The Pope wasn’t killed by a nail to the skull

Because of the abdication of Benedict XVI we had reason to turn the pages of our history books back to the resignation of Celestine V.

Who can forget that image of Benedict, then Pope, laying his pallium on the glass case which houses the body of the once-Pope Celestine?

Who can forget what Dante seems to do to Celestine?

In any event, at The History Blog, there is an article of a goodly length about Peter Celestine.

Here is how it begins:

Pope Celestine V was not killed by a nail in the skull

Celestine V’s papacy was doomed from the start. Born Pietro Angelerio in Sicily, from his early 20s until old age he was an ascetic hermit who lived in a succession of remote caves on top of mountains and modeled his life after John the Baptist. He founded the Celestine monastic order whose rule was based on his own strict practices of hair shirts and bread-and-water fasts, but left it to somebody else to run so he could retire to his beloved mountain-top cave. He was only dislodged from there very much against his will when the cardinals declared him Pope in 1294.

That was the last thing he wanted. The problem was the cardinals had been trying for two years to decide who should be pope after the death of Nicholas IV in 1292, but divisions between Guelph and Ghibelline factions and rivalries between the great Roman families of the Orsini and the Colonna (out of the 11 cardinals, three were Orsini, two Colonna and one, Benedetto Gaetani, Colonna-affiliated) had caused a seemingly unbreakable stalemate. At that time there was no conclave locking them in the Vatican until the decision was made, so two years of dithering were entirely comfortable. Pietro sent them a stern letter telling them God had told him that if they didn’t elect a Pope in four months, His wrathful vengeance would fall upon them. Much to his horror, their response was to elect him Pope.

At first he categorically refused and even tried to run away, but he was 79 years old and 200,000 people had flocked to his mountain after the news broke. Finally a finally a delegation of cardinals and two kings (the Angevin King Charles II of Naples and his son, King Charles I Martel of Hungary) convinced him to don the mitre. On August 29th, 1294, almost two months after his election, Pietro was crowned Pope in L’Aquila and became Celestine V.

He was awful at it.


The piece goes on to recount the historical circumstances, Celestine’s abdication and then how the poor old man was treated under Boniface VIII.

Pope Celestine is venerated as a saint in the region of L’Aquila, and he appears as “saint” on the calendar of the Holy See. His feast is coming up soon, on 19 May.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Chuck3030 says:

    So, why the title?

  2. Art says:

    I’d chalk it up to politics, ‘personal holiness’ – a case of “We’re not called to be successful, only faithful”, and most importantly God having the final say. I don’t think sainthood then was determined in the same way that it is done now.

  3. StWinefride says:

    May 19 is the anniversary of my Confirmation so I am particularly fond of Pope Celestine V. This is what Rev. Alban Butler had to say with regard to Dante:

    Men, as it usually happens on such occasions, were divided in their sentiments with regard to this extraordinary action [Pope Celestine’s abdication], of which we see a specimen in the writings of those great men who in that age began to restore at Florence the true taste of polite literature. Dante, who has stained his reputation with many blots in his moral and civil conduct, and his works with many falsities and unjust prepossessions, ascribes this cession of Celestine to pusillanimity. But this base censure is justly chastised by his country man Petrarch, who passed his unjust and glorious banishment at Vaucluse near Avignon, respected by the whole world, till he was courted by his fellow-citizens to honor his native country again with his presence, though he preferred to it a retirement to Papua. This great man, speaking of the abdication of our holy pope, says: “This action I call a sublime and heavenly fortitude, which he only possesses who knows the emptiness of all worldly dignities. The contempt of honors arises from a heroic courage, not from a want of that virtue; as the desire of them shows that a soul raiseth not herself above herself.”

    (Taken from Vol. V of “The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints” by the Rev. Alban Butler, the 1864 edition published by D. & J. Sadlier, & Company)

    Pope Celestine V, pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI!

  4. acricketchirps says:

    I would guess they explain the title in the […] part.

  5. Geoffrey says:

    I noticed that the Missal and Breviary for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) list him as “Saint Peter Celestine”, combining both his baptismal and papal reign names. It is sad that he is not on the calendar in the Ordinary Form. Given recent events, I wonder if it isn’t possible that his feast may be restored in the OF, even if only as an optional memorial…

  6. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you for the fine quotation!

    I notice that Fr. Z very carefully writes, “Who can forget what Dante seems to do to Celestine?”


    A couple months ago, looking up Dante’s “il gran rifiuto” (Inferno, III, 60) in an old edition, I encountered Dr. Oelsner’s note: “Probably Celestine V., […] Objections may be raised against this interpretation; but the other names suggested (such as Esau, or Vieri de’Cerchi, chief of the Florentine Whites) are even less satisfactory.” And I thought at the time, what are presumably Boniface VIII.’s words quoted by Guido in XXVII, 104-05, to “due le chivi,/che il mio antecessor non ebbe care”, seem milder about St. Celestine V.

    Fr. Z, do you – or does anyone else – have a favourite ‘non-Celestine’ solution to Dante’s allusion?

  7. Venerator Sti Lot says: Fr. Z, do you – or does anyone else – have a favourite ‘non-Celestine’ solution to Dante’s allusion?

    Alas, I do not.

  8. Pope Celestine was canonised for his holiness, in spite of his bad papacy. So when the same happens to Pope John Paul II et al., even if their papacies are judged by some to be disastrous, their holiness does count, and we have historical precedent.

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