A Saint in Hell

19 May 2011

Today is the feast of a most remarkable saint, Peter Celestine.

Pietro Angelerio was born in the village of Sant’Angelo Limosano, in south-central Italy, in the year 1215. At age 17, he became a Benedictine monk. By the time he was in his thirties, his abbot had given him permission to enter a hermitage in a cave.

He became famed for his holiness and ascetical lifestyle, and eventually young men flocked to him to imitate his example. He was obliged to found a monastic order for them, the Hermits of Saint Damiano, in 1244.

Once the Order was on its feet, the pious hermit Pietro retired from the position as its Superior-General and returned to his solitary hermitage.

After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, the College of Cardinals deadlocked between two candidates for Pope for more than two years. Both candidates were the sort of political wheeler-dealers you sometimes got in those days, and the Cardinals dithered.

Until, that is, they got a letter from Pietro the hermit warning them that divine vengeance would fall upon them if they did not quickly elect a Pope.

Pope Saint Celestine V

In what must have been an act of sheer desperation, the Cardinals elected… Pietro himself.

Pietro, by now almost 80, refused to accept the Papacy. Petrarch claims he actually ran away into the hills to avoid it. He was finally persuaded by a delegation of cardinals accompanied by the Kings of Naples and Hungary, becoming Pope Celestine V.

As Pope, Celestine V issued only three decrees: one reforming the College of Cardinals so that perhaps they could avoid deadlocked elections, one announcing that the Pope can resign his office, and his final one announcing his own resignation.

He was Pope for five months before fleeing back to his hermitage, saying he had abdicated for:

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

The Cardinals elected Benedetto Gaetani as Pope Boniface VIII. One of his first acts as Pope was to imprison Celestine in the Castle of Fumone in Ferentino, where he died the next year.

He was canonized in 1313, meaning the Church recognizes him as a saint.

Dante Alighieri, on the other hand, pictures Celestine in the Inferno. It seems that he blamed Celestine for the election of his hated enemy, Boniface.

I saw and recognized the shade of him
Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.

(Inferno III, 59–60)

Pope Benedict XVI at the tomb of Pope Saint Celestine V

Saint Pope Celestine V is entombed in L’Aquila. After an earthquake there, Pope Benedict XVI visited Celestine’s shrine and left the woolen pallium he wore during his papal inauguration in April 2005 on his glass casket as a gift.

Edited to add:
Apparently I’m not as clever in naming posts as I think I am. Father Z has an excellent post on Saint Peter Celestine called – what else? – A Pope in Hell?

From Fr. Z's calendar

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