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.
. .A people's priest, an amateur actor and playwright, John Paul knew both Soviet oppression in his native Poland and the inner liberation that only the Spirit can provide. John Paul didn't so much govern the church as reinvigorate it, substituting his vibrant personality for the Vatican's impersonal bureaucracy. He traveled, he reached out, he transmitted love as if determined to make contact with the whole world one by one. As a correspondent from a French paper commented at his accession, "This pope is not from Poland. He's from Galilee."
. .If this church reborn found itself conflicted between its new and old ways after Vatican II, that didn't seem to bother John Paul. He treated all such breaks with the church's past as this country's Supreme Court tends to describe its landmark decisions: as just part of the law's continuity. John Paul didn't confront differences within the church so much as rise above them. His broad smile covered a multitude of differences within the church. Behind that smile was not just a master of realpolitik, but a canny geopolitician who rose above it. John Paul would make a more than equal partner with merely secular politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in dismantling the Soviet empire and threat. "The pope?" Stalin once sneered. "How many divisions does he have?" John Paul, it turned out, raised whole armies of souls, and they didn't need tanks and cannon to conquer.
. .To succeed John Paul as pope, the church chose his opposite: a thoroughly Teutonic scholar and rigorous theologian. As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger had headed the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition. He acted as the pope's enforcer, the bad cop to match John Paul's good one. When he himself became pope, he returned the church to the spirit of the counter-reformation. His formal policies as Pope Benedict XVI were much the same as those of John Paul II; they lacked only the spirit. But spirit, as John Paul showed us, can be all. Instead of carrying the church to the people, Benedict XVI seemed imprisoned by it. A pervasive grayness spread over the Vatican, covering corruption great and small, financial and sexual. Its incompetent bureaucracy was forever trying to paper over one scandal or another. Or explaining away what could not be explained -- like the long-running story of priests sexually abusing young boys. This new pope's style didn't help; it was more pedantic than persuasive, as in his Regensburg Lecture. Its combative air and tendency to caricature Islam rather than address its complexities offended the Muslim world, and with reason. Let's just say that Benedict's reign as pope was not among the most successful. That is what comes of choosing a theologian as pope. Poor Benedict. He was ill-suited to administer a vast church and worldwide enterprise. And In his inner circle he found himself betrayed by those he should have been able to trust most -- from butler to banker. When he was elected pope, he said he felt "inadequate" for a job that demanded "dynamism," and he was never more right. Much like Celestine V some eight centuries ago, he might have done better to have fled.