Lasting Legacies: Before Benedict, last pope resigned in 1294

by W. Winston Skinner

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President George W. Bush and Laura Bush applaud as Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges he crowd during his visit to the White House in 2008. Benedict was the first pope to resign since Celestine V in 1294.

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned from his papal office earlier this year, it was the first time in recent history for a pope to do so. 

It was not the first time, however, for a pope to resign. Dr. Joseph Allen Kicklighter of Auburn University shared insights on the most recent previous papal abdication — that of Celestine V in 1294 — at the Carnegie Library on Oct. 7.

Kicklighter’s lecture was part of the Lasting Legacies of the Past series sponsored by the Newnan Carnegie Library Foundation.

Steve Beers, a deacon at St. George Catholic Church, attended the lecture and said the church officially uses the term “resignation” rather than “abdication.”

Kicklighter said he purposely used “abdication” because of the significance of the papal office. "This event is so exciting with the stepping down of Pope Benedict and the accession of Pope Francis,” the scholar said.

"There was quite a bit about abdication versus resignation. Some people would say it’s just a word. It’s not to me,” Kicklighter said.

"The papacy is a very special kind of institution. Anybody can resign from whatever he or she does, but — to abdicate —you are king, queen, pope. That’s a pretty big deal. The rest of us can just resign," he added.

"I do see this as a kind of monarchy," Kicklighter said.

He noted the unique structure of the papacy. The pope is the bishop of Rome. There are other bishops, but the pope is first among them.

The bishop of Rome is "an institution that asserts it has been around since the days of Simon Peter,” Kicklighter said. He noted that Scripture states Christ gave authority over the church to Peter and that church tradition and law maintain that authority has been passed along to each succeeding pontiff.

"When the pope writes other bishops it’s always to 'my brothers,'" Kicklighter noted. “That is the concept, but we understand he is the brother of the brothers. There is no other bishop on that level."

There have been other situations in which more than one person claimed to be pope. At one time, "the church had a particularly interesting situation when three different individuals claimed to be pope," he related.

He related how one was coerced to resign. "I don’t consider that an abdication. He was pretty much forced out,” Kicklighter said.

Recent history has had a number of popes who lived to advanced ages — serving in the papal office until death. Kicklighter spoke specifically of Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 until his death at 82 in 1958 as someone "I can’t imagine" resigning.

Celestine V was "a pope with a very short reign, very short indeed," Kicklighter said. "He did not step down for medical reasons. The reasons he stepped down are in fact controversial."

"There is no Italy until the 19th century. Italy is just a geographical expression," Kicklighter said.

There were kingdoms in Naples and Milan, and there were the Papal States — vast areas rules by the church and, therefore, under the control of the pope.

"The papacy is not merely a spiritual power. It is also a land power” in that period of history, Kicklighter said.

The land power ceased with the creation of Italy and of tiny Vatican City, the papal state within the borders of Rome.

In the 13th century, the pope and church leaders “had to manage all of those lands” while being surrounded by people "who wanted to take those lands away," Kicklighter said. "The church is very powerful, and there are many people who maintain that power, including those who are involved with the papacy."

While the pope did have a spiritual role, being pope was largely an administrative duty.

“There's a lot of jockeying around among the large families” when a pope died, Kicklighter said. “That’s not what it’s supposed to be not at all, but that’s the way it was."

Then, as now, the College of Cardinals was responsible for the election of a pope. "These individuals are supposed to be very spiritual and at the same time good administrators,” Kicklighter said.

"Most of the popes are individuals that are not saintly types. That does not mean they are necessarily evil. Spiritual matters are not their chief concern,” Kicklighter said. Many of them had degrees in law or experience with diplomacy.

“They are somewhat worldly," Kicklighter said.

In 1292, Pope Nicholas IV died. “The cardinals went into session and could not get a candidate. It took them two years. It was a very, very difficult situation," he said.

"The politics of it is a reality — especially in that day,” Kicklighter said.

Among those voting "were the also-rans from previous elections," Kicklighter said. "It's really disappointing if you get really close and don't get to be pope."

Charles II, the king of Sicily, was among those who eventually decided it would be good to "have someone who was kind of spiritually inclined" rather than a lawyer or diplomat, Kicklighter said. "It’s sort of like having a papal talent search.”

In Peter of Murrone, the cardinals found someone who “had a beautiful resume," Kicklighter said. Unlike many of the popes, who had come from upper crust families, Peter was born to peasants and became a Benedictine monk.

While most holding holy orders slept eight hours a nights and ate three meals a day, Peter “wanted to go the extra mile,” Kicklighter said. “He became a hermit. Today we would think people would go and help people — missions."

Becoming a hermit, however, “was a spiritual practice of the day,” Kicklighter said. “He became a kind of superstar almost. You are praying. You are not eating, and you are doing without. He's got that reputation."

Known for his simple, angelic faith, Peter was praying and fasting at his isolated home in southern Italy.

"He wasn't really into the whole institutional scene,” Kicklighter said. "God was his life. He had no other interests."

With a likely push from Charles II, Peter was chosen as pope in 1294. "You talk about unusual choices, this is about as unusual as it gets," Kicklighter said.

"He wasn’t a cardinal. He wasn’t at the election,” Kicklighter said. “They go to that cave and get him."

Peter agreed and took the name Celestine V. "I'm not sure he wanted all of this. This was not what he was all about,” Kicklighter said.

In July of 1294, as Celestine assumed the papacy, some saw "the beginning of a new spiritual age," the scholar stated.

In fact, Celestine turned out to be complacent about his new status. "He never makes it to Rome. He's kept in southern Italy,” Kicklighter said. King Charles agrees to help with documents, running estates and other administrative duties.

Celestine “is in many ways going to get used," Kicklighter said. "As pope for just a few months, he went from one bad thing to another. It’s hard to describe anything that went well."

The new pope continued his focus on Bible study and prayer. "He's just not into any of the papal responsibilities. All kinds of people are slipping through the ranks. Anyone or anything goes during those months," Kicklighter said.

Eventually, Celestine “realized something was terribly, terribly wrong,” Kicklighter noted. “He went to one of the cardinals, a fellow from the older set.” That cardinal, Benedict Gaetani, told the pope he believed everything could be worked out.

Gaetani ended up becoming Pope Boniface VIII, succeeding Celestine at the end of 1294. “He is the total opposite. He is the aristocrat," Kicklighter said. Until Celestine’s resignation, he had been "always a bridesmaid, never a bride."

There are some who believe Boniface had a hole that connected to Celestine’s room and that he provided the “voice of God” that advised him to abdicate. "If those stories are true, it is added to his alleged crimes and sins. He had quite a record. He was a great and brilliant man,” Kicklighter said.

When he became pope, Boniface "did something that many people condemned." He had Celestine brought to him, allegedly to keep him safe.

Some said Boniface was imprisoning “the true pope,” Kicklighter noted. "He never really got free from that reputation."

When Celestine died in May 1296, some people suggested Boniface had poisoned him. There was no evidence, except "the rumors that circulated at that time," Kicklighter said. Celestine was 81 when he died. "It seems to me the death could have been a very natural one," Kicklighter said.

Boniface was ultimately accused of a wide range of sins — including sorcery, sodomy and atheism.

Boniface died in 1303. The ultimate “slap at the face of Boniface” came 10 years later when Celestine was canonized as a saint. Even then, there were some acknowledgements of his shortcomings as pope.

He was canonized as Saint Peter Murrone.



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