On Popes Who Quit: Celestine V, Gregory XII, and Benedict XVI

Much of the coverage today concerning the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has remarked on the historically (almost) unprecedented nature of the act. As the Associated Press story noted, the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who abdicated in 1415 as a means of ending the Great Schism of the Church, which had divided the papacy between Rome and Avignon for several decades. At the time, Gregory’s decision was hailed as a noble act that would save the church from another generation of violent division. The words of Charles Malatesta, the Lord of Rimini who recited the Act of Resignation on Gregory’s behalf at the Council of Constance, suggest that the decision was “compelled by no violence,” his only aim to secure “the peace and union of the Church”:

I Charles Malatesta, Vicar of Rimini, Governor of Romagna for our most holy Father in Christ Lord Pope Gregory XII and General of the Holy Roman Church, being authorized by the full power that has just now been read, and has been received by me from our said Lord Pope Gregory, compelled by no violence, but only animated with an ardent desire of procuring the peace and union of the Church do, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, effectually and really renounce fro my Master Pope Gregory XII the possession of and all right and title to the papacy, which he legally enjoys, and do actually resign it in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of this General Council, which represents the Roman Church and the Church Universal.

While a number of popes had resigned in the first thousand years of the church, the most notorious abdication was that of Celestine V in 1294, who served for only a few months before resigning to take up the life of a hermit until his imprisonment by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII. He would die in prison less than a year later.

As Jon M. Sweeney records in his marvelous book The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation (2012), the resignation of Celestine V (born Peter Morrone) was a remarkable feat, resonating with numerous conflicts among the clergy over the proper role of the church as an institution within a secular world. Celestine’s primary motivation in abdicating, as he put it in his own decree, was ”the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life” (HT: Jesse Walker).

History’s reaction to Celestine’s resignation has been mixed. Here is Dante in the Inferno, leaving Celestine unnamed while condemning the cowardice he saw in il gran rifiuto (“the great refusal”):

Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa

The world does not suffer that report of them shall live. Men disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass on.

Petrarch was kinder to Celestine, praising the former pontiff for his return to the contemplative life:

Renouncing the papacy was an awful burden; he anxiously returned to his previous way of solitude. It was as if he’d freed himself from the clutches of an enemy. One could attribute this to cowardice, but seeing what were his true gifts, I see it another way. I praise him for making himself once again most useful to the world.

Benedict XVI likely won’t be taking up the life of a hermit any time soon (call it  a hunch). Yet he may well have been thinking about Celestine’s precedent while mulling his own decision to retire over the last few months–and perhaps over the last few years. One of the most fascinating moments in Sweeney’s book concerns Benedict’s 2009 visit to Celestine’s tomb, a moment charged with significance for today’s events (see the photo, as well as the related story here):

Pope Benedict XVI has recently aligned himself with the memory and legacy of the 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.

Sweeney suggests that the visit was a symbolic statement about Benedict’s sense of his papal mission. It could be, though, that Benedict was simply looking ahead (rather portentously, perhaps) to his own retirement, removing the pallium in a gesture that foreshadowed a resignation just a few years down the road. Whatever the case, it’s a peculiar bit of papal medievalism to contemplate as the reaction to Benedict’s abdication unfolds.

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One comment on “On Popes Who Quit: Celestine V, Gregory XII, and Benedict XVI

  1. Francesca White on said:

    Have you read Adriana Zarri’s Celestino Sesto?

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