Abdicating the papacy in literature

Pope Celestine VWhen, on 11 February, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be abdicating the papacy, a modest 13th century Italian monk became an unlikely feature bar in newspapers worldwide.

That’s because, before Pope Benedict’s surprising news,  the last Pope to have resigned from his office was Pope Celestine V, way back in 1294.

Pope Celestine’s decision was commented on – positively and negatively – by the well-known literary figures of the time. Dante is believed to have made a reference to Celestino V in the Inferno:

I saw and recognized the shade of him
Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.

—Inferno III, 59–60

The reference is cryptic, but some scholars believe this figure in hell is the former Pope.  Petrarch defended Celestine’s choice in De vita solitaria, supporting the medieval Pope’s virtuous decision to return to his origins as a solitary monk.

L’avventura di un povero cristiano, Ignazio SiloneThe time seemed ideal to pick up a book I’ve been ‘meaning to read’ for ages, by an Italian author from Abruzzo whose works I admire: Ignazio Silone (1900-1978).

During his lifetime, Silone produced a large body of work. His last published work appeared in 1968,  a novel about Pope Celestino V entitled L’avventura di un povero cristiano (translated into English with the title The Story of a Humble Christian).

Silone’s most famous works are about his native Abruzzo, and in his last work, he decided to tell a story of another native son. Celestine-originally Pietro di Morrone-had been a monk near Sulmona, in Abruzzo, when he was called to the papacy – a position he never desired.

Collemaggio, L'Aquila

I visited Collemaggio church before the L’Aquila earthquake

It is also in Abruzzo where he was crowned pope and where he is buried, in the church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila. The church was badly damaged in the 2009 earthquake, but his remains were recovered unharmed.

Pope Celestine was a hermit monk, living in a cave in Abruzzo when he was selected for the papacy. The conclave had lasted a brutal two years, with the powerful Colonna and Orsini families mired in gridlock about possible successors to the deceased Pope Nicholas IV. Pietro di Morrone would be selected.


Collemaggio church after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake

It is said he at first refused the papacy, but later relented, becoming Pope Celestine V on 29 August 1294 at Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila … at the age of 79.

Silone’s novel – formatted as a play – makes clear the political pressures Celestine faced, and the power of various factions of the church. The inexperienced Celestine was ill-equipped to assume papal duties. Only five months after taking office, he resigned.

This is not my favorite from among Silone’s works, but it’s still an interesting read. As recent events in the Holy See have shown,  the resignation of an obscure medieval pope has become timely once again…

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