Papal Resignation: The Precedent of Pope St. Celestine V – Excerpted from The Pope Who Quit

On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign the papacy at the end of the month. In the history of the papacy, there have only been a few Pontiffs to ever resign the office. The most relevant precedent to Benedict XVI’s decision is the resignation of Pope St. Celestine V in 1294, 719 years earlier. The book The Pope Who Quit by Jon Sweeney examines the relatively unknown story of Celestine V and the events leading up to his resignation. This excerpt from the book details the events of Celestine V’s resignation:

Excerpt from The Pope Who Quit, pp. 193 – 194:

“A pope simply does not resign, many said. Who, after all, is “above” a pope who can accept such a resignation? And the same media who quoted Cardinal Sodano in February 2005 also pointed out that there was a notorious case of a previous pope who’d resigned in the late thirteenth century. There was one precedent.

But in 1294 there was no such precedent. A case had to be prepared. We no longer possess whatever briefs Gaetani prepared for the holy father, but the cause for abdication was clear. Gaetani wrote for the pope a decree stating that a papal resignation was both possible and acceptable under certain circumstances. First, it was acceptable on the very grounds that made it most shocking: if it was clearly the voluntary act of a man in charge of all of his faculties. Second, it would have to be enacted in a proper and orderly fashion. And third, it could be done if it was absolutely necessary. On this last point there was no question remaining. There was no other course to take. Eight years later, the French philosopher John of Paris would summarize these conditions this way:

“If, after his election to the papacy a pope should find himself or should be discovered to be totally inept or useless or if an impediment should arise, such as insanity or anything similar, he should re- quest to be relieved by the people or by the cardinals who in such a case represent the whole clergy and people, and he should, permission received or not, cede his high place.”

So Celestine not only had a plan of what to do but had laid the groundwork to do it. He would move forward, trusting Gaetani’s advice.

On December 12 Celestine was resolved in his decision. And then on December 13, the Feast of Saint Lucy, he read a statement out to the cardinals who had assembled to hear news that was, by that time, already well leaked. First, he ordered them, by holy obedience, not to interrupt him. Then he read:

“I, Celestine V, moved by valid reasons, that is, by humility, by desire for a better life, by a troubled conscience, troubles of body, a lack of knowledge, personal shortcomings, and so that I may then proceed to a life of greater humility, voluntarily and without compunction give up the papacy and renounce its position and dignity, burdens and honors, with full freedom. I now instruct the Sacred College of cardinals to elect and provide according to the canons, a shepherd for the Universal Church.”

He’d declared himself to be essentially inutilis, “useless.” With this written resignation Celestine gave three reasons for his leaving: his old age, his desire for asceticism, and a spiritual temperament that made him a poor pope. At the conclusion of his statement, Celestine stepped down from the papal throne from which he’d stood countless times. He removed his ring, tiara, and mantle, handing them to the men who had elected him. Then he sat down on the floor.

Within a few hours, Peter stepped back into the dress of the simplest of friars—the grey habit of a Celestine hermit—and prepared to leave. As he departed, most certainly secreted away from the crowd waiting outside, he probably felt a mix of relief and fear. The sounds of the street probably terrified him: the hum and swarms of people, sailors, servants, soldiers, merchants, horses, the clamor of wagons on rough stone streets, their barreled cargo rattling on its way to early morning destinations. He wanted neither castle nor city.”

Excerpted with permission of Image Books from The Pope Who Quit pp. 193 – 194. Copyright 2012 by John Sweeney. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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