19 May 2010

He Who Made "the Great Refusal"

Few things make me happier in life than when a Hollywood actor appears in some public interest announcement and tells me how to be a good parent, a good citizen of the earth, more tolerant and non-hatey, or other such bilge. Try watching more than one "The More You Know..." spot on NBC without feeling as though you've had a full frontal lobotomy-- I dare you.

Well, I suppose that in earlier times, when people were more intelligent and well-formed, Hollywood's part was taken by poets and playwrights. Which leads me to today's feast on the Church's calendar-- that of St. Peter Celestine, the hermit who came to rule for about 3 1/2 months as Pope Celestine V, and who then abdicated the papacy.

In the Inferno (as an aside, the Divine Comedy should be read at least once a year for life), the great poet Dante places St. Celestine in hell. Actually, in the vestibule of hell, or ante-hell, as one of the culpable "neutrals". Why are these "neutrals" (Longfellow translates the term as "opportunists") in hell? To quote Dante, through the mouth of Virgil, in Canto III:

34 And he to me: This miserable way
35 is taken by the sorry souls of those
36 who lived without disgrace and without praise.

37 They now commingle with the coward angels,
38 the company of those who were not rebels
39 nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

40 The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
41 have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them,
42 even the wicked cannot glory in them.


Because of their abject state, Virgil states that these souls "are envious of every other fate".

After examining the scene where these souls were tormented, Dante recognizes one:

59 I saw and recognized the shade of him
60 who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

61 At once I understood with certainty:
62 this company contained the cowardly,
63 hateful to God and to His enemies.


This person, the majority of experts agree, is none other than Pope St. Celestine V. To Dante, he is a cowardly figure, whose abdication led to the election of Pope Boniface VIII, the reign of whom Dante considered disastrous and whose soul Dante later predicts (Canto XIX) will suffer the fate of simoniacs in the eighth circle of hell.

Knowing of his canonisation and his feast day for some years now, I always felt badly that it seems that those few persons who know of St. Celestine were probably informed by the Inferno and not the liturgical calendar. So, I offer this little post today to try to make readers aware of the extraordinary life of this saint, and to repair some little portion of the damage. St. Celestine was undoubtedly canonised for his personal holiness, and not his papacy, which was fairly disastrous. He was a monk and founder of religious communities, and a person of great sanctity, prior to his ascension to the throne of St. Peter. From the
Catholic Encyclopedia:

He was of humble parentage, became a Benedictine at the age of seventeen, and was eventually ordained priest at Rome. His love of solitude led him first into the wilderness of Monte Morone in the Abruzzi, whence his surname, and later into the wilder recesses of Mt. Majella. He took for his model the Baptist. His hair-cloth was roughened with knots; a chain of iron encompassed his emaciated frame; he fasted every day except Sunday; each year he kept four Lents, passing three of them on bread and water; the entire day and a great part of the night he consecrated to prayer and labour. As generally happens in the case of saintly anchorites, Peter's desire for solitude was not destined to be gratified. Many kindred spirits gathered about him eager to imitate his rule of life, and before his death there were thirty- six monasteries, numbering 600 religious, bearing his papal name (Celestini). The order was approved, as a branch of the Benedictines, by Urban IV, in 1264.

How this holy monk became pope is truly extraordinary:

In July, 1294, his pious exercises were suddenly interrupted by a scene unparalleled in ecclesiastical history. Three eminent dignitaries, accompanied by an immense multitude of monks and laymen (the article says approx. 200,000), ascended the mountain, announced that Pietro had been chosen pope by unanimous vote of the Sacred College and humbly begged him to accept the honour.

He did accept, but in his short reign, it was obvious he lacked the capacity for organization and was extremely naive. Among other problematic decisions, his cardinalatial appointments, heavily favoring the French, set the stage for the removal of the Papacy to Avignon some years later. He felt his papacy to be a disaster, and after a short period of indecision, he decided to abdicate. This caused a crisis of ecclesiastical theology:

But the serious canonical doubt arose: Can a pope resign? As he has no superior on earth, who is authorized to accept his resignation? The solution of the question was reserved to the trained canonist, Cardinal Gaetani, who, basing his conclusion on common sense and the Church's right to self-preservation, decided affirmatively.

Cardinal Gaetani became Pope Boniface VIII. The new Pope sought to keep St. Celestine near him so that opposition parties could not make use of the previous Pope for their own ends. St. Celestine escaped and tried to reestablish his monastic life, but was thwarted:

Finally, he attempted to cross the Adriatic to Greece; but, driven back by a tempest, and captured at the foot of Mt. Gargano, he was delivered into the hands of Boniface, who confined him closely in a narrow room in the tower of the castle of Fumone near Anagni (Analecta Bollandiana, 1897, XVI, 429-30). Here, after nine months passed in fasting and prayer, closely watched but attended by two of his own religious, though rudely treated by the guards, he ended his extraordinary career in his eighty-first year. That Boniface treated him harshly, and finally cruelly murdered him, is a calumny. Some years after his canonization by Clement V in 1313, his remains were transferred from Ferentino to the church of his order at Aquila, where they are still the object of great veneration. His feast is celebrated on 19 May.

Again, contrary to Dante, the Catholic Encyclopedia declares as calumny the charge that Boniface was cruel to St. Peter Celestine while he was in captivity. And his reign was not all bad; for all his faults, Boniface VIII did issue a definitive defense of the doctrine of Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus in his Bull Unam Sanctam: "We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."


God's providence is a mysterious thing, and St. Celestine reminds us that for all of our problems the barque of Peter has survived many dangers. And just because Hollywood says it, or because Dante wrote it, it may not be accurate.

If you have time, the entire article on this saint is worth reading, as is this short essay by Plinio Correa de Oliveira.

St. Celestine, pray for us.

3 comments:

Badger Catholic said...

Great post!

thetimman said...

Thank you very much!

HSMom said...

I, too, enjoyed this post very much, having known nothing of St. Peter Celestine before reading it here.

Your post further inspires me to undertake reading The Divine Comedy whenever I get around to getting it. Well, having told no one this, guess what my dear sister-in-law sent me for my birthday?? The Divine Comedy! My summer reading is set!

Thanks, Timman!