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Benedict XVI: Pope who resigned is a model for today’s world

Pope Benedict XVI passes before the remains of Pope Celestine V after a Mass in Sulmona, Italy (AP Photo)

The 13th-century hermit Pope Celestine V is a role model for men and women seeking to reject material things and rediscover the simple art of contemplation, Pope Benedict XVI has said.

The Pope was speaking from the mountain town of Sulmona in the Abruzzo region for festivities to mark the 800th birthday of the only pontiff to have ever resigned.

Following an open-air Mass in stifling heat, Benedict visited the area struck by the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake before praying in front of the salvaged remains of Celestine. “We live in a society where it seems that every space, every moment must be filled with initiatives, activities, sounds,” the Holy Father said. “Often there isn’t even the time to listen.”

Although the Pope did not mention the abuse scandal directly, he received a round of applause from young people when he spoke of “this time of harsh attacks and media provocation”.

Paying tribute to the work done by priests around the world, he told the crowd “for all our weaknesses, still priests are a precious presence in life”.

Benedict XVI also praised his predecessor’s simple and humble lifestyle, which could serve as an example for modern men and women. “We, too, who live in an epoch of greater comfort and possibilities, are called upon to appreciate a sober lifestyle,” he said.

Pope Celestine V was a compromise candidate chosen on July 5 1294 during a period when the Church was ridden with factionalism.

Born Pietro Angelerio in the village of Sant’Angelo in 1209, he became a Benedictine monk at the age of 17 and displayed a tendency to solitude and asceticism. In 1244 he and some followers headed to a cave in the Abruzzo region of southern Italy and lived according to the example of St John the Baptist. In 1244 he found the Celestine order.

So reluctant was he to become Pope following the death of Nicholas IV in 1294 that he had to be dragged down from his cave on Mount Morrone by monks and cardinals, as well as the kings of Naples and Hungary. He was crowned at the cathedral of St Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila in central Italy.

His misgivings proved to be founded. In Rome he showed himself to be completely out of his depth amid the political backstabbing, and was manipulated into handing out offices and titles.

Eventually, conceding his inability to cope, the 80-year-old pope asked to resign, but was refused until Cardinal Benedetto Gaetano, who wanted the papacy for himself, stepped in and declared Celestine’s resignation legal.

Celestine’s papacy lasted just five months. Cardinal Gaetano was proclaimed Pope Boniface VIII, and threw Celestine in prison, where he died within a year and a half, probably from disease, although some historians have pointed to a hole in his skull as proof that he was murdered.

Celestine came in for enormous criticism for resigning the papacy, and some historians have identified him as the nameless figure seen in the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno.