Paul Greenberg

The wire services routinely refer to Benedict XVI, now the pope emeritus, as the first pontiff to abdicate in 800 years. But few of the news stories go into just who this earlier pope was, and why he chose to end his papacy. Which is understandable. The big story of 1294 is scarcely breaking news today. But it's a pity more attention isn't paid to the abdication of Celestine V, now St. Celestine, aka Celestino. Because history can prove instructive.

It's a cautionary tale, the story of why those 13th-century cardinals chose Celestine as pope, and why he chose to abdicate soon thereafter. Only five months and eight days into his short-lived papacy. Once again, a solemn conclave gathers in Rome to choose a new pope under uncertain circumstances for the church and the world. (And when have circumstances ever been certain for either?) Now the Vatican is to have two popes in residence at the Vatican, one sitting and one retired. This will take some getting used to.

After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, it took two years and considerable prodding to settle on a successor. In the end, the princes of the church chose a reclusive Benedictine monk, Peter of Morrone -- whose first reaction to the news was to flee to the woods. By the end of his brief papacy, he no doubt wished he had stayed there. An octogenarian hermit (for a time he had lived in a cave in Abruzzi), Pietro da Morrone had no business out in the world, let alone running one of its power centers. It probably seemed a good idea at the time; so many disastrous decisions do.

The new Bishop of Rome never got to Rome, but instead governed, if that is the word for it, from Naples -- when he wasn't going on retreats or otherwise withdrawing from a world that was too much for him. (He took off all of Advent to pray and fast.) Long before he was installed as pope, he had acquired the aura of a reclusive saint.

Once in office as Celestine V, his chief and perhaps only accomplishment was to issue a papal bull declaring that pontiffs had the right to abdicate -- a right he soon exercised, taking refuge deep in the forest. Lot of good it did him, for he was promptly arrested by his successor, Boniface VIII, lest he be used as a pawn in the power struggles of the time. Celestine would die two years later, still in prison.

That is what comes of choosing a saint as pope.

Now turn to 2007. Different year, same world, same intrigues. The old pope had died after what was surely the most successful and inspiring papal reign in recent times. John Paul II was being called John Paul the Great even before his death. He gave the church not only a new face but a new spirit, a new joy and attraction even as it sent forth the oldest of messages.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.