Excerpted from The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney. Copyright © 2012 by Jon M. Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Most people believe that popes serve until death – like the modern popes. Why do you think this story of Pope Celestine V has been somewhat hidden in modern times?
Well, it has been hidden and then not-so-hidden. I mean, there have been novels and plays about a pope who quits. Morris West’s The Clowns of God in 1981 spent twenty-two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list in hardcover. Clearly, these stories are inspired by Celestine V – since he’s the only one who ever did. But, yes, people today don’t tend to realize what it meant to be pope in the Middle Ages.
2. What did it mean to be pope, then?
It was quite a different job back then. In fact, it wasn’t a job. It was a divine calling. To quit as pope in 1294, as Celestine V did, was at least shocking, and then treasonous and blasphemous to many. The pope was not simply a spiritual leader. That is a modern idea.
3. Who was this man who became Pope Celestine V? Where did he come from?
Peter Morrone, a hermit who lived in the mountains. He was in his eighties. He was a simple, simple man, who never desired or dreamed that he might be asked to be pope.
4. How did you conduct the research for this book?
I first encountered the name of Peter Morrone years ago while writing a book about Francis and Clare of Assisi. I wanted to come back to him again someday. So I was delighted by the opportunity to do that.
I spent two years writing The Pope Who Quit. I traveled to Rome and Naples and many places in between to see the sites for myself. And I spent thousands of hours in the library at Dartmouth College.
5. Do you think we’ll ever know what truly happened to Pope Celestine V?
No. We know so little for sure about the people of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For instance, scholars are still debating whether or not Geoffrey Chaucer – author of The Canterbury Tales – ever existed.
6. Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed that he would not hesitate to relinquish his post if he no longer felt “physically, psychologically and spiritually” up to the job. How do you think that would impact the Church?
Yes, isn’t that amazing!? He said that in a book of interviews published in late 2010. I think that that book embarrassed a lot of the members of the papal curia. They did not like their Pope talking like a Celestine V!
If he were to ever step down, I think it would seriously rock the Church, just as Celestine V’s abdication did long ago. But, that said, it could happen.
7. Some thought that Pope John Paul II should have stepped down, too, when he was ill. Do you agree?
I don’t know, perhaps so. He certainly was no longer the administrative leader of the Church toward the end of his life. We know that for certain. Neither was Celestine V – and that is primarily why he stepped down.
The difference between the two is that in the television age a pope can lead by spiritual example, on television, inspiring the faithful. In the late thirteenth century, a pope could not lead in that way. A pope had to be strong – or else.
1. Part I -- When the Unexpected Happened
A LETTER THAT CHANGED JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING
The opening paragraphs of this chapter begin to tell you something about who Peter Morrone was. Can you picture him? Have you known a strong, religious person in your life? Do you have positive or negative associations with such people?
2. THE BIZARRE PAPAL ELECTION OF 1292–94
How would you describe the typical medieval pope? Is he someone that you would want as your priest or spiritual leader? Was it a sign of his virtue, rather than his weakness, that Peter Morrone was ill-fit for the late medieval papacy? This is a theme that we will return to many times in The Pope Who Quit.
3. A MOST UNLIKELY DECISION
How do you imagine the room in which a papal conclave is held? Who are the characters in that room? Can you imagine the various motivations that the cardinals held in that room in July of 1294 – some good, some not?
4. SPREADING THE NEWS
Much of the power of the medieval papacy came as a result of one of the most famous (and successful) forgeries in history known as the Donation of Constantine. See page 56. This forgery claimed that the fourth century emperor Constantine donated a great swath of imperial land to the office of the papacy, then held by Pope Sylvester I. The early humanist scholar, Lorenzo Valla, began to expose this forgery in the 1440s. A popular twelfth century legal textbook (known as Gratian’s Decretum) explained what was believed up until that time: “The Emperor Constantine yielded his crown and all his royal prerogatives in the city of Rome, and in Italy, and in western parts to the Apostolic See…. On the fourth day after his baptism Constantine conferred this privilege on the pontiff of the Roman Church, so that in the whole Roman world priests would regard him as their head, as judges do their king.” [See Lorenzo Valla, Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine, for the text of his exposure of the forgery, in both Latin and an old English translation, at http://history.hanover.edu/texts/vallapart2.html]
5. THEY CAME TO TAKE HIM AWAY
Where was Peter when the news of the election was brought to his doorstep? See page 66. The Roman poet Petrarch says that Peter actually turned and ran, attempting to flee. Should he have?
6. Part II -- Peter of Morrone, 1209–93
NOW I WILL TELL YOU OF MY LIFE
Sweeney begins Part II of his book by briefly explaining the use of hagiography in telling a story such as that of Peter Morrone. Do you see any reasons to trust a hagiographical account of a life? Have you read any such accounts of religious figures in the past? What do you think of the Italian saying quoted by Sweeney on page 72 that translates as: “A lie well told is worth more than a stupid fact”?
7. I BECAME A MAN WHEN I BECAME A MONK
What do you think of Peter’s family background and how it may have affected his professional course in life? How do you see him as compared to other prominent religious figures, including previous popes, of his own century? How has your own family “determined” your future – for good or ill?
8. A HERMIT LOVES HIS CAVE
Peter Damian’s writings and reputation had a profound influence on Peter Morrone’s life and thought. Sweeney describes Damian as a zealot, a pessimist, and a reformer. By this point in The Pope Who Quit, do you see Peter Morrone that way, too? Or not?
9. THE HUNDRED-METER FAST
We return to the theme of asceticism. Ascetic acts were ever-present in Peter’s life. It was the nineteenth century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, son of a Lutheran minister, who first called asceticism a religious person’s way of gaining power over. Nietzsche suggested that saints and martyrs attempt to dominate the rest of us with these ways of being “holy.” He saw an insidious “will to power” in fastings and other physical denials. He called it a “striving for distinction,” nothing other than a way of trying to dominate. What do you think?
10. WALKING TO LYON
This chapter sees Peter Morrone living among the men of power of his era. How do you think those men regarded the hermit? How might Peter have regarded them?
11. Part III -- Turbulent Times
OBSESSED WITH SALVATION
Do you see more or less “obsession” with salvation today, as compared to Peter’s era?
12. RIDING ON AN ASS
See pages 141-146. How did the image of Saint Francis of Assisi impact the world of the thirteenth century? Prophecies of Joachim of Fiore foretold a century before Francis were believed to have been fulfilled by him. Poets writing in the century after Francis wrote about how he was a “new Christ.” There were more followers of Francis in the first half century of his movement than had joined any other monastic movement previously. How was Francis different from other religious figures who’d come before him? Was Peter Morrone at all like Francis?
13. THE COLORFUL KINGS OF NAPLES AND SICILY
Fathers and sons. The history of the world could probably be told through the lens of sons sometimes modeling and sometimes rebelling against, their fathers. How would you describe Charles I? And how about his son?
14. FIFTEEN DISASTROUS WEEKS
Do you see any similarities between Pope Celestine V and any of the popes who have lived and ruled during your lifetime? Is it conceivable that a pope would make some of the same mistakes that Celestine made, today?
15. AWKWARDNESS IN ROBES
In Sweeney’s telling, the papal curia, Castle Nuovo, and the College of Cardinals all become like “characters” in the story, each influencing the “angelic” Pope Celestine. How did they each impact him – for good or ill?
16. Part IV -- The Passion and the Pity, 1294–96
I, PETER CELESTINE, AM GOING AWAY
One of the enduring questions from the life of Peter Morrone/Celestine V is this: Was he guileless and saintly, or was he something else? In the final chapter, Sweeney concludes by weighing in on this topic. But at this point, what do you think?
17. THE NEW ADVENT OF FRIAR PETER
There have been many stories in history of a religious figure running for his life. One thinks, for example, of the 14th Dalia Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fleeing the Chinese communists across the Himalayan mountains from Tibet to India in 1959. A more ancient example might be Celestine’s spiritual model, Jesus Christ, who of course lost his life and never tried to flee. What do you think of Celestine’s running from Naples?
18. MURDERED BY A POPE
Did Cardinal Gaetani have Celestine V murdered? What do you think? What evidence is missing that would allow a legal case to be made?
19. THE WORLD IS FALLING APART
The undercurrent of this chapter is also an undercurrent that marks different religions and spiritual teachers from one another. That is, is this the only world or is there another to come? And then, are there ways to be faithful to God that have nothing to do with living in this world? How would you describe Peter Morrone’s beliefs on these topics – based on his actions?
20. IS SAINT ENOUGH?
What do you think of Sweeney’s concluding thought, that Peter Morrone/Celestine V was a quitter, yes, but that by quitting he also showed himself to be enlightened?