A Pope in hell? The curious case of Pope St. Peter Celestine V

St. Peter CelestinePietro da Morrone, born c. 1215, in the Molise area of central Italy, came from a family of peasants.  He entered a Benedictine monastery and later became a hermit.  Peter eventually guided a community of hermits modeled along the lines of the Cistercian Benedictine rule.  He was well-known for his holiness and his acclaimed ability to heal.

With the death of Nicholas IV, the see of Peter was vacant for three years.  Pietro was eventually elected “by inspiration” in 1294. He took the name Celestine.

Celestine came out of the blocks with a strong spiritual program.  He created 12 cardinals, the number of the apostles, including 5 monks.  Celestine was inspired by the musings of Joachim de Fiore.  Celestine probably wanted to ring in a new age of the Spirit, with a strong monastic dimension, in preparation for the end times.

In a loose way, perhaps we can see today the rise of “movements” and some of the charismatic elements of these movements – as we still emerge from the horror of the 20th century and battle the dictatorship of relativism, as being part of a pattern that repeats itself through our history after the Ascension of the Lord, the end times.  Every generation has sensed itself to be in the end times.  But I digress.

Poor Pope Celestine couldn’t hold it all together.  He abdicated on 13 December 1294 after only 5 months as Pope.  The cardinals elected Benedict Caetani, who took the name Boniface… Boniface VIII.

The former Pope-monk but once-again-Peter fled Rome and went to his hermitage back in the hills of central Italy and Apulia.  He tried to get out of Italy to Greece, but he was apprehended in June 1295 and brought to Boniface.  Boniface imprisoned him.  Peter Celestine died a year later on 19 May 1296 and was buried in L’Aqulia.

He was canonized in 1313.  He was removed from the universal calendar of the Roman Church in 1969, but he is still venerated in the Abruzzi area of Italy.  The church in which he was interred was damaged in the earthquake that rocked central Italy some time ago.  Benedict XVI visited the church.  More on that, below.

Dante, in his Divine Comedy, in Inferno 3, places in hell someone whom we think may be Peter Celestine V.  Dante calls him “the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal”.  ”The great refusal” being the rejection of the highest office to which one might ascend in this world, with all the duties and responsibilities and implications for the bonds of society that that office carries.  Remember that the Divine Comedy is about, among other things, the interrelationship of the secular and the sacred.  Dante was writing political theory in the Divine Comedy.  His Hell is constructed to reflect the ways in which people harm no just themselves, but also the bonds of society.  Dante would have hated Peter Celestine’s abdication also because he opened the way for Dante’s great enemy Boniface VIII, whom he detested.

One of the fascinating people in our Catholic family history.

When Pope Benedict visited the tomb of Pope Celestine he left his palium there, that first one he used, the longer paleo-palium.

An interesting gesture.



From the 2005 Martyrologium Romanum:


6. Ad Castrum Fumorense prop Alatrium in Latio, natalis sancti Petri Caelestini, qui, cum vitam eremeticam in Aprutio ageret, fama sanctitatis et miraculorum clarus, octogenarius Romanus Pontifex electus est, assumpto nomine Caelestini Quinti, sed eodem anno munere se abdicavit et solitudinem recedere maluit.


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12 Responses to A Pope in hell? The curious case of Pope St. Peter Celestine V

  1. Andrew says:

    Dante was not a mere observer of events of his time. As a prominent member of the ruling party (split in two hostile factions) he had his own personal reasons to dislike the Popes. He disliked Celestine for letting Boniface get elected, and he disliked Boniface for not favoring the faction of which Dante was a member. Great poets can be lousy politicians.

  2. He was canonized in 1313. He was removed from the universal calendar of the Roman Church in 1969, but he is still venerated in the Abruzzi area of Italy.

    Today (May 19) is still the class III feast ((memorial, in OF terminology) of St. Peter Celestine on the EF calendar.

    [Reason #62778 to be grateful for Summorum Pontificum!]

  3. Tom T says:

    Interesting background on St. Celestine V. There were indeed many saints with questionable backgrounds. St. Henry II comes to mind, the Emperor declared patron saint of the Benedictine Oblates by Pope St. Pius X. He was the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Ottonian dynasty and also crowned King of the Germans and King of Italy and was the only King of Germany to have ever been canonized. He was chastised by St. Romuald for some questionable war actions allying with pagan Liutitians against Christian Poles. One former Cardinal who left the Church [No.] and whom I believe is probably a saint in Heaven and would be if he had not left the Church was the French Jesuit Jean Danielou, written about by Sandro Magister in http://www.chiesa and described as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. He accurately predicted the results we now see from the misinterpretations of religious orders and particularly the Jesuits of Vatican II forty years before it all came to pass. One of those souls that sounded the warnings, was chastised and punished and suffered greatly for it all. Pax.

  4. RuralVirologist says:

    An interesting gesture.

    Let us pray that he doesn’t resign.

  5. Supertradmum says:

    The false idea that Dante is Boniface, come to hell early, is one of my favorite parts of the Inferno, as it is humorous. Nicholas III, the sinner of simony, thinks Boniface VIII is there before his foreseen time. In one translation, Nicholas states, “Boniface, is that you?” Too funny, but sad. Boniface is a good pope to study if one wants to understand the tension between Church and State, as he said that the Church and the Pope had a higher sovereignty than the Emperor and State.

    Cool times with great leaders making great decisions and not in anyway afraid to make enemies.

    I love Dante, as he has such strong feelings and is the poet par excellence. As to Celestine, who is a saint, Dante was unfair. I had not seen the photos above. Very poignant. Thanks for this post.

    And he cried, “Are you already standing there,
    Are you already standing there, Boniface?
    By several years the record lied to me!

    55 “Are you so quickly glutted with the wealth
    Which did not make you fear to take by guile
    The lovely lady and then lay her waste?”

    I acted like a person who’s left standing —
    Not comprehending what’s been said to him —
    60 Half-mocked and at a loss to make an answer.

    Then Virgil spoke up, “Tell him right away,
    ‘I am not he, I’m not the one you think!’ ”
    And I replied as I had been instructed.

  6. dans0622 says:

    What is the timing on the canonization of St. Celestine V and the writing of that portion of the Divine Comedy? Would Dante have had the nerve to have put in hell one who was declared a saint?

  7. Hidden One says:

    I have heard various things about Cardinal Danielou, but I do not think he left the Church. The Jesuit residence that he was living in, sure.

  8. MikeJ9919 says:

    Pontius Pilate is an alternative possibility for “the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal.”

  9. Phil_NL says:


    Based on wikipedia, Dante began the Divine Comedy in 1308, so he’d have 5 years of writing before the canonization. As the original mauscripts did not survive, it’s impossible to determine if Dante was already passed that point and simply didn’t bother to correct himself (or perhaps couldn’t, if the manuscript was already out of his hands…)

    At any rate, St. Celestine V is more interesting as a case in the discussion if papal abdication is possible (or desirable). Dante, for all his brilliance, did not produce a Divinely inspired work (interestingly, some authors claim that his contemporaries were less sure about that point…).

  10. Tom T says:

    Hidden One,
    You are correct. Fr. Z corrected me also. I don`t believe he did leave the Church. I don`t know where I read that however, wherever it was, I must have read wrong. Pax.

  11. Legisperitus says:

    Perhaps Pope Benedict saw the Piero Marini pallium (which he clearly didn’t care for) as a symbol of his own abdication for fear of the wolves, and therefore he relinquished that symbol to St. Celestine to signal his own resolve to persevere in the office.

    Tendentious interpretation of an ambiguous action, I know, but one can hope.

  12. Oneros says:

    Dante leaving this figure ambiguous was one of his best literary moves, though.

    He left it so that it can be either Celestine, or Pilate.

    Neither occurs elsewhere in the Comedy, yet both are rather surprising omissions (especially Pilate, but Celestine too given his contemporary relevance).

    Dante knew there was debate about both figures’ final destiny, and so he didn’t want to come down conclusively for either, and yet wanted to show what he found contemptible in both. So he left a shade unidentified who could be either, without also conclusively damning either.

    Well played, Dante.