Post-classical history



One of the common explanations for why the cardinals chose Peter is that by electing an elderly and inexperienced man they thought they’d be able to rule him. They picked someone who they assumed wouldn’t be much trouble for them or their allies. If that’s the case, they misjudged, not because Celestine V turned out to be a strong leader, but because he was so weak that others got hold of him before the curia ever had a chance. Peter ruled for fifteen disastrous weeks from August 29 to December 13, 1294. Not a day went by when he wasn’t unduly influenced—often without his knowledge—by the Neapolitan monarchs who convinced him to live among them.

In the twelve centuries since the apostle Peter became the first pope, no other pontiff had ever intended to rule the Church completely apart from the resources at his disposal in Rome. Celestine V’s papacy was troubled from the start because all his early counselors were the friends of the king of Naples and his son, and Celestine ruled in cities far removed from the Eternal City, both religiously and geographically. This was his first mistake.

Avoiding Rome was not in itself unusual. In fact, bishops often felt unsafe in its unfriendly environs. Rome was an epicenter of both the Church and a republic that disliked its own bishops. Those same powerful, fighting families that controlled the issues of State and Church agreed on at least one point: they would combine forces against any bishop who might decide that some of their power belonged to him and his office. The ruling families had a variety of motivations: “The Roman citizens showed great enthusiasm for keeping in the city the papal curia and the wealth it brought with it, but they showed equal enthusiasm for expelling popes for the sake of an independent Roman republic and senate.”1

Nevertheless, many monks and clerics of the Holy City understood the need to have the holy father nearby. St. Peter’s Basilica was built upon the very site where Saint Peter was slain in about 67 C.E. There is power in the mortal remains of Saint Peter, and the Church is built upon the blood of its martyrs. Those were the spiritual arguments. Theologically and historically, the leaders of the Church believed that the ecclesia universalis was not only Catholic, but Roman. God had intended that his Church be guided in its Roman framework through the protection, infrastructure, and milieu of the empire. “Unlike other states, where developments took place by God’s permission,” writes a modern-day essayist, “the Roman Empire grew by God’s direct operation.”2 Administratively, it had become clear throughout the century before Celestine V that when popes spent summers and other extended periods of time away from the Holy See, serious problems arose. One anonymous priest lamented in the decades leading up to 1294: “Let the Roman bishops learn to love the Roman City and stay in it, because popes living outside Rome seem to have the name of their dignity half complete.… [A]s a woman without a husband, so does the City of Rome without a pope seem to be!”3

These problems were arising in the late thirteenth century, when the geography of the Papal States was in flux, and the extent of the territory that a pope was ruling was not clearly defined. It would be more than seven hundred years before Vatican City would become a sovereign city-state and the bishop of Rome would be recognized by the nations of the world as a head of state. In the thirteenth century the bishop of Rome was vying for his authority against the noble families, emperors, and kings, and even sometimes the cardinals themselves. All of the bishop of Rome’s territories were hotly contested and constantly changing. It wasn’t until the 1929 Lateran Treaty—between the kingdom of Italy and the Holy See—that today’s Vatican State was created geographically and politically, making it wholly independent of the nation of Italy that surrounds it.4

Perhaps these are some clues as to why Celestine stayed away from Rome, in addition to the influence that Charles II immediately had upon him. But this also means that his first and greatest mistake of judgment may have also been one of Celestine’s virtues. Perhaps, the new pope thought, he could be a better papa angelico by steering clear of the privileges and trappings of Rome. In the thirteenth century, the papal office, unlike today, held not only spiritual power but also potentially earthly power. Celestine V’s decision to stay out of Rome may have been a way of rejecting what the Church had become—a kingdom on earth.

As a result of this first decision, it is no surprise that many of the other early decisions Celestine V made were at the direction of his landlord, overseer, and primary confidant: Charles II. Charles was a master at telling the spiritual father what he wanted to hear. From the outset, Peter was concerned about a number of things, including the state of his brothers and the churches and oratories that he had built throughout the years. Charles tried to assuage Peter’s fears by making promises. In one instance, Peter asked Charles to promise that the cardinals in the Sacred College would be safe to travel within the territory of Charles’s kingdom. There had been some question on that matter during the papal election. Some of the cardinals had worried that if they entered the territory of Naples and Sicily they might not be free to leave. Charles made this vow to the pope, only to be released from it later on.

His Second Mistake

Even before his coronation the new pope was blundering. His second mistake could not be blamed on anyone other than himself. To every person who attended his coronation and went to confession Celestine V decided to offer the same heavenly reward that had previously been offered by a pope only to the holy crusaders—a plenary indulgence.

This was a very serious matter. Certain conditions were expected to be met in order to gain a plenary indulgence. The person had to be genuinely contrite of heart and holy of purpose. The first plenary indulgence had been the unprecedented offering of Pope Urban II in 1095 to every man (and usually, his entire family) who took up arms for Christendom in the First Crusade. Even though many of these commitments were made in the fervor of the moment, with men yelling out verbal commitments to the pope’s emissaries as they preached in the open air, the men followed up their promises by cutting emblems of crosses out of any available white fabric and sewing them onto their clothing. Before embarking they made arrangements in the event of their death. At some point a man surely realized that he was undertaking solemn vows and serious commitments. The First Lateran Council in 1123 devoted one of its canons (number 11) to handling those converts to the holy cause who had taken up visible “crosses” without following through on the actual commitments involved: they were to be excommunicated. In contrast, Celestine V seemed to offer a pardon for sins to any bloke who undertook to walk to his one-day celebration.

The new pope seemed to believe that he should do whatever he could for his own people. The Church coffers would fill on that special day, and who would benefit more than his brethren, their churches, their families, as well as Charles II, the landlord of the kingdom? Particularly in an age when sin and eternal punishment for sin were grave matters, the new pope’s offering of a plenary indulgence could be seen as making redemption and salvation into something seemingly frivolous. But any who may have questioned the move were hesitant to say anything because it was so early in Celestine’s papacy.

Celestine then extended the same privilege to all who might come to the basilica at L’Aquila, in perpetuity, on the anniversary of his coronation. His bull Inter Sanctorum Solemnia states that he had “opened the treasury of mercy confided to him by Christ and bestowed it upon those who were truly confessed and penitent.”5

Throughout the century, Peter had witnessed various local parishes and bishops providing indulgences for visiting their shrines and relics, and he knew that the justification for many of these favors seemed spurious. Most famous of all, especially to one who knew the Franciscans as closely as Peter did, was the case of the Portiuncula, Saint Francis’s little chapel to the Virgin Mary in the valley below Assisi. During the decades that Peter spent in the mountains, there were Franciscans who claimed that in 1216 Pope Honorius III had granted a plenary indulgence to all who visited Portiuncula. They claimed that Francis himself knew of this grace and perhaps even asked for it. The debate surrounding the claim was hot in Peter’s day and has been debunked since. (No document exists to prove that such an indulgence was valid—except for one written a century later by Bishop Teobald of Assisi.)6 But could it be that Peter looked on what he believed to be valid in Assisi and wanted his own church in L’Aquila granted the same stature and prestige? His offering of a plenary indulgence lasted for only a brief while. Less than a year later the first papal bulls of his successor would undo Peter’s offer, and most of the other indulgences, appointments, and promises he had made, saying that they lacked the gravity and justice expected of the head of Christ’s church.

There is no question that Charles II had undue influence over this pope. Papal historian Eamon Duffy calls Celestine “the naïve stooge of the Angevin King of Naples”7—and indeed he was. Gifts, appointments, and indulgences were distributed indiscriminately. And Charles arranged to have the Sicilian question quickly resolved to his satisfaction, with the pope offering unflinching backing of Charles’s right to rule the territory he had lost in battle. The efforts of Charles to influence Celestine became so conspicuous that some of the most powerful cardinals of the Sacred College began washing their hands of the whole affair. They began to regret what they had done on that day only a few weeks before, uttering comments that were almost treasonous. “Go with your saint, for I will not come with you, nor let the Spirit deceive me further about him,” Cardinal Gaetani was heard to mutter one day as Charles II went by.8 Meanwhile, others began to take advantage. Cardinal Hugo Aycelin, for example, was at that time the only French member of the College. He was a Dominican biblical scholar of the first order and an ally of Charles II. It would soon become clear how much his influence would grow.

As Celestine and Charles begin their journey from L’Aquila to Naples, we see them making decisions in various cities along the way throughout the month of September 1294. After a brief stay in familiar Sulmona, they arrived in Cassino, and Celestine appointed an abbot for the historic monastery founded there by Saint Benedict in 529, perhaps without even visiting Monte Cassino itself, which lies only a mile to the east. The new abbot for the historic monastery was a Hermit of St. Damian who was unknown to the monks of Monte Cassino, and soon after the change in leadership was announced many of the senior monks left in protest.

In Teano, Celestine made a man of questionable character a cardinal—without consulting anyone but those who were present that night at dinner. He created a total of twelve new cardinals on September 18, doubling the size of the Sacred College in a single day. Numbers were rarely accidental in the late Middle Ages, and it seems that Celestine believed that he was adding twelve of his own “apostles.” Two of the twelve were friends and spiritual brothers of Celestine’s from the mountains. Six of them were French, including two monks, the archbishop of Bourges, one of Charles II’s relatives, and the chancellor of the University of Paris. Together with Charles, it was Cardinal Aycelin who made sure that the pope appointed such a number of Frenchmen. The original group of cardinals who had elected Peter was certainly not pleased, for by the time these appointments were over it was clear that Aycelin would preside over the next papal election.

To Castle Nuovo

By October 6, Celestine and Charles were on the road to Naples, their final destination. Naples was as ancient a city as Rome, and with nearly as rich a history in Christendom. Both Saint Peter and Saint Paul probably preached there, and there were catacombs where early Christians had buried their dead, just as in Rome. But Rome was the place of Nero’s most infamous persecutions of Christians in 64–66 C.E. It was in Rome that Peter and Paul breathed their last, and upon their bones the Eternal City had risen amid the ruins of Isis and other ancient goddesses and gods.

Following a brief stay in Capua, the pope and his entourage finally arrived at Charles’s castle on November 5. What had only been whispered as a possibility over the previous six weeks—for a holy father lives and works as Christ’s representative, and doesn’t answer to anyone else on earth—became a reality: Celestine took up residence at Castle Nuovo on the Bay of Naples. The great castle had been completed just twelve years earlier by Charles’s father and had sat mostly unused until Charles arrived there with the pope.9 In the weeks leading up to their arrival, Charles had sent orders home with instructions for the streets to be paved and a papal residence built.10

The scandal was not the fact that the pope would reside away from Rome, for many thirteenth-century popes had recently broken that ground. Gregory IX (1227–41) spent a full eight years away from Rome during his pontificate. Gregory X (1271–76) spent extended periods of time in Provence. Three consecutive holy fathers: John XXI (1276–77), Nicholas III (1277–80), and Martin IV (1281–85) spent months and years ruling from Viterbo. And Celestine V’s predecessor, Nicholas IV, spent the majority of his four years as pope away from Rome in beautiful Rieti and Orvieto.11 The controversy this time was that Christ’s vicar was taking up lodgings in the home of a king.

Clearly to all, the princes ruled him. As Hamlet says to Ophelia regarding her father, Polonius: “Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in ’s own house.”12

Today Castle Nuovo feels almost deserted by the Italian government, the triumphal arch (a later architectural addition) marred by surrounding graffiti, with little of the care that usually goes into great national landmarks. But in November of 1294 the area surrounding it bustled with vendors hawking wares and ongoing construction works. All of this activity yielded conflicting aromas. There were the smells of fruit and flowers, fresh morning bread, but also barrels of fish and makeshift pens of live pigs, containers of rotting food and household garbage. Celestine lived closer to these things than he ever would have had he sat at the Lateran Palace or St. Peter’s, in Rome.

The man who had long been Charles II’s own chief chancellor, Bartolomeo of Capua, was appointed to control the pontifical chancery.13 From these ecclesiastical courts, run by the hundreds of men known as the papal curia, sprang the legal profession as we know it today; it was already fully formed in medieval Italy by about 1250, the generation before Celestine V’s papacy. One of the first professions to fully emerge in Western society, “[t]hey regarded themselves and their colleagues with pride (frequently mixed with self-righteousness) as an intellectual elite who deserved to enjoy power, wealth, and other privileges because what they did was difficult, demanding, and vital to the well-being of society. Advocates and doctors of law, they insisted, were every bit as essential to a community as the soldiers who protected it from its enemies.”14 Some of the papal curia came to Naples to join their leader, but the Neapolitan officers of Charles’s court took up many of these ecclesiastical functions in order to see to their own interests. Celestine V was no match for them. The once formidable hermit of Maiella and Morrone had become a man strangely beholden.

The pope was in his castle with the curia upon his doorstep, dependent upon the king’s good graces. Charles II’s control over Celestine V had become so complete that many in the Church hierarchy and beyond began to fear that the next papal election might be controlled by the king himself. In fact, Charles was arranging for such an eventuality, encouraging Celestine to formally reinstitute Pope Gregory X’s principles for conclave in Ubi majus periculum, the constitution approved in Lyon in 1274 decreeing that all cardinals involved in papal elections should gather within ten days in the palace where the previous pope has died. And, in this instance, the local ruler of that place—now Charles II of Naples—would act as governor and protector for all of the proceedings.

Like a Turtle in His Shell

Charles II had prepared for Celestine V a beautiful apartment that was fitting for a pope and closely reminiscent of what the new leader could have had at St. Peter’s Basilica. But Celestine’s stay in Charles’s splendor would be brief. He was uncomfortable, to say the least.

What happened next is reminiscent of the legends of Francis of Assisi being invited to dinner at a bishop’s or governor’s house. A man of importance and influence, Francis was often receiving such invitations. But when faced with a sumptuous feast—which is of course what would be prepared in such circumstances—Francis would quietly leave the table and go outside to the road to beg for some bread, or some other such thing, as a way of making his point about poverty regardless of the occasion.

By the time Advent was in full swing, eleven weeks had gone by since Celestine’s coronation, and he decided that he couldn’t stay in his rooms any longer. He considered moving elsewhere, but instead he had a small wooden hut built within the estate. He modeled it after his cell in the Abruzzi, which probably means that some of his own monks took the primary responsibility for the work of constructing it and arranging its contents. Within a month, Celestine had relocated to what was essentially the castle basement.

There he spent his last few weeks as a pope attempting to live apart, like a turtle in his shell. Or as James Stefaneschi put it in his biographical poem, “like the pheasant that thinks itself invisible and safe when it hides its head.”15

By twenty-first-century standards, if a few weeks went by without the pope being seen in public or mentioned in the media one might assume there were serious problems. Even fifty years ago, with television in its infancy, when more than three weeks went by without glimpses of Pope John XXIII, there was rampant speculation that he was dying. And, in fact, he was.16 Seven hundred years ago, in 1294, the scrutiny was still intense, and no one on the outside caught sight of Celestine V for weeks.

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