Monday, December 27, 2010


In the late thirteenth century a corrosive power struggle between two of the oldest and the most influential families of Rome resulted in paroxysms for the papal office. The Orsini and Colonna families had been literally taking the Throne of Saint Peter in turns, when in 1294 the cardinals were deadlocked in electing the next pope, support in the conclave evenly divided between candidates from each family - and, more widely, loyalties to the Guelphs and Ghibellines - with neither side able to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.

The conclave had dragged on for more than two years, even being relocated to Perugia to escape the oppressive summer heat and an outbreak of plague in Rome. When still no candidate could be agreed upon, and with the citizenry demanding a decision - the practice had begun of bricking in the cardinals until they elected the next pope - a wild-card entry gained unanimous agreement from the exhausted cardinals. But in electing the illiterate cave-dwelling mystic Pietro di Morrone as their head, they had chosen the mediaeval equivalent of a hippie cult leader to be CEO of General Motors. Indeed, any modern cult leader would be better equipped to run a major corporation than Morrone was for the papacy.

He was born into a peasant family in 1215, and became a Benedictine monk, but left the monastery for the mountain solitude of the Abruzzi, east of Rome. He lived a hermit’s life of extreme privation in the mould of John the Baptist, as befitted a mystic anchorite of the era, clad in a hair-shirt and weighed down with iron chains, praying all day into the night, subsisting on little more than water and crusts of dry bread. Given his diet, or lack thereof, it is not surprising he began experiencing visions, which ultimately brought fame from far afield to the cave-dwelling holy man. He founded his own order devoted to the Holy Ghost, which became known as the Celestines, and to escape the ever increasing traffic of pilgrims, retreated to a cave at the hermitage of San Onofrio, on another remote peak.

But even thence his fame spread, attracting the eye of the French king of Naples, Charles II of Anjou, who made the difficult journey to meet him in 1293, and devised a plan which was to have serious consequences for the Church for many decades to come. Charles encouraged the holy hermit to write a letter to the cardinals criticising them for their drawn-out deliberations, and their snap response, which the king might well have anticipated from such exhausted and frazzled men, was to elect Pietro himself.

The vote taken, the pope-elect had to be advised of his elevation to the pontificate, which meant dispatching Vatican envoys on a journey of some 200 kilometres to the remote and rugged mountains where the elderly hermit resided. Clad in their Vatican finery, the envoys were joined en route on this curious expedition by a throng of monks and other faithful, ultimately scrabbling up the rocks to the hermit’s lofty refuge, ‘...a cave over a thousand feet up on the desolate mountain. It was set upon a narrow plateau, with a sheer drop upon one side, and there the party was forced to crowd. News of the approaching cortege had filled Peter (Pietro) not so much with dismay as outright terror. He had intended to fly yet again to one of his remoter refuges, but his disciples, with a keener awareness of the fruits involved, had dissuaded him. When (met) he was peering out through the bars of his cell, his eyelids swollen and darkened by tears, his face emaciated. He barely seemed to understand what was being said to him; then he threw himself upon the ground, prayed, arose, and with infinite reluctance, accepted.’1

By the time Pietro and his entourage descended the mountain, the joyful word of a new pope at last had spread far and wide, and a cheering multitude estimated in the hundreds of thousands poured in to greet the startled pontiff-elect. The next surprise for all concerned was that the new pontiff did not wish to go to Rome to be crowned, but accepted an invitation from King Charles to go south to Naples, where the unhappy cardinals eventually agreed to join him, and he established his papacy as Celestine V.

From the outset things were difficult. The new pope chose to live humbly in a custom built replica of his mountain cell, and could not speak Latin, the language of the papal court, but instead vernacular Italian, the roughness of which assaulted the delicate ears of the papal courtiers. He also appeared to have little idea of his role and his power to rule by decree, and from the outset dispensed positions and money virtually to anyone who bothered to ask, and they were inevitably very many in number.

This became most serious and have the longest-lasting and most deleterious effects, when at the request of his French patron Charles, Pietro ordained eight new French cardinals, drastically shifting the balance of power in the cardinalate to the northwest. 
For the time being however, the faithful rejoiced at the elevation of a bone-fide hair-shirt holy man, dancing for joy in a much anticipated mediaeval-style “Summer of Love”. ‘The election of a simple good man, who was taken from his cave to mount the most splendid throne in Europe, had first astonished and then delighted Christians. It seemed as though they were witnessing the working out of those recent prophecies which foretold a new dispensation, when the meek would rule the mighty...’2
It was not to be, all unravelling with frightening speed. ‘In a little over a month, Celestine reduced the bureaucracy to chaos with his casual gifts and retractions creating an inextricable tangle... Celestine was in an impossible position. On one side were the men to whom he had given a new order and hope, exhorting him to begin the reign of love. On another were the tough and cynical papal bureaucrats who were either employing him for their own ends or were attempting to force his whole way of life into an alien mould.’
The cardinals knew something had to be done, but what? Depose him, with such passionate popular support, not to mention that of his landlord and patron, the powerful Neapolitan king? Impossible. Then one of their number, Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, realising Pietro was as uncomfortable with the papacy as it was with him, came up with an unprecedented plan, apparently without the knowledge of the other cardinals, and presented it to the hermit pope.
On 13 December 1294, only four months after his coronation, a trembling Pietro resigned his office before the stunned assembly of cardinals, and then, divesting himself of his papal robes before their startled eyes and re-donning his hair-shirt, walked out. All eyes then turned to the man who had composed the resignation, Benedetto Caetani, and despite deep rumblings over the legality and circumstances of what had occurred by his hand, nine days later the cardinals reconvened and this time took just one day to elect Caetani himself, who took the name Boniface VIII.
Fearing opposition could coalesce around the abdicated pope and question his legitimacy, the new pontiff took the hermit into his company on the journey back north, but the old man was not for Rome and absconded, rejoining his followers in the mountains, to much rejoicing. When Boniface ordered him arrested Pietro slipped through his fingers again, becoming a shadowy itinerant in the Italian countryside until he was captured attempting to gain passage across the Adriatic to Greece. He spent three years in prison, badly treated, until Boniface had him murdered in his cell. So ended the life of a simple man who yearned for solitude but was dragged into the machinery of Rome against his will, crushed and spat out. The sole consolation for his followers was his canonisation in 1313, less than two decades after his death.

1. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003, p81
2. ibid, p81
3. ibid, p84

From my book, Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating recount Larry. Fact is, so often, stranger than fiction! And, the eagerness of people for power is not surprising. Celestine's life and being, was certainly a contrast to the prevailing power states.Cheers,