Post-classical history



Peter had gone down Mount Morrone like a polar bear crossing land, but he would soon come out of Naples like one helplessly floating around on a piece of ice. The confidence of the letter he had composed to Malabranca only a couple of months earlier had slowly evaporated as he entered the last four of his fifteen weeks on Saint Peter’s throne.

In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory the Great once reflected:

My unhappy soul languish[es] under a burden of distractions. I recall those earlier days in the monastery where I could rise above the vanities of life. But now all the beauty of that spiritual repose is gone, and the contact with worldly men and their affairs, which is a necessary part of my duties as bishop [of Rome], has left my soul defiled.1

These are shocking words from one of the greatest popes in history. Had Celestine V been so eloquent he might have said something similar.

Medieval popes were often coronated to the chanting of Psalm 113:7–8 in a formal part of the service of consecration that was called “sitting in the seat of dung”—only a metaphorical suggestion:

    He raiseth up the poor out of the dust,

    and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill;

    That he may set him with princes,

    even with the princes of his people.

The ideal was that a pope would be a man raised from dust to the loftiest position of authority in Christ’s church, and henceforth he must remember from whence he had come. How appropriate this was, but how rare.

Celestine V attempted to establish himself between the imperial power that came with his office and the spiritual ideals of the hermitage. The experiment would soon fail. The most powerful pope of the century before Celestine, Innocent III, “threw handfuls of coins to the assembled crowd” as he was led to his coronation at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, “as a symbol of the fact that the wealth controlled by the papacy was to be used for the service of others.”2 It is possible that Celestine felt overwhelmed from the start and knew that he wasn’t strong enough to do what would be required of him. Or maybe he was just suspicious.

The consummate outsider, Celestine had reasons to be wary of the people with whom he would be associating and working alongside. From the start it was his express desire to lead an ecclesia spiritualis (spiritual church) rather than an ecclesia carnalis(material church). The competition between the two filled him with great anxiety. Not a day went by when he wasn’t attempting to navigate the tension of how he might live his convictions faithfully and yet still lead—and this conflict became particularly acute in his final month—from mid-November to mid-December 1294.

Unlike most of the popes that came before and after him, instead of taking earthly action Celestine V did what a good monk would have done: he prayed. Perhaps he could do nothing else. But the contrast between him and the curia, ecclesiastics, and princes was striking.

In these times, bishops and archbishops sometimes served as warriors in addition to being statesmen and religious leaders. Medieval chronicles are full of descriptions of warrior priests—men who not only held religious office, but as rulers in the Holy Roman Empire led armies into battle. Such men were heroes of the Church.3 In stark contrast, Pope Celestine must have believed that he was the subject of those apocalyptic expectations of the people; he must have believed that he was in fact that messiah-like figure, because he was so different from what the people expected in a religious leader. The question is: how quickly did he realize that his simple intentions and holiness would do more harm than good? Surely he knew by the time he had taken up residence in the castle basement.

Celestine’s awkwardness was palpable. A powerful man of the Spirit, he did not understand how to live and succeed among powerful men on earth. The values of the world were foreign to him.

The Pope and His Curia

The most dominant force in the late medieval Church was the practitioners of canon law. They were necessary to the growth of Christendom in the second half of the thirteenth century. The rise of powerful city-states, increased trade and communication between kingdoms, the transition from demonizing Eastern Christendom and Islam to attempting to understand them, and the burgeoning of universities throughout Europe—all of these matters required specialists. The experts in canon law inhabited the papal curia. They ran Western Christendom by an elaborate system of researchers, advisors, lawyers, judges, and courts. Originally intended to be a representative sample of the universal Church, the curia had by the time of Celestine V become the religious counterpart to a massive royal court. One scholar has referred to the curia as “the new bureaucratic superpower” that emerged during this era, as the papacy and its machinery came to dominate both the spiritual and temporal landscape.4 There was nothing to compare to its power in any of the royal houses of Europe. Every single pope of that era was a canon lawyer, except Celestine.

Dante in the Divine Comedy disparages the way in which the Church was ruled by these legal experts who were schooled in the ability to judge and adjudicate. In the Paradiso, he laments how the “decretals,” or books of church laws, had captivated the officers of the Church to the great neglect of the Gospels (“Evangel”) and the Church Fathers (“the mighty Doctors”).

    For this the Evangel and the mighty Doctors

    Are derelict, and only the Decretals

    So studied that it shows upon their margins.

    On this are Pope and Cardinals intent;

    Their meditations reach not Nazareth,

    There where his pinions Gabriel unfolded.5

More obsessed with the details and “margins” of ecclesiastical laws than the life and teachings of Jesus, these canon lawyers were consigned by Dante to the most undesirable eternal resting places.

In Celestine’s case, the curia took over where Charles II had left them room. The hermit pope’s spiritual charisma was a mismatch for the worldly leadership required for such an intricate, multilayered bureaucracy. They quickly followed their own agenda, knowing that their leader would have trouble discerning what they were up to.

The Final Weeks

As every area of his papal responsibilities fell into disarray, Celestine no longer felt capable of being either a spiritual leader or a manager of papal affairs. The curia didn’t know how to function under a leader who was seemingly so disinterested, and they began to resist doing what the newly appointed agents of Charles II were insisting upon. Celestine, for his part, was not unaware of the disappointment he was causing. But there was little by then that he could do about it. He began to be addled, or simply confused, by difficulties. His contemporaries remarked at how unsophisticated his speech seemed to be. He often spoke in Italian, having little ability in the Latin used in church affairs.

He was communicating less and less with everyone at Castle Nuovo. He avoided contact with the curia, even Charles, and retreated more and more, spending time with his spiritual brethren only. The cardinals were more worried than ever, and on simple matters of governance they began to insist on face-to-face meetings with their pope, who needed to make decisions whether he wanted to or not. At these meetings it became clear that Celestine was either afraid or confused “and could only stammer out halting statements.”6As one sympathetic archbishop summarized it, “He gave dignities, prelacies, offices, against all custom, at anyone’s suggestion and the dictates of his own untutored simplicity.”7

For a man like Peter, so strong with emotion, opinion, and desire, these final weeks must have been intensely difficult. To become head of the Western Church one had to be political, and Celestine did not have a political bone in his body. One had to be seeking power and influence, and the evidence seems to be that although Peter enjoyed the influence he’d held as a spiritual leader, he had the desire but not the understanding to wield his power in the world. A strong man in spiritual and physical terms, he was weak in the eyes of those who were better schooled in the ways of court, diplomacy, and chancery.

In early December 1294, Celestine attempted to turn over most of his responsibilities to a team of three cardinals. It’s not unusual for a pope to delegate certain aspects of his responsibilities; what is unusual is the extent to which it has been done.

Pope John Paul II, for instance, was often lax in governing the late-twentieth-century curia, often leaving the everyday running of the Vatican to a variety of deputies. Benedict XVI has also indicated that his gifts and primary roles as holy father lie in teaching and writing, not in administrative duties. He also leaves the running of many things to others. But Celestine V’s plan was far more extreme; it essentially would have created three popes instead of one, his advisors immediately said. The idea was promptly and wisely rejected, largely on the strength of the arguments of Cardinal Matthew Orsini, one of the most experienced members of the Sacred College, and a cardinal who participated in a total of thirteen papal conclaves over a long career.8

In the midst of all this, there was at least one group of people who were still excited about Celestine’s ascension: the Franciscan Spirituals. Nicholas IV had been the first Franciscan pope, but as a Conventual he had felt threatened by these zealots and ordered that all Franciscans accept the ownership of property in common and pursue learning and education—pursuits that were contrary to the ideals of the Spirituals. Celestine became their champion.

The Spirituals were the most sincere believers that the papacy of Celestine signaled the advent of Joachim of Fiore’s long-expected era of the Spirit of God. Under the previous pope they had been hiding—fearing for their lives—in the Marches of Ancona and other remote places throughout Italy—but now they came into the sunlight trusting that they would be protected. Celestine felt deeply for their plight. The venerable hagiographer Alban Butler writes: “To the rigorist Spirituali movement he was a pope sent direct from Heaven.” Celestine gave his papal blessing to the efforts of the traditionalists, many of whom he knew personally, honoring their desire to remain faithful to the saint of Assisi. He gave them permission to live in separated, small hermitages, similar to those that once surrounded Francis’s Portiuncula, and to practice Francis’s Rule free of any outside interpretations from the papacy or elsewhere.

He also appointed one of their friars from the Marches, Ugolino of Brunforte, as the new bishop of Teramo. Notably this decision would be overturned by Boniface VIII within days following Celestine’s abdication. In a papal bull Boniface declared: “That which was previously stipulated as righteous we are now expunging.” Celestine also elevated to cardinal Berard of Got, the archbishop of Lyon who had ascended Mount Morrone in July to bring Peter the news of his election as pope. And he appointed Charles II’s son, Louis, the next archbishop of Lyon—and Louis was only a twenty-one-year old layman. To his credit, Louis appears not to have accepted the appointment. His only qualification was that his private tutor had been a Spiritual Franciscan. He was to go on to become a saint himself (Saint Louis of Toulouse) and knew better than to accept what he was not yet ready to attain.

True to form, Celestine continued to exercise his spiritual authority in ways that demonstrated no understanding—or at least little fear of consequences—in his relationships with the leaders of the world. He grafted the Spirituals to himself. He made one of the Orsini family, Cardinal Napoleon Orsini, their official protector and guide, and for a time the Spirituals became known as Pauperes eremitæ Domini Celestine, the Poor Hermits of Pope Celestine, in honor of their champion. They were ordered to dress and live as hermits, a decision welcomed by the Spirituals as long as they would be safe. This was Celestine’s greatest accomplishment as well as his final blunder. In the months and years after his death, it was the Spirituals who would most ardently maintain the holiness of the angelic pope, and bemoan how the world had destroyed him.

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