Times have changed, and social evolution makes it possible that, if in the past access to the throne of St. Peter was in the hands of a dominant caste formed by families of ancient lineage linked to a series of class privileges and economically well-off, today that situation has been democratized, and it is no longer the Medicis, Orsinis, Farneses, Della Roveres, Borgheses, and other clans who almost exclusively take turns in religious power. However, even in other times, there were exceptions, and one of the most well-known is that of Pope Celestine V, a humble hermit who reluctantly accepted his election and barely endured a few months in that role he detested.

Celestine, evidently, was the name he chose for his papacy, as his actual name was Pietro Angeleri di Murrone (depending on the source, it also appears as Angelieri, Angelerio, and similar variations, just as Murrone is alternatively presented as Morrone).

Tradition says that he was born in Sant’Angelo Limosano, a town near Isernia in the Molise region, which was then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. It was between 1209 and 1215, and he was the eleventh child of a large family born to a modest peasant couple, Angelo Angelerio and Maria Leone.

Pietro Angeleri de Murrone as a hermit (Bartolomé Román)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

His father passed away when he was still young, which forced him to take over his role in agricultural work. However, it seemed that he was very bright, and his mother believed that her son could aspire to something more than a life of hard work and little or no reward. The solution seemed to come when Pietro turned seventeen and confirmed the religious vocation he had always felt by taking the vows at Santa Maria in Faifoli, a Benedictine monastery in the diocese of Benevento.

Perhaps Maria thought that this way, her son could embark on an ecclesiastical career befitting his abilities, but she was mistaken—at least initially. Pietro showed a strong preference for asceticism, which led him to leave the monastery in 1239 and retreat to a cave to live in solitude devoted to prayer.

That cave was located on Mount Morrone, hence the demonym that would stick with him forever. However, even though he remained there for five years, it was not meant to be permanent by any means. It was common for two or three hermits to gather and live together in the same cave, and as a result, others would join them, eventually giving birth to a new religious community. That’s what happened in this case, as Pietro was joined by a couple of companions, and together they moved to another cave on the mountain of Maiella in Abruzzo, living in precarious conditions, seeking to imitate the lifestyle of Saint John the Baptist.

Sancto Spirito Chapel/Image: Idéfix on Wikimedia Commons

That attracted others, and in 1244, they founded the Order of the Holy Spirit, named after the monks settled in the Hermitage of the Sancto Spirito, a small temple founded in 1055 by Benedictines from the Monastery of Saint Benedict of Montecassino. As they grew, they added cells around the temple, and by 1254, they were established enough that in 1259, the authorities donated farmland to them, and four years later, Pope Urban IV issued the papal bull Cum sicut, incorporating them into the Order of Saint Benedict and its rule (though with stricter characteristics). Pietro accepted this, personally traveling to Lyon to persuade the prelate, as there were rumors that many newly established orders were going to be suppressed, following the advice given by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to reduce their number.

The new community was successful, with rapid expansion that would eventually lead to nearly a hundred monasteries in Italy—some even for women—and about twenty in France. However, despite all this, it did not fulfill Pietro. When he was already in charge of thirty-six monasteries with nearly six hundred monks, he said “enough”, delegated the leadership to a trusted man, and resumed his anchoritic life, which he maintained for a couple of decades, unaware that everything was about to change soon.

Two circumstances coincided: on one hand, strategic needs led to the relocation of the order’s headquarters from Maiella to Abazzia Morronese in Sulmona; on the other hand, in 1292, Pope Nicholas IV passed away, and the papal conclave extended for two years without being able to choose a successor, as it was polarized between those supporting the representative of the Colonna family and those backing the representative of the Orsini family.

Abazzia Morronese/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Pietro was not unknown to the cardinals, and in that situation, he became even more known when he sent them a letter reproaching the situation and threatening them with divine wrath. Unintentionally, he managed to inspire the dean of the College of Cardinals, the elderly Latino Malabranca, to propose a consensus candidate: Brother Pietro Angeleri di Murrone.

Of course, Pietro not only refused but even attempted to flee. However, he had no choice but to accept his fate when a delegation of cardinals, accompanied by the King of Naples himself and the Prince of Hungary, appeared before him, imploring him to assume responsibility for the benefit of all.

And so, that hermit who had sought to escape the worldly noise found himself catapulted, against his will, to the head of the Church in the summer of 1294, when he was already in his eighties. Since the papal conclave had convened in Perugia, he was crowned nearby at Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila. After the ceremony, his first act was to offer a plenary indulgence to all those who visited that church at the end of August in any year, which came to be known as the Celestinian Pardon (Perdonanza Celestiniana). It is considered the origin of the jubilee, as it was institutionalized five years later by Boniface VIII. It soon became apparent that his election had solved one problem but would provoke other, perhaps even worse, ones.

Investiture of Celestine V/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Because that pope remained an ascetic who detested ostentation, he abolished all symbols of power and advocated for redirecting the Church to its humble origins in Christ. He demonstrated this by entering his seat in Naples mounted on a donkey, led by the reins held by the Neapolitan monarch himself. He also appointed a dozen foreigners (meaning none of them were Roman) as cardinals, five of whom were simple monks.

His intentions were noble and aligned with a movement of the time fueled by the Cistercian abbot Joachim of Fiore, who advocated for introducing evangelical simplicity after a period of jurist and doctrinal popes who defended papal supremacy over all other earthly powers. However, drastic reforms often prove traumatic and are not universally welcomed. In a very short time, Celestine V earned the animosity of those who had initially acclaimed him.

Part of the blame lay with Celestine V himself for insisting on choosing Naples as his seat instead of Rome. In that kingdom, he fell under the influence of King Charles II, who cunningly manipulated him to obtain favorable appointments.

Charles II of Naples/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

As a result, the curia began to refuse approval for some measures, while others became mere empty words when it came to putting them into practice. The Pope realized that his policy had backfired, diminishing his own authority and thereby losing the ability to effect change. This paradox was manifested in the attempted overthrow by some cardinals, who sought to replace him with a kind of triumvirate. While the coup was thwarted thanks to the support Celestine V received from the Orsini family, it served to dissuade him from taking the decisive step he had to take.

That step was none other than resignation. Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, one of the most likely candidates to succeed him, assisted him in drafting a decree of resignation, which was issued on December 13th, citing reasons of health, incapacity for the position, and a “longing for the tranquility of his previous life.”

He was not the first, but he would be the last pope to resign until Benedict XVI did so in 2013 (Gregory XII also resigned in 1415 by order of the Council of Constance, in the context of the end of the Western Schism). His pontificate lasted only five months and nine days. The conclave reconvened a week later and, as planned, elected Caetani, who would become Boniface VIII.

Boniface VIII in a fresco of the Lateran Basilica by Giotto/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Celestine resumed his true name but could not resume the hermit life he desired. The new pope wanted to return the papal seat to Rome and ordered him to accompany him so that the Neapolitan people would not rebel and the factions that had supported him would remain quiet. Pietro initially fled to the woods of Sulmona, but he was captured when the ship he was escaping on to Dalmatia had to turn back due to a storm. He spent the rest of his life imprisoned in the castle of Fumone, although it was not a lengthy sentence: only ten months, as he passed away on May 19, 1296.

He was buried in Ferentino, although his remains would later be transferred to the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio (incredibly, they were not lost in the 2009 earthquake), amid rumors of assassination that accused Boniface VIII. Upon Boniface’s death, one of his fiercest enemies, Philip IV of France, promoted the canonization of Celestine V to his successor, Clement V. He had the support of the Colonna family, enemies of the Caetani family to which the Pope belonged.

Finally, that humble religious man whose greatest aspiration was to live modestly in a cave away from everything was canonized as a saint on May 5, 1313. The Order of the Holy Spirit, which he himself founded, would be renamed the Order of Celestines (Ordo Coelestinorum) in his honor.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 12, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Celestino V, el papa que renunció y fue encerrado en un castillo el resto de su vida


Diccionario de los santos (VVAA)/El pontificado romano en la historia (José Orlandis)/Historia de la Iglesia (José Uriel Patiño Franco)/Celestino V, 1215-1296. Papa, eremita e santo (Maria Burani)/Los papas que marcaron la Historia (Luis Jiménez Alcaide)/Wikipedia

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