realized that he had made a mistake. More and more he thought of resigning. He made sure he could abdicate. He asked advice of canon lawyers. He renewed--much to the disgust of the cardinals--the badly needed election decree of Gregory X.

A poetical message from the famous Jacopone da Todi proved to be a last straw. The fiery Franciscan warned the Pope of the abuses which were running riot under his feeble old hands.

On December 13 Celestine met the cardinals in the great hall of the palace. Clad in full pontificals, he read them the decree of abdication, then stepped down and stripped himself of all papal insignia. The "great refusal," as Dante called it, had been made.

Celestine was kept in confinement by his successor Boniface VIII, lest he should become the tool of designing schemers and endanger the unity of the Church. He died on May 19,1296. Pope Clement V canonized him.


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