On 29 August 1294, Pietro da Morrone was crowned as Pope Celestine V. Pietro had been living an austere life as a hermit and had written a letter to the cardinals warning them that a great tragedy would befall them if they did not quickly elect a successor to Nicholas IV. So, when the cardinals received Pietro’s letter, they immediately chose him. It was a responsibility he did not want and indeed tried to flee the cardinals who had elected him but was eventually persuaded to accept his election.
Celestine was deeply sympathetic to the Franciscan friars who wished to live a more strict poverty and defended the right of the Pope to abdicate the papacy. Celestine was also the first pope to offer the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence without visiting the holy land.
Celestine V would only serve as pope for five months and eight days before resigning due to “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”. Some suspected that his resignation was encouraged by his successor as pope – Boniface VIII. Boniface VIII, fearing that Celestine might seek to return to the papacy would have Celestine imprisoned for ten months before Celestine died. Some historians suspect that Boniface may have had Celestine murdered. Philip IV persuaded Pope Clement V to canonize Celestine in 1313 in order to cause shame to the memory of Boniface VIII.
Celestine’s importance for today is primarily centered on his decision to abdicate the papacy. On 28 April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI left the pallium he wore at his papal inauguration as a gift to the church where Celestine is buried. He would proclaim the Celestine year which would last from 28 August 2009 to 29 August 2010 in honor of the 800th birthday of the saint.
More on St. Celestine and Benedict XVI’s visit to his relics.