National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Moments in Time
Issue Date:  September 19, 2003

A model saint?


Celestine V, pope from July 5 until Dec. 13 in the year 1290, was one of the few popes to be canonized. In fact, he was canonized in 1313, relatively quickly after his death. His sanctity was evident in many ways. Becoming a Benedictine monk at age 17, he retired to Mount Morrone in southern Italy as a hermit. His holiness attracted a group of disciples, who eventually became the Celestine Order.

Because of his deeply spiritual nature, he was elected pope when he was nearly 80. The cardinals elected him when they reached an impasse in the election process and finally decided that electing the holiest person they could find would help restore confidence in the papacy. The idea was an attractive one; after all, wouldn’t the holiest person in the church make the best servant of the servants of God?

As you might have guessed by now, this apparently brilliant plan didn’t work out as expected. Celestine’s reign was a disaster. A holy person is not necessarily a learned lawyer, and hundreds of cases poured into Rome each year. Historians differ as to the reasons for Celestine’s failure, but all agree he was not a success as pope.

The most remarkable part of the story is that Celestine appears to have agreed. He resigned. It seems he knew that he was not up to the job, so he just stepped down. Not everyone agreed that he should have resigned; Dante even put him in hell for it! Most agreed, though, that this was the most powerful sign of his sanctity. Surely his resignation makes it clear that popes can do so, and that such an act can even be a wonderful gift to the church.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: