A Pope in hell? The curious case of Pope SAINT 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’Aquila.

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, for example another one by Clive James.

After earthquakes rocked central Italy, Pope Benedict visited the area, including the tomb of Pope Celestine.  He ominously 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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Geoffrey says:

    Considering that the Missal, Breviary, and new Martyrology officially refer to Celestine V as “Peter Celestine”, I had thought that the Pope Emeritus might have similarly combined his baptismal and papal names when his resignation was first announced.

  2. mysticalrose says:

    No matter the reason, I cannot help but to think abdication is cowardly. In this I agree with Dante — whether for Celestine V or Benedict XVI, it really does seems to be a great refusal. And the whole Church pays the price.

  3. ChrisP says:

    I’m a simple man.

    How could Celestine be in hell if he’s a declared Saint?

    Literary opinion and licence granted to Dante. Fine.

    But serious conjecture? That would run contrary to the Church’s declaration.

    [You have to know that Dante’s Divine Comedy was also a treatise on political theory.]

  4. Gerard Plourde says:


    I agree. To quote St. Augustine, “Rome has spoken.”

  5. teomatteo says:

    Mysticalrose, i agree. If so few flee there must be a reason why they stay….and suffer.

  6. rdb says:

    I remember seeing that picture of Pope Benedict XVI laying the pallium on the tomb. I told many people that was the sign that he was going to resign. As someone with a similar temperament as the pope, I understand his natural desires to resign the papal ministry. Yet, I also frequently ask the Lord to be merciful to the pope I love so much for his decision.

  7. samwise says:

    A healthy emphasis on eschatology is lacking in more recent Encyclicals like Frat Toot, etc. BXVI’S actions (FACTA NON VERBA, like that of St Joseph) speak louder than this-worldly musings on utopia. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world…”?

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  9. Semper Gumby says:

    samwise: Good point. One should have a healthy regard for the End Times, but too little or too much eschatology (the study of the End Times) can be unhealthy.

    From the post above:

    “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.”

    A closer look at Cistercian abbot Joachim de Fiore (c. 1135-1202), who got a little carried away with eschatology.

    Dante (see post above) places Joachim de Fiore in Paradiso (Heaven). The end of Canto Twelve (tr. Anthony Esolen):

    Here’s Rabanus, and gleaming next to me
    is the Calabrian abbot Joachim,
    endowed with the Spirit’s gift of prophecy.

    To emulate so great a paladin,
    I was moved by the kindled courtesy
    of brother Thomas and his crisp discourse-
    And all this band of souls were moved with me.

    In his notes for Canto Twelve Esolen writes that Dominicans and Franciscans claimed Joachim of Fiore prophesied the institution of their orders. Esolen also writes, “Joachim was what is now called a dispensationalist…Bonaventure opposed his ideas…” Bonaventure was a 13th century theologian. If I recall, St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century theologian) also admonished Joachim de Fiore.

    (A “dispensationalist” is basically one who divides history into distinct periods. This over-simplification can lead to error, to say the least.)

    As for Dante’s term “paladin” Esolen notes, “The word is normally used of the twelve peers who fought beside Charlemagne and who figure in so many Christian chivalric romances.”

    For additional details on eschatology, dispensationalism and Joachim de Fiore see Carl Olson’s “Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers.”

    Here is a brief excerpt from Olson:

    “He [Joachim de Fiore] based his view of history on the Trinity, dividing time into three major sections, each one corresponding to one of the Divine Persons:

    ‘The age of the Father was the age of the Old Testament, and law, marriage, and water were among its characteristics. The age of the Son, the present one but rapidly coming to an end, is the age of the New Testament and of faith, the clergy and the wine. The age of the Holy Spirit will be the age of perfection, love, monks, and oil.’

    “This tripartite view of history would prove to be quite influential, having an impact on Hegel and Marx…”

    [Olson then quotes Richard Kyle] “Even the modern New Age movement claims Joachim…New Agers believe that the coming new age will share characteristics with Joachim’s third stage.”

    “Joachim promoted a sort of evolutionary progression that he believed would culminate in a utopian age in which the Holy Spirit would communicate directly to humanity…”

    The phrase “Left Behind” in Olson’s title refers to Tim LaHaye’s popular “Left Behind” series of paperback thrillers involving the End Times and dispensationalism.

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