The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation

The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation

by Jon M. Sweeney


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The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation by Jon M. Sweeney

The riveting story of Pope St. Celestine V, the pope who retired from the papacy.

At the close of the tumultuous Middle Ages, there lived a man who seemed destined from birth to save the world. His name was Peter Morrone, a hermit, a founder of a religious order, and, depending on whom you talk to, a reformer, an instigator, a prophet, a coward, a saint, and possibly the victim of murder. A stroke of fate would, practically overnight, transform this humble servant of God into the most powerful man in the Catholic Church. Half a year later, he would be the only pope in history to abdicate the chair of St. Peter, an act that nearly brought the papacy to its knees. What led him to make that decision and what happened afterward would be shrouded in mystery for centuries. The Pope Who Quit pulls back the veil of secrecy on this dramatic time in history and showcases a story that involves deadly dealings, apocalyptic maneuverings, and papal intrigue.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385531894
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2012
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 164,973
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JON M. SWEENEY is an author, a book publisher, and a popular speaker. He is the editor of The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis and the author of many books, including Verily, Verily: The KJV—400 Years of Influence and Beauty. He lives in Vermont with his wife and three children.

Read an Excerpt


Toward the close of the Middle Ages, in 1285, there lived three men whose lives would intersect and forever change history. Each was a man of power. Each was stubborn. Each was skilled at the life and work to which he seemed des­tined from birth.

The most important of the three and the central fi g­ure of this book is Peter Morrone. His surname comes from the mountain that he called home for most of his life. Peter was a monk and the founder of a religious order, and depending on whom you talk to, he was also a reformer, an instigator, a prophet, a coward, a fool, and a saint. He was very much a man swept up in history, and practically overnight he would be transformed from a humble her­mit into Pope Celestine V, the most powerful man in the Catholic Church. He would also become the only man in history to walk away from his job, vacating the chair of St. Peter before he died.

If Peter Morrone lived today in the mountains out­side of Rome or Los Angeles or New Delhi he might be a celebrity guru. From early in his life he was a man with a mountain, or montagna, and made his casa di montagna. If he’d lived in the twenty- first century, talks to his fellow monks might be smuggled out of his enclave as digital audio files, soon to be packaged and sold by a big New York concern. He would emerge every now and then to speak privately with world leaders, who would also seek him out for personal counsel and, perhaps, photo oppor­tunities. Peter was this sort of figure in his day.

But history rarely revolves around a single individual, and the story of Peter Morrone- cum- Celestine V is no ex­ception. Although fellow monks and supporters would move in and out of Peter’s rather long life, there are two men in particular whose power and ambition would di­rectly affect the life of this complex hermit, and, by exten­sion, their actions would influence the world.

The first of these was Charles II of Anjou (1254– 1309), supporter, corruptor, the ingratiating king of Naples. Hav­ing inherited his crown from a much more powerful fa­ther in January 1285, Charles II learned quickly how to use influential men, as well as to be of use to them. Charles would keep the hermit pope on a tight leash.

The second man who is central to our story is Cardi­nal Benedict Gaetani, one of the eleven cardinal- electors who chose Peter Morrone as pope. Born as Benedetto, son of Gaetani, into a prominent family in about 1235, he was a true Roman and the nephew of Pope Alexan­der IV (1254– 61). Well educated from youth, he trained as a lawyer, was skilled in canon law, and was made a mem­ber of the curia at the age of twenty- nine. For the next thirty years Gaetani gained a reputation as a supremely competent papal legate who could represent the Holy See in confronting heresy and spiritual rebellion in places like England and France, asserting moral authority when he­retical movements rose to the surface. He would become Celestine V’s trusted advisor and would help the hermit pope resign from offi ce— perhaps conniving for his own self- interest because he would take the chair of St. Peter only eleven days later.

Celestine V’s abdication was the climax of a fi ve- month reign, from July to December of 1294, during which time he served as Christ’s supreme representative on earth, and then quit. As we will see, nothing went well for anyone, except perhaps for Gaetani.

When a man is raised to the chair of St. Peter he is not elected for a certain term or period of time. He becomes pope for life. Yet throughout the 2,000- year history of the papacy Peter Morrone is the only man who has resigned and walked away.

There are three reasons I wanted to tell this story. First, I have a fascination with the Middle Ages. In particular, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of faith, vio­lence, and discovery, a time that is replete with dramatic stories and pivotal moments. I have written and edited a number of books on the life and impact of some of this period’s most colorful and recognizable figures, such as Francis of Assisi. In contrast, the colorful story of Celes­tine V is hardly known.

I first heard about Celestine V a decade ago while doing research in Italy for a book about the inheritors of the spiritual legacy of Saint Francis. This “angelic pope”— as some of his contemporaries called him— was condemned to mill around outside the gates of the Inferno for eternity by Dante, who may have actually known him. Dante wrote, “I looked, and I beheld the shade of him / Who made through cowardice the great refusal.”2 This was the poet’s way of saying that our subject was a quitter and a weak­ling. But how could Celestine be both “angelic” and “cow­ardly”? How could he be pope and also deserving of hell? Clearly, there’s a bundle of contradictions to this story that need to be sorted out.

Further, I wondered how history would be different if Celestine had stayed in power, or if he’d met with any success whatsoever as holy father during the fi fteen weeks of his reign. How did his election fill the imaginations of everyday people with hope for change? How did his di­sastrous reign bring that hope to an end? “Was he con­quered by his innate powerlessness, or by a combination of abnormal rascality and intrigue?” asked the English writer Anne MacDonell a century ago.3 These questions I set out to answer.

As a cradle Protestant who converted to Catholicism after a number of years of searching and discernment, I’m probably drawn more quickly than others to stories of spir­itual reformers. Celestine in his heart was a reformer. Dur­ing the sixty years he spent as a hermit, he responded to laxity with stern measures, and sought a return to original principles. He could not find a religious order that would allow him to pray and fast, nor could he find the solitude he required. In founding his own ascetical order he mod­eled it on the legends of John the Baptist, living deliber­ately in desert- like conditions of want, wearing a hair shirt as penance, and fasting continuously (except on Sunday). Peter’s desires for a Church that did what was right were legendary. Some over the years have seen him as a forerun­ner of later Catholics such as Martin Luther, whose writings set off the Protestant Reformation, resulting in a complete split of the world’s religious strata. But that comparison is far- fetched. Nothing of that sort would have ever occurred to Peter Morrone, let alone to the reform- minded in 1294. Still one explanation for the perplexities of his life was that he was an idealist.

Third, Peter Morrone aka Celestine V (you’ll notice that I use both names throughout the book) is still making headlines in the twenty- first century. A year after I began my research, on April 6, 2009, an earthquake hit L’Aquila, Italy, shaking everything including the walls of the great church that Peter Morrone built, and in which he was later buried. Aftershocks followed for the next two days, and one of those brought the ornate roof of the basilica crash­ing down into the nave. On April 8, 2009, media all over the world reported on fi refi ghters rushing into the build­ing to retrieve the sacred remains and relics of this angelic pope. The essentials of Celestine V’s story were told and retold for days. The saint’s remains were placed in safer quarters and then brought back to the basilica in a glass casket. In contemporary times prominent Catholics dif­fer quite considerably from Dante in their assessment of Celestine. They were quoted in Italian newspapers re­ferring to the discovery of the unharmed remains as yet another miracle at the hand of Saint Celestine V (he was canonized seventeen years after his death, and miracles of all sorts have been attributed to his intercession over the last six hundred years).

Four years earlier, in the winter of 2004– 5, Celestine was also discussed in media throughout the world when the Vatican’s secretary of state hinted that the ailing Pope John Paul II was considering retirement. Celestine was featured in print and cinema as a result of Dan Brown’s blockbuster Angels & Demons (chapter 88 of the book, published in 2000; and then in the film, 2009). Yet Brown wasn’t the first modern writer to mention Celestine.

The angelic pope was the subject of a historical novel by Ignazio Silone, published in Italian in 1968 and in English as The Story of a Humble Christian in 1970. The London play­wright Peter Barnes wrote about Celestine in Sunsets and Glories, which premiered in Leeds, England, in June 1990. And I suspect that the story of Peter must have inspired Morris West to write his blockbuster novel The Clowns of God (1981) about a fi ctional twentieth- century pope who abdicates under duress. The Clowns of God spent twenty- two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list when it was re­leased in hardcover.

And then there is one final reason that the topic of this book should interest readers today— and this emerged after I began writing. Pope Benedict XVI has recently aligned himself with the memory and legacy of this hermit pope from the medieval Catholic past. On April 29, 2009, when Pope Benedict visited Celestine’s tomb in the after­math of the earthquake that struck L’Aquila earlier in the month he did more than say a simple prayer and pay his respects at the Italian saint’s shrine. Without explanation the pope paused for several minutes, removed the pallium from around his shoulders, and laid it gently on Celestine’s glass- encased tomb. A pallium is a religious garment that is shaped like a Y and resembles a long, stiff scarf. It is one of the principal symbols of a pope’s episcopal authority. It seems that Pope Benedict was communicating that some­thing lies unfinished in the worldwide Catholic Church, and it is somehow connected with Celestine V.

There are very few firsthand accounts of the life of the famous man who left the chair of St. Peter empty. The Middle Ages is a time for which we have no attendance re­cords at schools, no physician’s records or census records. The most reliable sources of information are court and church annals, but those records that have not been lost to fire or the elements can be unreliable. There is often almost nothing to firmly place a person on the planet in those days. Illiteracy was common, and few people wrote about themselves and others. In fact, one of the reasons that Celestine V’s election as pope was so controversial was that he was seen as unschooled compared to the privi­leged men who held important ecclesiastical offi ces. And he understood very little Latin, the official language of the Church.

In telling Peter’s story I have relied on a variety of sources. Peter wrote an Autobiography, which was unusual for that era, and we can trust it for some of the details of his early life. In addition, I have combed through histories of the medieval papacy, in which Celestine V stands out but only as one curiosity among many. There are many histories of the mendicant orders (all five, including the Franciscans and Dominicans, were founded in Peter’s life­time), medieval hermits, heretical movements, and the multifaceted Crusades (the fifth through ninth occurred while Peter was living), from which I gleaned many of the details herein. We are witnessing rapid growth in the avail­ability of English translations of documents from this time period in Italy; these works illuminate subjects such as the local structures of religious and secular power, the depen­dence of rural areas on the cities, warfare and violence, law and order, disease and medicine, education, and family.4 I have used these sources and more to paint a picture of Peter’s era, his places, his people, and the circumstances of his life.

There are additional historical records of thirteenth-century Catholic piety, local religious rituals, infi ghting between factions within the Church, the growing inde­pendence of laypeople— all of which serve to illuminate Peter’s actions as a sibling, son, hermit, abbot, founder of an order, traveling pilgrim, builder of churches, sin­ner, penitent, fund- raiser, and faithful Catholic. I describe Peter and characters in Peter’s story, and I imagine his spiritual brothers who sat with him at the end of his life in a castle prison cell and listened as he told them stories. I cast a spotlight on the members of the papal curia (advis­ers, administrators, counselors, financial managers) who surrounded and confounded Celestine during his fi fteen disastrous weeks as Christ’s vicar. Some of these scenes are imagined after spending many hours looking at manu­script illuminations, scrutinizing paintings (there are just a few renderings of him), and reading letters and histori­cal accounts of men and women from the place and time. Using all of these resources, I aim to tell the story of what it was like to be a hermit and a pope in the turbulent, hope­ful, and violent late thirteenth century.

Reading Group Guide

1. Part I -- When the Unexpected Happened

The opening paragraphs of this chapter begin to tell you something about who Peter Morrone was. Can you picture him? Have you known a strong, religious person in your life? Do you have positive or negative associations with such people?


How would you describe the typical medieval pope? Is he someone that you would want as your priest or spiritual leader? Was it a sign of his virtue, rather than his weakness, that Peter Morrone was ill-fit for the late medieval papacy? This is a theme that we will return to many times in The Pope Who Quit.


How do you imagine the room in which a papal conclave is held? Who are the characters in that room? Can you imagine the various motivations that the cardinals held in that room in July of 1294 – some good, some not?

Much of the power of the medieval papacy came as a result of one of the most famous (and successful) forgeries in history known as the Donation of Constantine. See page 56. This forgery claimed that the fourth century emperor Constantine donated a great swath of imperial land to the office of the papacy, then held by Pope Sylvester I. The early humanist scholar, Lorenzo Valla, began to expose this forgery in the 1440s. A popular twelfth century legal textbook (known as Gratian’s Decretum) explained what was believed up until that time: “The Emperor Constantine yielded his crown and all his royal prerogatives in the city of Rome, and in Italy, and in western parts to the Apostolic See…. On the fourth day after his baptism Constantine conferred this privilege on the pontiff of the Roman Church, so that in the whole Roman world priests would regard him as their head, as judges do their king.” [See Lorenzo Valla, Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine, for the text of his exposure of the forgery, in both Latin and an old English translation, at]


Where was Peter when the news of the election was brought to his doorstep? See page 66. The Roman poet Petrarch says that Peter actually turned and ran, attempting to flee. Should he have?

6. Part II -- Peter of Morrone, 1209–93

Sweeney begins Part II of his book by briefly explaining the use of hagiography in telling a story such as that of Peter Morrone. Do you see any reasons to trust a hagiographical account of a life? Have you read any such accounts of religious figures in the past? What do you think of the Italian saying quoted by Sweeney on page 72 that translates as: “A lie well told is worth more than a stupid fact”?


What do you think of Peter’s family background and how it may have affected his professional course in life? How do you see him as compared to other prominent religious figures, including previous popes, of his own century? How has your own family “determined” your future – for good or ill?


Peter Damian’s writings and reputation had a profound influence on Peter Morrone’s life and thought. Sweeney describes Damian as a zealot, a pessimist, and a reformer. By this point in The Pope Who Quit, do you see Peter Morrone that way, too? Or not?


We return to the theme of asceticism. Ascetic acts were ever-present in Peter’s life. It was the nineteenth century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, son of a Lutheran minister, who first called asceticism a religious person’s way of gaining power over. Nietzsche suggested that saints and martyrs attempt to dominate the rest of us with these ways of being “holy.” He saw an insidious “will to power” in fastings and other physical denials. He called it a “striving for distinction,” nothing other than a way of trying to dominate. What do you think?


This chapter sees Peter Morrone living among the men of power of his era. How do you think those men regarded the hermit? How might Peter have regarded them?

11. Part III -- Turbulent Times

Do you see more or less “obsession” with salvation today, as compared to Peter’s era?


See pages 141-146. How did the image of Saint Francis of Assisi impact the world of the thirteenth century? Prophecies of Joachim of Fiore foretold a century before Francis were believed to have been fulfilled by him. Poets writing in the century after Francis wrote about how he was a “new Christ.” There were more followers of Francis in the first half century of his movement than had joined any other monastic movement previously. How was Francis different from other religious figures who’d come before him? Was Peter Morrone at all like Francis?


Fathers and sons. The history of the world could probably be told through the lens of sons sometimes modeling and sometimes rebelling against, their fathers. How would you describe Charles I? And how about his son?


Do you see any similarities between Pope Celestine V and any of the popes who have lived and ruled during your lifetime? Is it conceivable that a pope would make some of the same mistakes that Celestine made, today?


In Sweeney’s telling, the papal curia, Castle Nuovo, and the College of Cardinals all become like “characters” in the story, each influencing the “angelic” Pope Celestine. How did they each impact him – for good or ill?

16. Part IV -- The Passion and the Pity, 1294–96

One of the enduring questions from the life of Peter Morrone/Celestine V is this: Was he guileless and saintly, or was he something else? In the final chapter, Sweeney concludes by weighing in on this topic. But at this point, what do you think?


There have been many stories in history of a religious figure running for his life. One thinks, for example, of the 14th Dalia Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fleeing the Chinese communists across the Himalayan mountains from Tibet to India in 1959. A more ancient example might be Celestine’s spiritual model, Jesus Christ, who of course lost his life and never tried to flee. What do you think of Celestine’s running from Naples?


Did Cardinal Gaetani have Celestine V murdered? What do you think? What evidence is missing that would allow a legal case to be made?


The undercurrent of this chapter is also an undercurrent that marks different religions and spiritual teachers from one another. That is, is this the only world or is there another to come? And then, are there ways to be faithful to God that have nothing to do with living in this world? How would you describe Peter Morrone’s beliefs on these topics – based on his actions?


What do you think of Sweeney’s concluding thought, that Peter Morrone/Celestine V was a quitter, yes, but that by quitting he also showed himself to be enlightened?

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Pope Who Quit 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Zor-El More than 1 year ago
I found this book to very interesting. I am not Roman Catholic and this gave me a glimpse into the Papacy during the Middle Ages. The events in this book to place right before the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism. Indeed one clearly see the foundational cracks in the church which led to those events and ultimately to the Reformation. Even though the subject matter might sound a bit daunting or even boring (I have to admit that normally a book on the history of the Papacy wouldn't have jumped off the shelf at me) the writer wrote in a manner which made it interesting. I definitely recommend this book.
JurgenSchulze More than 1 year ago
It is always fascinating to read a book on a subject, for which there is little source material, in order to see what the author makes of it. Mr. Sweeney uses Peter Morrone as an opportunity to include side-scenarios to paint a persuasive picture of the era, but in essence - and that is not his fault - there is too little to rely on.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like history of the Christian Church you wlll really enjoy this book.
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Another great book of histotlry and lessons in politics