Pope resigning: Historian Jon M. Sweeney shares the story behind the last pope who quit
With the news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning, historian Sweeney discusses why popes rarely leave office and the bond between Benedict and Celestine V, the last pope to resign.
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That's the year a hermit named Peter of Morrone became Pope Celestine V, served for a few months, and quit of his own accord. If you don't count the year 1415, when the leadership of the Catholic church went absolutely haywire, not a single pontiff followed his example until this week, when Pope Benedict XVI announced he will resign.
Celestine V didn't go gently into the history books. While he would become a saint, he has a reputation as being a failure. And legend says the author Dante put him in hell because his resignation paved the way for a pope that Dante couldn't stand.
How come popes almost never quit? Can they be fired? And why does the current pope seem to have an emotional connection with the last pontiff who resigned?
For answers, I turned to Jon M. Sweeney, a historian and publisher of Christian books. He tells Celestine V's story in his 2012 book, "The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation."
Q: So last year you wrote a book about the only pope to voluntarily resign. Now your book is getting tons of attention because a pope is quitting. Wow and double wow. What sort of dirt do you have on Pope Benedict to make him quit just so you could reap the reward of publicity?
A: I'm sure he read my book and got the idea to resign!
Q: I'll bet. Seriously, you write that Benedict seems to have a deep personal connection to his predecessor who declared, in effect, I'm-outta-here. How do we know that?
A: In April 2009, there was one of those earthquakes that happens all the time in central Italy. It happened to be centered in Aquila, home to the basilica that holds the remains of Celestine V.
Pope Benedict made a pastoral visit to the people of the province and visited the basilica. When he was there, he took the pallium, the scarf-type vestment that represents his episcopal authority, off his shoulders. He laid it on the tomb, left it there and didn't explain what the gesture meant.
It was strange. I write about that in the book: Isn't it interesting that the current pope feels an affinity toward Celestine V?
Q: When he became pope, Benedict said this: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves." You write that it's impossible to think of those words without recalling Celestine, who made a similar reference. What binds the two of them?
A: For Celestine, it's a reference to all the nonsense you have to deal with as a pope – the papal curiae and the bureaucratic mess. Somebody who probably didn't want the job in the first place, like Benedict, would have said, "Pray for me as I go in among the wolves."
Q: What sets these two popes apart from each other?
A: There are a lot of differences between the two. Celestine's papacy was a disaster, and he was completely unsuited for the life and the role of the pope. He was just a hermit who wanted to pray in the mountains.
By contrast, Benedict was an insider. Those are big differences.
Yet there are similarities, too. Neither man seemed to be very interested in the administrative aspects of the job. Being a pope is like being a huge bureaucratic manager. Celestine was inept by most accounts, and Benedict certainly showed a lack of interest in that aspect.
And both men resigned with a very simple notice that was read aloud to a group of cardinals, priests and officials who were told not to ask questions. Benedict simply announced it and just walked away. That's what Celestine did, too.
Q: We know that popes die in office or, in centuries past, were killed. Can they be fired?
A: No. Whom does the Pope report to? There's no one.