Pope Benedict was elected in 2005; prior to his election, he often spoke of retiring, but Pope St. John Paul II talked him out of it. Even in interviews, Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) spoke of the joys of being able to just disappear into quiet retirement and spend the rest of his days reading and writing. On April 29, 2009, Benedict visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V (1215-1296). Now, when a bishop is ordained, he receives a special wool stole to wear around his neck, called a pallium - it represents a bishop's authority. Going largely unnoticed, Benedict XVI removed his pallium and laid it upon the tomb of Celestine. Most people shrugged and saw it as just having a devotion to some medieval pope - just a nice gesture - but it was much deeper than that...
Pope Celestine V (born Pietro da Morrone) was elected pope in 1294. He was a devout Christian and hermit, founding a strict order of monks called the Celestines, who followed the Rule of St. Benedict. Pope Nicholas IV died on April 4, 1292 and for two years the conclave debated who should become pope. As the story goes, Morrone wrote the conclave and chastised them over the scandal of having such a long conclave (something that was apparently normal back in the Middle Ages). Morrone was forced to regret his letter, because the conclave (pretty much out of spite) chose him as the next pope! Morrone was devastated by the news of his election. As a hermit living in a cave and striving to live a life like John the Baptist, he believed he wasn't worthy to be pope and worried that being pope would disrupt his life of strict penance. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Celestine's "hair-cloth [shirt] 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..."
He initially refused to serve, and even attempted to flee! But, they insisted that he serve, which he did - after they dragged him from his cave. Even after he accepted the papacy, he continued to live like a hermit, staying in Castel Nuovo in Naples, and in preparation for Advent had a little cell built on the model of his beloved hut. As pope, Celestine V wanted to make sure the Church wouldn't endure another long and painful conclave, so he re-enacted the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Gregory X; another thing he did was declare that a pope could resign his position.
Five months after his election, Celestine V resigned the papacy. In his declaration of retirement, Celestine wrote why he was abdicating the papacy: "The desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life."
After Celestine's papacy, he expected to retire back to his hermitage, however, that wasn't meant to be. Celestine's successor, Pope Boniface VIII - the man who encouraged Celestine to resign - was now worried that Celestine's supporters would prop him up as a competing anti-pope. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "After revoking many of the provisions made by Celestine, Boniface brought his predecessor, now in the dress of a humble hermit, with him on the road to Rome...Celestine yearned for his cell in the Abruzzi, managed to effect his escape at San Germano, and to the great joy of his monks reappeared among them at Majella. Boniface ordered his arrest; but Celestine evaded his pursuers for several months by wandering through the woods and mountains. 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. 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," dying in prison on May 19, 1296. Popular culture ridiculed Celestine, seeing him as a failure and a coward. In the most popular Italian work of the Middle Ages - Dante's Divine Comedy - the poet portrayed Celestine as being in hell, as "the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal".
Fast-forward to Benedict XVI, only the second pope to resign the papacy under his own volition, announcing his abdication on February 11, 2013. Now his two visits to Celestine's tomb made sense to people (especially his leaving his pallium behind). Perhaps he was asking Celestine for his prayers, for strength to do what he was about to do. The papacy has taken many forms over the years, having - out of necessity for survival - grown to the power of a monarch through the Middle Ages. However, that was not the original role of the Pope; one of the papal titles is 'Servant of the Servants of God'. But due to the power the papacy grew to hold due to needing to protect the office from attacks by the powers of Europe and invaders of Arabia and Turkey, the thought of a pope retiring was unheard of! It had been over 700 years since the last one...
How would the Church react to Benedict? Would he go to prison? Would the Church faithful ridicule him and call him names, like so many had done to Celestine? Would he go down in history as a coward and a failure? God is good and his mercy endures forever - the exact opposite would happen.
Orthodox priest Fr. Johannes Jacobes said that Benedict showed "towering intellect" but also "a deep humility." Touched by Benedict's love and respect for the Orthodox churches, Fr. Jacobes said, "May God grant us more teachers like him...May his remaining years bear much fruit. We still need him." Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the second highest person in the Russian Orthodox Church, said Benedict's choice to retire was "an act of personal courage and humbleness...Pope Benedict XVI is not a media star. He is a man of the Church."
Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, said, "It is with regret that we have learned of the decision by His Holiness Pope Benedict to retire from his Throne, because with his wisdom and experience he could have provided much more to the Church and the world...We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend of our Church and a faithful servant of the sacred proposition for the union of all."
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wrote, "It was with a heavy heart but complete understanding that we learned this morning of Pope Benedict’s declaration of his decision to lay down the burden of ministry as Bishop of Rome, an office which he has held with great dignity, insight and courage...I speak not only for myself, and my predecessors as Archbishop, but for Anglicans around the world, in giving thanks to God for a priestly life utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ...We pray that God will bless him profoundly in retirement with health and peace of mind and heart..." The Anglican Archbishop of York said the Christian world will "miss a great theologian with great spiritual depth...He was unafraid to proclaim the Gospel and challenge a culture that is so self-referential, managing to lift our eyes to God's glory. "
Pope Francis, when asked how it was having Benedict XVI so close, living a quiet life of prayer in a monastery in the Vatican, the Pope referred to Benedict as "a very wise grandfather...a grandfather is honored, loved, and he is listened to...If I am in a bind, or if I'm faced with something I don't understand, I can call him." He also said, "I am in favor of what Benedict did [retired]. I think what Benedict so courageously did was to open the door to the popes emeritus...Benedict should not be considered an exception, but an institution."
Out of humility, Benedict XVI said he would be happy to be called Father Benedict, but the Church declared him "His Holiness Benedict XVI, Supreme Pontiff Emeritus." He wanted to retreat into the quiet of the monastery, offering prayers for the Church and the world, but Pope Francis has routinely encouraged Benedict to be present for significant events of the Church, such as the canonizations of particular saints or the celebration of significant holy days. But, for the most part, Benedict has the retirement he sought, and instead of being thrown in prison and considered a coward or anti-pope, he is revered by Christians across denominations as a man of great humility and courage. His immediate successor, Pope Francis, speaks of Benedict fondly in interviews and quotes him many times in his writings. In this Year of Mercy, we can reflect on how the Church has grown in mercy over the centuries, remembering that God's mercy endures forever. The way we react to things can make a deep impact on others - who knows how many other popes considered retiring, but upon remembering the imprisonment of Celestine V, reconsidered the thought? Not knowing what the future would bring, Benedict XVI took the chance - and the Church, remembering the mercy of her head, Jesus Christ, embraced Benedict and wished him well. Thank God that times have changed.
As for Celestine V, he wouldn't be considered a coward or a failure forever. He was canonized in 1313 and many miracles have been attributed to his intercession. Blessed Paul VI visited his tomb, as well as those famous visits by Benedict XVI. In 2014, Pope Francis declared a Jubilee Year of Pope St. Celestine V. In his address, Pope Francis said, "Like Saint Francis of Assisi, [Celestine V] had a very strong sense of God's mercy, and the fact that God's mercy renews the world." Celestine went down in history as one of the most humble and holy of popes, while his successor Boniface went down in history as one of the most wicked and corrupt.
Thanks to the examples of Celestine and Benedict, even Pope Francis has thought that, if necessary, he would follow their lead. Francis said that Benedict "opened a door, a door to retired popes. Will there be others? God knows. But this door is open...A pope who feels that his strength is failing - because these days we are living longer - has to ask the same questions Pope Benedict asked..."
St. Celestine V, pray for us, that we may learn from your humility and love for God, and apply your example to our own lives. In 2010 Benedict XVI had this to say about Celestine - let's reflect on it.
...it is important to learn to live in our days moments of inner silence in order to hear the Lord's voice. You may be sure that if we learn to listen to this voice and to follow it generously, we have nothing to fear, we know and feel that God is with us, that God is Friend, Father and Brother. In a word: the secret of the vocation lies in the relationship with God, in prayer that develops, precisely, in inner silence, in the capacity for listening, hearing that God is close...St Peter Celestine was first and foremost this: a man of listening, of inner silence, a man of prayer, a man of God...may you always make room in your day for God, to listen to him and pray to him!
Being with God, listening to his word, in the Gospel and in the Church's Liturgy, protects you from the dazzle of pride and presumption, from fashions and conformism, and gives you the strength to be truly free, even from certain temptations masked by good things...None of this removes us from life but instead helps us truly to be ourselves in every context, faithful to the voice of God who speaks to our conscience, free from the conditioning of the time! This is how it was for St Celestine V. He was able to act according to his conscience in obedience to God hence without fear and with great courage even in difficult moments such as those linked to his brief Pontificate, not fearing to lose his dignity but knowing that it consists in existing in truth. And the guarantee of truth is God.
Dear Friends, faith and prayer do not solve problems but rather enable us to face them with fresh enlightenment and strength, in a way that is worthy of the human being and also more serenely and effectively...let yourselves be totally won over by Christ! ...Here is another badge (distinctive sign) of the Christian: he is never an individualist. Perhaps you will say to me: but if we look, for example, at St Peter Celestine, in his choice of the heremitical life might there not have been individualism or an escape from responsibility? This temptation does of course exist. But in the experiences approved by the Church, the solitary life of prayer and penance is always at the service of the community; open to others, it is never in opposition to the community's needs. Hermits and monasteries are oases and sources of spiritual life from which all may draw. The monk does not live for himself but for others and it is for the good of the Church and of society that he cultivates the contemplative life, so that the Church and society may always be irrigated by new energies, by the Lord's action.
I am happy as I leave, like a father who is serene because he has seen that his children are growing up and growing up well...Walk on the path of the Gospel; love the Church our mother; be simple and pure in heart; be gentle and strong in truth; be humble and generous. I entrust you all to your holy Patrons, to St Peter Celestine and, especially, to the Virgin Mary, and I bless you with deep affection. Amen.