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.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Benedict XVI announced on Feb. 11 that he would be resigning on Feb. 28.

It's been more than seven centuries since 1294 got this much attention.

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.

There were many times in history where groups of cardinals got together and made arguments for firing a pope, but the conclusion was that it's impossible. Even if they were awful or evil, the office is higher than the man. There is no one who has authority on earth to fire him.
Q: But that didn't stop officials from ridding themselves of troublesome popes, correct?
A: It used to be in the Middle Ages that when they wanted to fire a pope, they killed him in a Corleone kind of way. There have been 20 popes in history who were likely murdered, and they were probably all cases where they wanted the guy to resign.
Q: Why haven't more popes resigned?
A: The idea is that it's a job for life. When you become pope, one of the first things you do is you walk into the Room of Tears in the Vatican. You're crying with poignancy about how your life is dead now, it's over. You are now a pope until you die.

It's fascinating that it's now changing, and almost in a businesslike way. It's like Benedict gave two weeks' notice. Maybe we will see popes most routinely resign the office.
Q: According to some accounts, the last papal resignation was in 1415, not 1294. What's the truth?
A: That was the Great Schism [also known as the Western Schism], and there were three popes. There was something like a negotiated truce: Two of them resigned. A third disagreed, and they excommunicated him and had him resign against his will.

That's a different kind of animal. It's not someone resigning for personal reasons.
Q: Going back to Celestine: You wrote an entire book about a man who spent just a few months as pope. What makes him fascinating?
A: He was a monk, a very independent-minded monk who never could quite fit into a religious order and created his own. The real fascinating thing is about how he became pope, what happened while he was pope, and afterwards.
Q: Initially, he was upset that the church was taking its sweet time choosing a pope, right?
A: He was an 84-year-old man living as a hermit and wrote an incendiary letter to one of the cardinals saying, in essence, "God will smite us all if you don't act right now, and I can't believe you're dragging your feet like you are."

Then the cardinal announced he wanted him to be the next pope, and in the next 24 hours he was.
Q: So he was really an accidental pope?
A: Absolutely. He actually fled when they told him. They almost grabbed him by the arm and led him down the mountain.

He never went to Rome and was under the thumb of the king of Naples. It was a disaster. He ended up quitting, and the guy who replaced him helped craft his letter of resignation and then had him hunted down and imprisoned because he was a threat.

The idea was you can't have another pope running around. What happens if everybody listens to him?
Q: Is there any chance that Benedict will be a holy pain in the papal regalia for his successor?

A: I would imagine that Benedict has given his last rally, given his last sermon, and that he will lead a quiet life, and we'll never see him again. There might be a book or two published, but only after his death.

That's certainly what he ought to do, and I can't imagine it would be otherwise. But we'll see.

Want to read more Monitor Q&As with authors of recent books about Christianity? Check my chats with religious scholars Elaine Pagels ("Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation"), Bart Ehrman ("Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth"), and Adam C. English ("The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra").

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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