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.
. .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.