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Catholic Heroes… Pope St. Celestine V

May 16, 2017 saints No Comments


After the death of Pope St. John Paul II, faithful Catholics rejoiced at the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as the next Vicar of Christ. The German prelate took the name of Benedict XVI for two reasons: in memory of Pope Benedict XV who led the Church during the turbulent times of World War I, seeking peace and harmony; and in memory of St. Benedict of Nursia who is the patron saint of Europe — a man also venerated by many Christian denominations.
Pope Benedict XVI was elected on April 19, 2005, the feast day of an important German Pope of the Middle Ages: Pope St. Leo IX. Nearly eight years later on February 11, 2013, he resigned as head of the Church.
Pope Celestine V was the last Pope to resign, having done so December 13, 1294 — over 700 years earlier.
Pietro Angelerio, the given name of Pope St. Celestine V, was born in Sant’Agnelo Limosano, Sicily, to Angelo Angelerio and Maria Leone. The year was 1215. Pietro was one of 12 sons born to the Angelerio family. His parents were pious, hardworking peasants who were generous to those who had even less than they did.
Angelo died when Peter was very young and then Peter began working in the fields. His mother, however, saw special qualities in him — piety and intelligence — so she tried to find a way to give him a literary education.
He applied himself diligently and made quick progress for which his friends and family greatly applauded him, expecting great achievements. Pietro, true to what his mother saw in him, downplayed such worldly expectations and told them he only wanted to work for the salvation of his soul.
Thus, when he was 17, he left his family and entered the Benedictine monastery at Faifoli in the Diocese of Benevento. There he excelled at the solitary life seeking isolation so as to better meditate on God and discern His will. His asceticism then motivated him to retire to an even more solitary location in 1239. With the permission of his abbot, he went to a cavern on the mountain of Morrone.
Peter and two companions retreated high into the hills, using branches from the trees and thorn bushes to build their shelters. This location and lifestyle brought a peace to these men that few ever find in the secular world.
Peter and his two friends lived much as St. John the Baptist did, with a meager diet and rough clothing. The simplicity of their lives left them more time and allowed them to focus on God.
Other men came to their retreat seeking advice and direction, which Peter refused in all humility. He told them he had no skill or knowledge to undertake such a responsibility. Eventually he did concede to their requests, but he admitted only the most pious men to join them.
These years of isolation found Peter spending most of the night in prayer and tears. When he did sleep, he slept on the hard ground with a stone to prop his head. He spent the days keeping his body and mind working by copying books or by doing physical labor.
He fasted every day except Sunday — not eating flesh at all. He kept four Lents throughout the liturgical year and on Fridays ate only bread and water. His penances were extreme: He wore a hair shirt and wrapped chains around his body. When he was warned in a dream not to destroy the body God had given him, he lessened the severity of his practices.
Thus he sacrificed physically to feed himself spiritually. Seeking the food of prayer and contemplation, he did not rebuff those asking for the same nourishment. He decided, however, to go even higher up the mountain to be removed from the disturbances. This time he went to Majella in Apulia around 1251.
Not surprisingly, the men followed him to his higher abode and so finally Peter agreed to return to his original location where the men lived in separate shelters. They lived together yet separately until Peter decided to gather them all into a monastery. He wrote to Rome seeking approval for this new order, and Pope Gregory X gave it in 1271.
For the next 23 years the order flourished and spread across Europe. Then a crisis in the Church changed Peter’s life dramatically. He would be torn from the quiet and solitude of his contemplative life.
On April 4, 1292, Pope Nicholas IV, died leaving the Church without a Pope for more than two years. The College of Cardinals was evenly divided, with members pitted against each other and both sides refusing to vote for a common nominee.
After some unusual prophecies the College of Cardinals feared a chastisement from God and quickly looked to Peter for their solution. Finally, both sides agreed on a candidate and unanimously elected Peter to be the next Pope on July 5, 1294.
When Peter was informed of the election, he was confused and stunned. Why him? He responded that he refused the election and would stay in his monastery. Then a delegation of cardinals headed by the king of Naples and a pretender to the throne of Hungary pleaded with Peter to accept the appointment. So many people came to congratulate the hermit on his election that when he tried to flee, he was unable to do so.
He was finally installed on August 29, 1294 at Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila, taking the name Pope Celestine V. His papacy was troubled since his eremitical life did nothing to prepare him for the responsibilities and diplomatic requirements of being the head of Vatican City. His appointments caused conflicts, as he sometimes appointed two persons for the same position.
He tried to appoint three cardinals to run the Church while he took an Advent retreat, but his attempt failed. He made one final decree, the only one of his short reign that lasted, declaring the right for the Pope to resign. He immediately did so only five months and eight days after his installation.
On December 13, 1294, he resigned, stating his reasons for doing so: his desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience; the deficiencies of his own strength, his ignorance; the perverseness of the people, and his longing for the tranquility of his former life.
He tried to return to his mountain abode, but was not allowed to do so. The parties who opposed his resignation were a threat to the new Pontiff, Pope Boniface VIII. When Pope Boniface ordered him to Rome, Celestine tried to flee to Greece, but he was captured and imprisoned in the castle of Fumone near Ferentino in Campagna. He was treated cruelly and died on May 19, 1296. His feast is celebrated on May 19.
Dear Pope St. Celestine V, pray for unity in the Church as our Lord did at the Last Supper. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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