In 1294, while praying in solitude, a hermit named Pietro Angelerio was surrounded by men from the Vatican who told him that he was to be the new pope. He tried to run, but he couldn’t escape them, or his fate. The solitary ascetic was forced into a life of bureaucracy and public speaking.
Two years earlier, Pope Nicholas IV died, and there had been no pope during that time. Choosing a new one was very difficult.
The papacy was embroiled in politics more so than any pope of our time could ever be. The possibility of a politically liberal pope is big talk amongst journalists today because of the church’s social influence, but in the 13th century the pope’s actions affected European countries much more directly. Popes were powerful enough to stop trade shipments, organize armies, or excommunicate your entire country until your king groveled at his feet.
After two years of deliberations, the Vatican received a letter from the hermit Pietro Angelerio, asking them to get on with it and make a decision. And they did. Pietro Angelerio was dragged, kicking and screaming, to the Vatican and forced to be the pope, himself. He would be known as Celestine V.
He was a popular choice, at the time. He had no political affiliations and was respected as a spiritual leader. Unfortunately, that made him a lousy 13th century pope. (He would be a good pope, today, probably.)
After five months, Celestine realized that he was not good at his job, and he resigned. He removed his vestments, took up his walking stick, and went back to the mountains, leaving the Vatican’s endless paperwork for someone else to do.
He must have felt like a free man, walking outdoors again after being shut up in the Vatican, managing their interests against his will, but his freedom would not last long. The next Pope, Boniface VIII, wanted to have him imprisoned. Like many others, Boniface believed that it was some sort of treachery to simply resign from the Papacy on your own accord.
Celestine, now going by his old name, Pietro Angelerio, eluded the Vatican by hiding in the woods, but he was eventually found and placed in prison, where he died ten months later.
He wasn’t the first Pope to resign – others had done so under duress – but he is the only pope to have done so of his own accord. His decision was very controversial, and it might explain why, in recent years, elderly popes have held on to the position until their death. Our current pope, Benedict XVI, has decided to resign (or, retire) and it signals a big change for future popes. Since Benedict’s decision has not met with much resistance, we can assume he will be able to retire without incident and leave the papacy to a younger, healthier leader, and future popes will be able to do the same.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)