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The saint who was Pope for 161 days

Pietro: his Benedictines would become Celestines

With the exception of Gregory XII, a Pope deliberately elected in 1406 to negotiate himself out of office and end the schism with Avignon, Celestine V was – until this year – the last pontiff to have abdicated the chair of St Peter.

Celestine, baptised Pietro, was born in 1215, the 11th of 12 children in a peasant family living on the northern border of the kingdom of Naples.

While still in his teens, he joined a Benedictine monastery before going to live as a hermit in the wild Abruzzi mountains.

At some stage Pietro was ordained. He continued, however, to dedicate himself to extreme mortifications in a cave on Mount Morrone, some 70 miles east of Rome.

Like many holy men determined to shun humanity, Pietro was soon surrounded by disciples. Nor did he diminish his appeal by retiring in 1245 to the still more inaccessible heights of Mount Maiella.

In 1259 the local bishop allowed Pietro to build the church of Santa Maria at the foot of Mount Morrone. Five years later Pope Urban IV recognised his followers as a special order of the Benedictines, who came to be known as Celestines.

So Pietro became involved with the great world. He travelled to Lyon, where he met Pope Gregory X, and secured the new order independence from episcopal control.

His reputation as an ascetic, miracle-worker and monastic leader grew. In 1278 King Charles I of Naples and Sicily took Santa Maria under royal protection.

In 1293, Pietro, now about 78, relinquished direction of the community, and once more retired to a grotto on Mount Morrone.

From April 1292 there had been a period without a pope, as the Colonna and Orsini families manoeuvred for the election of their respective candidates. In June 1294, however, Pietro suddenly warned that divine retribution would follow if the Church were left any longer without a leader. The 12 Cardinal-electors responded by choosing the old man himself as Pope.

Although this astonishing turn reduced Pietro to tears, he decided to accept the office. Acclaimed as “Papa Angelicus”, he rode on a donkey to L’Aquila, where he was installed as Celestine V. Holiness, however, proved an insufficient qualification.

Completely out of his depth, he followed the instructions of King Charles II of Naples and Sicily, to the ill-concealed fury of that monarch’s political opponents. Only in showering privileges upon his own congregation did Celestine show initiative.

Aware of his incapacity, he issued a decree establishing his right to abdicate, and stepped down on December 13 1294, after 161 days in office.

He longed to return to his cave on Mount Morrone, but his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, kept him confined until his death on May 19 1296 in a tower near Rome. Celestine was canonised in 1313.