He was chosen pope at a time when the cardinals were deadlocked between the candidates of various rival families of Roman nobility. The Colonna, the Orsini, the Caetani, and other Roman families vied for control of the papacy and played off one another in conclave after conclave in the thirteenth century. After the death of Nicholas IV in 1292 the Cardinals were unable to come to a consensus for more than two years. Pietro Angelerio, also known as Pietro da Moronne (his hermitage had been at Moronne near Naples), a hermit monk known for his rigid asceticism, wrote the cardinal electors a letter castigating them for not giving the Church a pope. The cardinals, frustrated, elected Pietro. Pietro refused. A delegation of prelates and the Kings of Naples and Hungary prevailed on him finally to accept and he was crowned pope at L’Aquilia, about 62 miles north east of Rome. He chose to reign under the name Celestine V.
His papacy was a disaster and Celestine knew it. He was an old man—79 years old—and had been a monk his whole life. He had no idea how to deal with the politics of the papacy. From the very first he wanted out. And he had a very sly canon lawyer to advise him on just how it could be done in Cardinal Benedetto Caetani. Celestine resigned. Caetani was elected on the first day of the conclave. Celestine returned to his hermitage but was not allowed to remain there. Caetani, now Boniface VIII, was afraid that Celestine would fall into the hands of Boniface’s enemies and be used against him as a sort of counter-pope. Celestine tried to flee to what is today Croatia, across the Adriatic from Italy but Boniface’s agents captured him and kept him under arrest at Ferentino south of Rome. He died ten months later—some claim murdered on orders of Boniface, but that is unlikely.Boniface was an ambitious man who was sort of the papacy’s Richard Nixon in as that he would have been a good pope, even a great pope, except for his character flaws that in the end turned his virtues into vice. His hunger for power and his arrogance brought him into conflict with Philip IV of France, a man whose greatness was matched by a truly evil character. (Philip was also known as Philip the Fair, but Fair as in good looking not as in a good man.) Boniface was flawed; Philip evil to the core—but a great king. And just as there is a lesson to be learned in the Jimmy Carter like goodness of the ineffective Celestine, there is a lesson to be learned in the evil Philip who was a good king. Good men are often not great men and great men are rarely good men. We won’t go into Boniface’s papacy for now except to say that Dante placed Boniface in the deepest ring of hell and he put Celestine in hell as well—though not as deeply—for making Boniface’s papacy possible by himself resigning the responsibility to which he had been entrusted. And Benedict? Well his papacy has been lackluster, perhaps even plagued, though by no means as bad as Celestine’s. But learn from Celestine—there is no guarantee that papacy Benedict makes way for will be any better and it could be worse. Let us pray that it won’t be.