Feast of St. Celestine V (May 19)   Leave a comment

Above:  St. Celestine V

Image in the Public Domain


SAINT CELESTINE V (1215-MAY 19, 1296)

Bishop of Rome

Also known as St. Peter Celestine

Pietro di Murrone preferred that the conclave had never elected him Pope.  He, Supreme Pontiff for five months and eight days, was eager to leave the office and the unholy politics associated with it behind.

Pietro di Murrone was a monk by nature.  He, the eleventh child of southern Italian peasants, entered the world in 1215.  Our saint joined the Order of St. Benedict when he was 17 years old.  Pietro, later ordained a priest at Rome, eventually became a hermit at Mount Majella, taking St. John the Baptist as his model.  The hermit attracted followers, however.  The result was the Celestines, a suborder of the Benedictines with 600 monks and 36 monasteries in May 1296.

After Pope Nicholas IV died on April 4, 1292, the Papacy remained vacant for 27 months while the College of Cardinals deadlocked.  Meanwhile, international politics came to bear on the Cardinals.  King Charles II (by title the King of Sicily but really the King of Naples; reigned 1285-1309) sought to regain control of Sicily for his southern Italian kingdom.  (He was ultimately unsuccessful.)  The College of Cardinals elected Pietro, who had no idea he was even a candidate and had no desire for the position, Pope on July 5, 1294.  They hoped that he would be the “angel Pope” who would solve many problems.

The 79-year-old monk was not a magical “angel Pope,” however; there was no such person.  He accepted election only reluctantly.  St. Celestine V, consecrated on August 29, 1294, became the unhappy puppet of Charles II, who was no holy man.  Our saint, residing in Naples, not Rome, did show some initiative as Pope.  He, for example, favored the Celestines and allowed the radical Franciscan Spirituals to live as hermits under the Rule of St. Francis.  St. Celestine V wanted to resign then to return to Mount Majella, to live as a monk again.  He concluded that being the Pope was dangerous both to his soul and to the Roman Catholic Church.  Our saint resigned on December 13, 1294, but he did not return to Mount Majella.

The next Pope was Boniface VIII, elected on Christmas Eve 1294.  The former Benedetto Cardinal Caetani was, according to J. N. D. Kelly, author of The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986),

singularly unsympathetic, combining exceptional ability with arrogance and cruelty, insatiable acquisitiveness for his family and insensitive contempt for his fellow-men; feared and hated, he could not keep a friend.

–Page 210

Boniface VIII did not permit St. Celestine V to enjoy liberation as a monk.  The new Supreme Pontiff ordered the arrest of his reluctant predecessor, who had to become a fugitive for a time.  St. Celestine V spent his final nine months incarcerated in the tower of Castle Fumone, east of Ferentino.  He died, aged 81 years, on May 19, 1296.

Boniface VIII had troubles of his own.  He, having threatened to excommunicate King Philip IV “the Fair” of France (reigned 1285-1314), found himself that monarch’s prisoner for two days in 1303.  Boniface VIII, having decided not to excommunicate Philip the Fair after that, died later in 1303.  Philip the Fair, seeking to twist the proverbial knife into the corpse of the legacy of Boniface VIII, petitioned the French Pope Clement V (in office 1305-1314), an Avignon Pope, to canonize St. Celestine V as a martyr.  Clement V canonized his reluctant predecessor, but as a confessor, in 1313.

The political nature of the canonization of St. Celestine V need not delegitimize it.  One can recognize Pietro di Murrone as a holy man who found himself transformed into a pawn and who took the proper course of action–to resign.  One can respect a man for finding the courage to quit when that was the right decision.







O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich:

Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we,

inspired by the devotion of your servant Saint Celestine V,

may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Song of Songs 8:6-7

Psalm 34

Philippians 3:7-15

Luke 12:33-37 or Luke 9:57-62

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 722


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