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

St. Peter Celestine

Today is the feast of St. Peter Celestine, Pope Celestine V, who famously resigned the papacy.

One of the fascinating people in our Catholic family history.

Pietro 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.

If you have never read the Divine Comedy, you should.  You could start with Esolen (Part 1, Inferno HERE) or perhaps with Dorothy Sayer’s fine version (Part 1, Inferno, HERE).  There are many renderings to choose from.  I am getting into one by Clive James.

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.  O, my prophetic soul.

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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  1. I find the backdrop of a ruined church littering the scene a fitting symbol.

  2. ClavesCoelorum says:

    I find it so amazing that it is possible next to the body of a person who was Pope 700 years ago. Haven’t seen anything like it before.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    Since Benedict XVI’s resignation, I have felt that the feast of St Peter Celestine should be restored to the calendar of the Ordinary Form as an optional memorial.

  4. Blas says:

    Dante put in the hell the three popes contemparary of him because he thught they were simoniacs. And make it clear was them. There is no clear indication that “the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal” is Celestine V. Many think that is Pilato. And others has differents candidates among historical people.

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  6. OrthodoxChick says:

    Pope Celestine V died in 1296 and was canonized in 1313? That’s only 17 years. Wouldn’t that be considered warp speed for the Church of 700 years ago? Dante placed him in hell, and the Church placed him in Heaven, which is probably how it will go down for P.E. Benedict too. There are a lot of far less literate “Dante’s” running around the media, placing popes in hell in their political writing.

  7. YorkshireStudent says:

    If it was Pope Celestine to which Dante referred, I can see why. I remember being completely blank through the lesson which I had after hearing the announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation – having first dismissed the rumour I heard from a friends as a joke. If I’d been a C14th poet, perhaps I wouldn’t have been too charitable. There is also Dictatus Papae to take into account, the 23rd dictate was “That the Roman pontiff, if he have been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint…”, i.e. that mere accession to the Supreme Pontificate merits heaven! Leaving aside the theological issues, there would be some logic to the idea that he had sinned, by ‘refusing heaven’.

  8. Priam1184 says:

    I agree with Dante to the extent that Boniface VIII did no favors for the Church: the strange Bull Unam Sanctam started the road to Anagni, to the ‘Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy’ in Avignon, and to the Great Western Schism (an entirely undiscussed topic in our day and age). And these in turn led to the disaster of the Protestant Reformation, the bizarre philosophies of what we call for some reason the ‘Enlightenment,’ and the destructive morality of modern times. It would be unfair to lay all this at one man’s feet but one can draw that line through history.

  9. johnfoster42 says:

    Actually, to be accurate, Celestine (and most scholars believe the reference is to him) is not in Hell proper, but the antechamber, i.e., the place for people who refused to take a position and therefore are not good enough for Heaven but not bad enough for Hell.
    Interesting contrast: the first person Dante sees in the Inferno is Celestine, the pope whom the Church considered holy. One of the first people Dante sees in the Purgatorio is Manfred, in the antechamber there, but who will eventually get to Heaven, who the Church condemned.

  10. Hmm . . . A pope consigned to the pit because he resigned the papacy and his successor was a disaster. How could anyone take seriously such an absurd scenario?

  11. Uxixu says:

    I do very much regret that beloved Benedict did not feel strong enough to stay in his pontificate. I can understand he never wanted it, but do think he was what we needed and when I contemplate recent & current events, what we still need more than ever.

  12. Lori Pieper says:

    It should be stressed in regard to the unnamed soul in question that he is part of a large group of souls of the same kind, who are rejected by both Heaven and Hell for never making a clear choice between good or evil. They “never were alive,” Dante’s guide Virgil says. He makes it clear they should not be memorialized or recognized in any way, including by name. The whole point is that we are not supposed to know who this person is. Which is, of course, why Dante didn’t name him. So I’d be very wary of trying to identify him.

    The other problem I have with the identification with Celestine is that type of person outlined here does not at all fit the known character of this Pope, who everyone agrees with not only sincerely devoted to God, but a very holy man. He obviously is not the type to be described as refusing the basic choice between good and evil. I don’t know of any other case where a condemnation by Dante is so out of step with the nature of the person. His judgments always fit the person’s character in a credible way. Yes, Celestine’s resignation was bad policy for the Church, and if there was cowardice, it would have been a sin on his part, but in no way would he merit the designation given to these poor souls.

    If there is a real candidate — well, Pilate is never mentioned elsewhere in the Comedy, surprising for someone so prominent in Gospels, so we don’t know his fate . . . so it’s tempting. Especially given his “what is truth”?

  13. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Sayers reports, “It would seem likely that the completed Inferno ae we know it was first ‘published’ […] about the year 1314” (p. 49).

    If “l’ombra”of verses 59-60 was intended for Pope Celestine, and this was put or left in its final form after his canonization in 1313, what might that mean? Dante, reports Sayers, “dated his descent into hell […] from the sping of 1300” (p. 41). The “pastor senza legge”of XIX, verses 82-87, is taken to be Pope Clement V, who canonized Pope Celestine. Does this, then, imply Dante thinks this simoniac Pope is incapable of canonizing Celestine? Or, are we to compare Paradiso, XX, and suppose that as Trajan was once brought from Limbo and enabled to attain Heaven, so, after 1300, the canonization by Pope Clement, however personally lawless, and ill at fulfilling his office, will have delivered Celestine from the ‘vestibule’ to among the saints?

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Lori Pieper reminds me of another question: “l’ombra” of verse 59 is one among some whom Dante had recognized (“riconosciuto”, v. 58), and Dante says, “vidi e conobbi l’ombra” (‘I saw and knew the shade’). What, if anything, might this ‘recognition’ and further knowing upon seeing, imply? Personal familiarity? Rcognition by means of iconography, or vivid description? I have seen Vieri de’Cerchi, who was slain at the Battle of Campaldino, in which Dante also fought, suggested – but so briefly I have no clear idea why, exactly.

  15. Cordelio says:

    While Benedict XVI visited the tomb of St. Celestine, Benedict XV wrote an encyclical on Dante.


    This part is on point:

    6… But, it will be said, he inveighs with terrible bitterness against the Supreme Pontiffs of his times. True; but it was against those who differed from him in politics and he thought were on the side of those who had driven him from his country. One can feel for a man so beaten down by fortune, if with lacerated mind he breaks out sometimes into words of excessive blame, the more so that, to increase his feeling, false statements were being made by his political enemies ready, as always happens, to give an evil interpretation to everything. And indeed, since, through mortal infirmity, “by worldly dust even religious hearts must needs be soiled” (St. Leo M. S. IV de Quadrag), it cannot be denied that at that time there were matters on which the clergy might be reproved, and a mind as devoted to the Church as was that of Dante could not but feel disgust while we know, too, that reproof came also from men of conspicuous holiness. But, however he might inveigh, rightly or wrongly, against ecclesiastical personages, never did he fail in respect due to the Church and reverence for the “Supreme Keys”; and on the political side he laid down as rule for his views “the reverence which a good son should show towards his father, a dutiful son to his mother, to Christ, to the Church, to the Supreme Pastor, to all who profess the Christian religion, for the safeguarding of truth” (Mon. III, 3).

    7. Thus, as he based the whole structure of his poem on these sound religious principles, no wonder that we find in it a treasure of Catholic teaching; not only, that is, essence of Christian philosophy and theology, but the compendium of the divine laws which should govern the constitution and administration of States; for Dante Alighieri was not a man to maintain, for the purpose of giving greater glory to country or pleasure to ruler, that the State may neglect justice and right which he knew well to be the main foundation of civil nations.

  16. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    In college, I took a theology course on “The Divine Comedy.” (The professor was an orthodox Catholic and Indian immigrant.)

    I remember him saying that “the coward who made the great refusal” is Pontius Pilate.

  17. Lori Pieper says:

    Venerator Sti Lot, I have thought somewhat along the same lines. The ombra was evidently someone Dante recognized because he knew him personally. If so, that would probably leave out Celestine — but would eliminate Pilate too.

  18. Brooklyn says:

    If you think 17 years is fast for a canonization, that is nothing compared to Pope St. Gregory the Great who was canonized on the day he died or St. Anthony of Padua who was canonized one year after his death.

  19. benedetta says:

    Brooklyn, Beautiful blog! I am just curious, are you the same “Brooklyn” who was commenting a couple of days ago over on the two manifestations of Card .Kasper thread? I noticed that commenter “Brooklyn” does not have a hyperlink. I wonder if Fr. Z could clarify when two different posters have the same handle as it can be confusing.

  20. iowapapist says:

    One of the more chilling lines in “The Inferno” comes from the man who, with only the lower part of his body protruding from a hole, hears Dante and Virgil and says “Boniface……is that you?”

  21. slainewe says:

    Wikipedia blurb on Saint Celestine:
    “In the formal instrument of [Celestine’s abdication] , he recited as the causes moving him to the step: “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.”

    None of this makes sense to me. Seems to me that true “humility” is being content where the Lord has placed me, especially if, on a human level, I hate it. As regards a “purer life and stainless conscience;” what merit is there if I flee temptations rather than conquer them? As regards “deficiencies in … strength [and intelligence];” cannot God supply what I need in an instant if it is necessary? As regards “the perverseness of the people;” am I any better? And as regards “longing for the tranquillity of his former life;” what man does not long for the “fleshpots of Egypt” once the Lord sends him on his life’s mission, (be it the papacy or a house filled with screaming children)?

    I do see cause for his canonization in that God did not give him what he wanted in the way he envisioned. It appears he ended up suffering more than had he remained pope. It seems he was blessed with “true humility” in the end.

  22. Tim says:

    Three interesting details …
    first, to reiterate, the shade is at the gate, not actually in the inferno.
    second, Celestine was canonized under his baptismal name according to the Acta Sanctorum, not his papal name.
    third, Peter was canonized by Pope Clement V, the first of a string of French popes and the one who moved the papal court to Avignon, thus starting the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Catholic Church. This put the papacy under the strong influence of the French kings. Pope Boniface VIII had succeeded Celestine and reputedly conspired to get him to resign had enormous conflicts with King Phillip IV of France. Clement’s canonization of Celestine in 1313 has been understood in part to be a gesture of alliance with Phillip, who ruled until 1314.
    There is old historian’s quip about Pope Boniface VIII that he came into office like a fox (getting Celestine to resign), ruled like a lion (in his high profile conflicts with King Phillip), and died like a dog (a reference to the Terrible Day at Anagni, when Phillip’s agents so beat Boniface that he eventually died).

  23. slainewe says:

    “Celestine was canonized under his baptismal name according to the Acta Sanctorum, not his papal name.”

    That IS interesting. But then why is he on the rolls as Saint Celestine?

  24. I’m just glad Dante isn’t God, that’s all.

  25. Imrahil says:

    Dear slainewe,

    as regards temptations, especially suchlike that we have cause to suspect us of falling prey to (a desire for a “stainless conscience” is primarily about actual sins rather than mere temptations),

    as Fr McNabb said (on an issue I’d tend to think he presented as too alternativeless, as too application, but still, it’s true generally), “occasions of sin must be overcome by flight not fight”.

    Then, as Fr Elger says we chiefly have to refrain from any sins of our own self first of all, because – he does actually writes that down in a textbook on Catholic morality – “every man is his own neighbor”.

    The Bl. John Henry goes to an extreme (but remains strictly accurate) and says that “The Catholic Church believes it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for the many millions on it to die in extremest agony, than that one soul, I shall not say be lost, commit one venial sin, tell one wilful untruth or steal one farthing without excuse.”

    As for “deficiencies in … strength [and intelligence]”, the way God makes up for them includes human reason to estimate said deficiencies and, eventually, resign. This, at least, has been manifestly the thinking of the Pope emeritus.

    As for the “fleshpots of Egypt”, that phrase means the convenience of a life of slavery (to sin or literally to the Pharaoh), not about the convenience of any life whatsoever. (He was a hermit, you know.) Christianity is not about leading an inconvenient life.

    In fact, if Pope St. Celestine really did write in his abdication that he, among other things, “longed for the tranquillity of his former life”, I find it a remarkable display of honesty.

    As for humility, there is not simply a one-way description for it. There’s humility in wanting a lower post (thinking oneself unfit for it), there’s humility in accepting the post one stands in, and there’s humility in humbly subjecting oneself to the career carroussel to let the others find out one’s abilities for optimal use. To quote a famous tv series, both Lord Grantham and Mr. Crawley are humble at the onset of Downton Abbey, only in conflicting ways.

    I’m not so clearly sure, indeed, though, how “the perverseness of the people” is in itself an abdication reason… especially as this people loved him dearly. It was probably supplementary anyway.

    Yet, him having been a hermit with a reputation of holiness… and he himself could be sure that, for all his remaining sins, he was not a put-up hypocrite sort of saint… yes he was any better.

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