My favorite historical Pope is Celestine V, one of the Bad Popes described so entertainingly in E.R. Chamberlin’s book of the same name.

In 1294 the Papacy wielded a great deal more power than it does today, and the great families of Rome were constantly jockeying to put their own upon St. Peter’s throne. Deliberations by the College of Cardinals would often drag on interminably, and this time was especially bad, having reached eighteen months as a deadlock between the Colonna and Orsini families seemed unbreakable. In frustration, one of the Cardinals nominated Pietro di Morrone, a holy hermit who preferred to live in small, dirty mountain caves, even as he grew in renown among the most devout. In even greater frustration, the rest of the College agreed, and Pietro was dragged out of his cave to become Celestine V.

But not dragged back to Rome; he refused to go, and (encouraged by King Charles of Naples) set up court at Castello Nuovo in the South. He had a small wooden cell constructed, resembling a cave, where he could hide himself. His followers rejoiced that the dominance of sin and corruption was at an end, to be replaced by a reign of love guided by the Holy Spirit. But Celestine was an awful pope; he issued contradictory orders, granted any request he received, and allowed the papal bureaucracy to crumble into disarray.

Finally, listening to the urgings of Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, Celestine took the unprecedented step of resigning as Pope, after a reign of just fifteen weeks. The College met again, and within twenty-four hours Gaetani was elected Pope, taking the name Boniface VIII. The ambitious lawyer was faced with a problem, however; Celestine, even though abdicated and desiring nothing other than to return to obscurity, could serve as a rallying point for the new Pope’s enemies. So Boniface had him transported back to Rome, but Celestine and some of his supporters arranged an escape along the way. Eventually, in the course of an attempted crossing of the Adriatic to Greece, he was caught and dragged back to the Holy City, where he was imprisoned in the isolated fortress of Fumone. He died less than a year later, but not before offering a prophesy to Boniface: “You have entered like a fox, you will reign like a lion — and you will die like a dog.” Boniface ruled for nine years, putting down numerous rebellions by competing families, eventually locking himself in the Lateran palace, where he died in despair, planning insane revenges against his enemies.

Celestine was canonized in 1313. There has been no Celestine VI. Maybe the next Pope will choose to rehabilitate the name.

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