We've been in shock all day. Usually if anything is going on with the Pope we, meaning we, the public, hear something. I was asked dozens of times if/why/when Pope John Paul II might step down in his waning years. And I always answered, "Popes simply do not do that."
Except for Pope Celestine V.
The strangest part for me, personally, is that I just finished this book yesterday. Yesterday! It's a book about Pope Celestine V, the only man to step down from the Papacy!
Yes, I heard on NPR today, some historian talking about the Pope who stepped down to heal the Great Schism in the 15th century. He doesn't count, as I see it. That was when we had two Popes (three at one point). The Papacy had moved from Rome to Avignon, France and stayed put. Some people wanted the papacy back in Rome and so they got their own Pope in Rome. The fight went on for years and years. St. Catherine of Siena wrote reams to both Popes, begging them to resolve the issue, for one of them to step down. Finally, in exasperation, someone said, "Okay, neither of you are Pope...we'll have this other fella as the Pope." No one budged and there were three Popes because the third fellow wouldn't step down either. So that's what this man on NPR was talking about. It's really not the same thing.
As this. And Celestine V.
Peter Morrone, who became Celestine V had been a very charismatic and deeply holy monk who founded monasteries and oratorios and the Celestine order of monks and had many, many followers because he walked the walk. He wore no shoes and a ragged robe. He lived in a cave by himself,up in the mountains. St. John the Baptist was his hero.
Back then there were only about 12 Cardinals around to elect a Pope. They'd all go off to some really nice place and take their sweet time because the food and wine was terrific. That's why they finally got locked in a room that they couldn't leave until they elected someone, called a papal conclave.
This time they dithered for two years, and still couldn't come up with a good candidate. How in the world did they come up with the idea of a man who lived far away in a cave? Peter Morrone had written them a letter about their foot dragging and said that their behavior would incur the wrath of God. It caused one of the Cardinals to exclaim that Peter was the best choice.
Then they all traveled over to the cave on the mountain where Peter lived. He refused the robes and the crown and the Vatican. He had his coronation procession on a donkey and lived in a castle of Charles II. He was Pope for five months. During the five months he became more and more reclusive, eventually building a cell for himself in the basement where he signed anything anyone put in front of him.
But ironically, two of his papal decrees are still with us. One is that the Pope will be elected by locking the cardinals in a room until they elect somebody. The other, that a Pope should be allowed to abdicate.
And here we are. Celestine explained his resignation citing 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.
We pray for Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Celestine V was chased down by his predecessor and locked in a dungeon where he died. He was canonized in 1313.