Sunday, December 13, 2020

The year was 1294. We remember Pietro Morrone, a.k.a. Pope Celestine V. The reading is an Advent reading from Benedict XVI.

It is the 13th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1294.

To understand our story for today, we will begin in the year 2013. In February of that year, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by resigning from the Papacy. If you were a newshound in that year, you likely remember the renewed attention that this brought Pope Celestine V, a 13th century Pope with parallels to the then outgoing Benedict.

Benedict wrote in 2013 that, "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." While this was controversial to some, it was not contentious to canon law. Benedict was following in the footsteps of Pope Celestine V, who became the first Pope to resign voluntarily on this, the 13th of December in 1294. The implications for this would reverberate from the 13th century to the present.

Celestine was born Pietro Angelerio in 1215. By the age of 12, he was interested in taking Holy orders. He joined the Benedictines but rose to prominence as an ascetic and hermit. He took the name Pietro Morrone after the mountain's name on which he established his solitary abode. Despite his affinity for the harshest of self-mortifying acts, or perhaps because on account of them, he developed a following. Pietro's followers would later take on the name "Celestines" after the Papal name taken by Pietro.

By 1294 the office of the Papacy had been vacant for two years and three months. This is the second-longest vacancy in Papal history, the longest occurring only 24 years earlier when it was empty for two years and ten months. These extended vacancies were fueled by rivalries between both secular and religious authorities. The Cardinals themselves were aligned with rival families, which made it impossible for any Cardinal to receive the requisite 2/3 vote. Frustrated with their indecision, Pietro Morrone wrote a scathing letter to the college of Cardinals claiming that God's judgment would follow this indecision. The story goes that upon reading this aloud, the dean of the College of Cardinals shouted his response, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect brother Pietro di Morrone."

Pietro was a famous ascetic, he did not have the political baggage of the Cardinals, and he was old. He would be a classic caretaker Pope. But he had first to be convinced to take the position. Writing later, the poet Petrarch would say that Pietro initially tried to run away from the calling. Pietro took the name Celestine V and headed off to the Kingdom of Naples, where he would reside. That's right, Naples! One of the problems with the Medieval Papacy was establishing the proper place for the Pope. Celestine would be little more than imprimatur for actions taken by Charles II, the King of Naples.

Under the Neapolitan monarchy's thumb, Celestine's short Papacy would have gone down as a complete failure if not for one crucial reform. Celestine renewed the Papal Bull "Ubi Periculum" this re-established the Cardinal's conclave for choosing the next Pope. Literally "with key" in Latin, this established what is still practiced today, with a Papal vacancy being followed by a required sequestering of the Cardinals until a Pope is selected.

Celestine, sick and old, wanted to return to his mountain enclave and sought legal advice from Cardinal Benedetto Caetani. Caetani confirmed that the Pope had the right to write new Papal rules, so Celestine authored one more, the right to resign. Pope Celestine V became Pietro of Morrone once again.

Not ironically, Caetani happily stepped in as the new Pope Boniface VIII. Afraid of Pietro's popularity, he had the former Pope arrested. Pietro spent the last ten months of his life in jail. An excavation of Celestine's skull revealed a hole consistent with a fatal blow. Rumors that the new Pope Boniface killed the old Pope Celestine made their way into a Dan Brown book.

Pietro Morrone/Pope Celestine V was a curious Pope, but a Pope that solved a serious problem by reinstating the Cardinal's conclave and created a curious wrinkle when he asserted the right to resign the Papacy. What Pope Benedict did in 2013 was first done and written into law by Pope Celestine V, who resigned the Papacy on this, the 13th of December in 1294.

The Advent reading for today comes from the Pope, as mentioned earlier, Benedict XVI.

Advent's intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church's year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart's memory so that it can discern the star of hope.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who reminds you that the Pope is called "Sell-is-steen" the "prophecy" is "sil-LESS-teen." The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.

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