Celestine V, St Peter
Celestine V, St Peter
(5 July–13 Dec. 1294: d. 19 May 1296)
After *Nicholas IV's death the papal throne remained vacant for 27 months, with the twelve cardinals, split by family and personal rather than political animosities, unable to reach the required two-thirds majority. Twice several of them abandoned turbulent Rome and its unhealthy heat; in 1293 the cardinals of the Colonna family who stayed behind made a fruitless attempt to carry through an election on their own. In Oct. 1293, however, the conclave reassembled at Perugia, and an election became more urgent when Charles II, king of Sicily and Naples (1285–1309), arrived there in Mar. 1294, eager to have ratified a secret treaty he had made in 1293 at La Junquera with James II of Aragón (1291–1327) for the evacuation of Sicily by his brother Frederick. The cardinals declined, but he sought to speed up the election by producing a short list of four names for them. This had no effect, but after his departure pressures mounted—disorders in May and June at Rome, fighting in the Orvieto region, the tragic death of the youthful brother of Cardinal Napoleone. When they met in a tense atmosphere on 5 July, Cardinal Latino Malabranca revealed that a devout hermit had written prophesying divine retribution if they left the church without a head any longer. Questioned, he disclosed that the hermit was none other than the renowned Pietro del Morrone. As dean of the college he then gave his vote for him, and by stages the two-thirds majority and eventually unanimous accord were reached.
Pietro was then 85, having been born in 1209 or early 1210 in the county of Molise, the eleventh child of simple peasants named Angelerio and Maria. When still in his teens he entered the Benedictine house of Sta Maria di Faifula (near Montagano), but c.1231 was drawn to the solitary life in the wild Abruzzi. Ordained priest in Rome c.1234, he lived for several years in a cave on Mount Morrone, above Sulmona, but withdrew c.1245 to the more inaccessible heights of the Maiella to escape public curiosity. All the time he was attracting like-minded disciples, and these (later to be called Celestines) *Urban IV incorporated in June 1264 in the Benedictine order; the local bishop had allowed Pietro to build a church (Sta Maria) at the foot of Morrone in 1259. His brotherhood had links with the radical Franciscans, or ‘Spirituals’, and to ensure its independence from episcopal intervention he travelled on foot to Lyons in 1274, arriving just after the second council, and in 1275 obtained from *Gregory X a solemn privilege confirming both its incorporation in the Benedictine order and its properties. Returning from Lyons, he held at S. Spirito, Maiella, its first general chapter, which recognized the rule of St Benedict (c. 480–c. 550) as binding and published liturgical and disciplinary guidelines. His activities were at their height in the following decade; in 1276 he became abbot of Sta Maria di Faifula as well as prior of S. Spirito, Maiella, and he made contact with Charles I of Anjou, king of Sicily (1266–85), who in 1278 took Sta Maria under royal protection. His fame as an ascetic, miraculous healer, and monastic leader spread beyond the Abruzzi, and his was a familiar name in the curia and the court of Naples. In 1293 he moved from the Maiella back to Mount Morrone, where he had built the monastery of S. Spirito (now a prison), and settled in a tiny grotto 637 m. up the mountain (S. Onofrio), relinquishing the direction of the community to others.
Various factors contributed to the cardinals' astonishing choice: weariness with the stalemate, hope that a bold stroke might rejuvenate the papacy, the 13th-century dream of an ‘angel pope’ who would usher in the age of the Spirit; but it is unlikely that the hand of Charles II was behind it beyond inspiring the letter which Pietro had written. The election, however, which Pietro himself accepted only under extreme protest, was widely acclaimed, and in radical spiritual circles he was hailed as in truth the hoped for ‘angel pope’. Astride a donkey he was escorted by Charles II and his son Charles Martell to L'Aquila, where he was consecrated as Celestine V in his own church of Sta Maria di Colmaggio on 29 Aug. The cardinals wanted the ceremony at Perugia or Rieti, but Charles insisted on a town in his own domains. He also saw to it that the new pope took up residence (5 Nov.), not at Rome, as the curia demanded, but at Naples in the Castel Nuovo. Celestine was in fact a puppet manipulated by Charles, appointing his creatures to key positions in the curia and the papal state and, when he created twelve—in imitation of the twelve apostles—cardinals (18 Sept.), meekly accepting Charles's nominees (including seven Frenchmen). The increase in number of cardinals was intended to reduce the influence of the Roman nobility. At Charles's request he ratified the treaty of La Junquera (1 Oct.), including a clause requiring James II to restore Sicily to the church within three years, and reintroduced Gregory X's rules for the conclave, making the king its guardian for the next occasion. Naive and, despite the organizational skills he had displayed as head of his order, incompetent, so ill educated that Italian had to be used in consistory instead of Latin, he let the day-to-day administration of the church fall into confusion, even assigning the same benefice to more than one applicant. Where he showed initiative was in showering privileges on his own congregation, even taking steps to incorporate in it great Benedictine abbeys like Monte Cassino, and protecting the Franciscan Spirituals.
As Advent approached, he considered handing over the government of the church to three cardinals while he fasted and prayed, but the plan was sharply opposed. In his agony of soul he was already pondering abdication, and consulted Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, a noted canonist, on the possibility of voluntary resignation. Benedetto having assured him (incorrectly) that there were precedents, he first had a statement of his reasons for abdicating drafted, then on 10 Dec. published a bull declaring that Gregory X's conclave procedure was operative in the case of an abdication, and finally, on 13 Dec., in full consistory read out a formula of abdication prepared by Benedetto and, stripping off the papal insignia, became once more ‘brother Pietro’. In a last appeal he begged the cardinals to proceed swiftly to a fresh election for the good of the church.
It was Pietro's earnest desire to return to his retreat on Mount Morrone, but his successor *Boniface VIII (none other than Benedetto Caetani) could not permit this; pliable in clever hands, Pietro could easily have been made the rallying-point of a schism. He was therefore kept under guard and, although he managed to escape and be at large for several months before attempting to flee to Greece, was eventually captured and strictly confined in the tower of Castel Fumone, east of Ferentino. There is no proof that he was treated with undue harshness. When he died of an infection caused by an abscess on 19 May 1296, his remains were first interred at Ferentino but in 1317 transferred to Sta Maria di Colmaggio, where he had been crowned pope. Under pressure from Philip IV of France, pursuing his vendetta against Boniface VIII, *Clement V canonized him on 5 May 1313 as a confessor, not as a martyr as Philip had proposed. Feast 19 May.
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