Why all the interest in a seemingly obscure medieval pope?
This week Pope Francis opened a Jubilee year in honor of Pope St. Celestine V. What is that all about?
A jubilee year is a year of celebration. Catholics are encouraged to take part by participating in special prayers, devotions and pilgrimages. The jubilee is also a way of drawing attention to a special saint or theme.
Pope Celestine V was born Pietro Angelerio and was known as Pietro del Morrone after the mountain where he had his hermitage. Celestine was famous for his holiness and was elected pope after a papal election which was scandalously long because of worldly power struggles within the Vatican. Pope Celestine was eighty years old when he was elected, and the old man served as pope for just five months from July to December 1294. He ruled that a pope could resign, and then did so. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII feared Celestine’s supporters would set him up as an anti-pope so he confined Celestine to a castle where he eventually died.
Pope Celestine V went down in history as a holy man who was “too good for the papacy.” In a time when the church hierarchy was corrupted by worldly wealth and military might, Celestine presented a prophetic sign of contradiction. He lived for prayer, poverty and penance. Popes of the day too often lived for pomp, prestige, and power.
The humble hermit who was the first pope to formally abdicate came back to prominence in 1966 when Paul VI visited Celestine’s tomb and praised his example. Pope Benedict XVI visited Celestine’s tomb twice, and honored the anniversary of his birth by declaring 2009-2010 a Celestine year. Three years later Benedict himself made history by resigning from the papacy and now, Pope Francis declares a Celestine Jubilee year. Why all the interest in a seemingly obscure medieval pope?
Pope Francis made it clear in his speech to the people of Isernia, Celestine’s birthplace. “Like Francis of Assisi, Pietro del Morrone knew well the society of his time, with its great poverties. Both were very close to the people. They had the same compassion of Jesus for the many exhausted and oppressed persons…[this is] the very timely meaning of the Celestine Jubilee Year, which I declare open from this moment, and during which the door of Divine Mercy will be open wide for all. It is not a flight, it is not an evasion of reality and its problems; it is the answer that comes from the Gospel: love as the force…which puts the person, work and family at the center rather than money and profit…We are all aware that this way is not that of the world.”
Pope Francis’s love for Saint Francis and his wish to honor Pope St. Celestine is a prophetic reminder of the clash between the “way of the world” and “the way of Christ.” Jesus Christ’s gospel stands the world’s standards and values on their head. In walking away from the power and prestige of the papacy Celestine thumbed his nose at the way of the world. When Celestine’s repudiation of the papacy is set into historical context it is even more of a prophetic sign.
Celestine was elected because various Italian families were fighting over the papacy. The election was deadlocked and Celestine was nominated almost as a joke. During his short papacy he was manipulated by the cardinals, especially Benedetto Caetani, who encouraged Celestine to resign, then bribed the electors to make him pope. Caetani took the name Boniface VIII, and as Celestine went down in history as one of the most humble and holy popes Boniface went down in history as one of the most wicked.
Dante placed Boniface in hell for his crimes and it was Boniface VIII who pushed papal claims to worldly power to their most extreme point. A corrupt and ambitious man, Boniface demanded that all people be subject to the Roman Pontiff and insisted that kings and princes bow to his power. After power struggles with King Philip IV of France, Boniface was imprisoned and it was rumored that he took his own life — by gnawing off his own arms and bashing his head against a wall. Boniface was accused of many horrible crimes by his enemies, and even if innocent of the worst offenses, he was still a completely worldly man world who stands as the stunning contrast to Celestine’s simplicity and godliness.
By proclaiming a jubilee year in honor of Celestine Pope Francis is making a clear call for all Catholics to turn away from the worldly values of power, pride and corruption and walk in the way of Christ. Like Saints Francis and Celestine, we are to look to Jesus — the author and finisher of our faith. Pope Benedict XVI said “the saints are lived theology.”
So Saints Francis and Celestine incarnate the way of the beatitudes, showing that simplicity, mercy, peace, and justice finally overcome extravagance, greed, injustice, violence, and revenge.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.