The Revolutionary Gift
Nowadays it is easy to say revolutionary. Seven centuries ago being revolutionary was not easy at all. A humble hermit living in a retreat on Majella mountains (Abruzzo, Italy) before being proclaimed first Pope and then Saint, Pietro Angelerio dal Morrone made his revolution by opening the doors of the Papal State to all the social classes without distinction. Whether merchants or farmers, if truly repented of their sins, they could receive absolution from punishment, without paying any amount of money as it had been customary until then. The Bull of Forgiveness of Pope Celestine V, crowned as pope on 29 August 1294 in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, erected by his own will, established the very first Jubilee in the history of Christianity.
The complex figure of Celestine has been debated for centuries. The hermit accepted the position of pope with hesitation but after serving few months, overwhelmed by moral duress, he announced his abdication. Such decision would open the most dramatic chapter of Celestine’s life. “We, Celestine, Pope V, moved by legitimate reasons, that is to say for the sake of humility, of weakness of body and the malignity of the people to recover the tranquillity and consolation of our former life, do freely and voluntarily resign the pontificate, the dignity, occupation, and honours of which we expressly renounce and we give full and free faculty to the college of cardinals canonically to elect a Pastor of the Universal Church”. This was a sensational event even for the Church in those years and Dante Alighieri himself would mention Celestine V in “The Divine Comedy” by identifying him as the one who “by his cowardice made the great refusal” in book three of Inferno, verse 60. In Dante’s controversial statement, “cowardice” should probably refer to the political disputes of that time than to a biting condemnation of Celestine V. A more careful comment is given by Ignazio Silone in the novel “The story of a humble Christian” published in 1968, where he restores Celestine’s honour and describes him as a great personality who, through a sensational gesture, was able to denounce the strife and disputes within a power-hungry church. According to Silone, therefore, courage not sloth inspired Celestine’s decision to resign from his papal office, and from all its honours and wealth, to show his disdain for unfair, excessive and, often, corrupted power of the Papacy in those years.
The so-renamed pope of the ‘great refusal’ could not return to his hermit life on Mount Morrone. In fact, after his abdication, he was ignobly persecuted by pope Boniface VIII who decided to bring his predecessor with him on the road to Rome. After a dangerous attempt to flee, he was captured in Vieste by the papal messengers who reached him in Puglia and captured him as he was trying to cross the Adriatic to Dalmatia. He spent the last months of his life confined in a narrow room in Rocca di Fumone where he died on 19 May 1296 at the age of 87. The chronicles of the time account that few hours before his death, an extraordinary episode occurred: the apparition of a golden cross suspended in the air. This is considered the first miracle by Pole Celestine. His remains were transferred to the Basilica of Collemaggio where they were preserved until the earthquake that hit L’Aquila in 2009.
His greatest revolution, before his papal resignation, lies in the Bull of Forgiveness, the document that brought a change in the catholic church. A revolution that was ardently opposed by the successors of Pope Celestine but who, however, could not avoid its spread among the people. It seems that a veil of oblivion was thrown over the figure of the hermit from Morrone and his Forgiveness celebration, as if to minimize the universal force of such an innovative message. It is neither easy nor possible to recount his figure in few lines, indeed the meaning of his choices have changed the course of history.