Stories that Talk: The Hermit Pope

Peter of Morone craved a hermit’s life. His asceticism appealed to certain others, and in 1254 he founded an order known as the Hermits of St. Damian. He lived as a recluse in a mountain cave until his eighties.

Meanwhile in Rome, Pope Nicholas IV died and church officials spent 27 months trying to choose a replacement. Unable to agree, they finally pulled Peter’s name from the hat. Three bishops traveled 150 miles and clawed their way up the rocky side of the hermit’s mountain to tell him of his election. Panting and sweating, they inched around the narrow ledge and spied Peter peeking curiously through the bars of his makeshift door. He was unkempt, pale, disheveled, sick, aged, and hardly able to understand them.

Peter gathered a knapsack, wrapped himself in a tunic, mounted a donkey, and accompanied the bishops to Aquila, Italy, where he was crowned before 2,000 people. He took up residence in Naples, calling himself Pope Celestine V. He built a tiny wooden cell to hide in and wandered through his palace nibbling crusts of bread.
Celestine knew nothing of church government, world affairs, or political intrigue. His misjudgments multiplied like rabbits, and he soon found himself hopelessly entangled. The church descended into crisis. “O God!” he cried, “While I rule over other men’s souls, I am losing my own!” Churchmen trembled at his ineptitude; and, according to one story, Cardinal Gaetani finally inserted a reed through the wall of Celestine’s private room and spoke as a voice from heaven, telling him it was God’s will for him to resign.

In the last act of his pontificate, Celestine issued a constitution giving popes the right to quit, then shocked the world by resigning on December 13, 1294, just fifteen weeks after his coronation. It was explained that he was abdicating in the quest of a better life and an easy conscience, and on account of the frailty of his body and the badness of men.

The “voice from heaven,” Gaetani, was elected Pope Boniface VIII. He imprisoned Celestine in the castle of Fumone until the old man died in 1296.

I wish I had wings like a dove,
So I could fly far away and be at peace.
I would go and live in some distant desert.
I would quickly find shelter
From howling winds and raging storms.
Psalm 55:6-8

written by Robert J. Morgan

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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