Most people who have followed the career of Joseph Ratzinger, both before and after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, are aware of his intellectual debt and devotion to Saint Augustine, and to his two namesakes, Saint Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, and Pope Benedict XV, who led the Catholic Church during World War I.
Less well known is Pope Benedict's devotion to Pope Celestine V, who reigned for just over five months in 1294. I've chosen my words carefully here, because I find no indication that Joseph Ratzinger, before ascending the throne of Peter, had any particular devotion to this little-known pope and saint, but since Benedict's election, Celestine has been much upon his mind.
Most today who know anything of Celestine V's papacy have learned it from a footnote to the following lines (III, 59–60) in a scholarly edition of Dante's Inferno:
I saw and recognized the shade of him
Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.
While Dante does not identify the "shade" as Celestine, few scholars doubt he was the man Dante had in mind (and Dante's own son claimed that to be true). "The great refusal" (il gran rifiuto) was the renunciation of the papacy, which Celestine, like Benedict XVI, never wanted in the first place.
Celestine V was the last pope elected outside of a papal conclave (in which the cardinal-electors are kept secluded until a new pope is elected), and he was the first to declare that a pope could legitimately resign his office—which he did immediately after making that declaration. (Two hundred and fifty years earlier, two other popes—Benedict IX and Gregory VI—had resigned, but the question of whether a pope could legitimately resign was still debated in Celestine's day.) A monk and founder of the order of the Celestines, Celestine V never believed himself able adequately to perform the duties of the papal office, and historians have agreed.
Benedict XVI has expressed similar doubts about his own abilities, but history should look far more kindly upon his pontificate. As I've noted elsewhere (see The Pope Resigns: "He Never Wanted to Be Pope"), he has accomplished more in just under eight years than many other popes have in much longer reigns.
And yet the example of Pope Celestine V has weighed heavily upon him. On April 6, 2009, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale struck Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region of Italy. Celestine had been crowned pope in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila, and his body is interred there. All but the front portion of the basilica was destroyed in the earthquake, but the glass casket containing Celestine's remains was unharmed.
On April 28, 2009, Pope Benedict visited Aquila to comfort the victims of the earthquake and prayed in the front of Celestine's casket. As he prepared to leave, Benedict left the pallium that he had worn at his inauguration as pope on the casket. The papal pallium is a symbol of the pope's authority as bishop of Rome, and while Benedict has continued to wear another pallium that he had begun to use a year earlier, in retrospect, his act in Aquila takes on great significance.
As Scott Hahn has pointed out, on July 4, 2010, Pope Benedict visited the Cathedral of Sulmona near Aquila, where he prayed before relics of Celestine V in the crypt of the cathedral, at an altar consecrated by Celestine on October 10, 1294. The occasion of his visit (which Hahn does not mention) was the Celestine Year, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in honor of the 800th anniversary of the birth of Celestine. Interestingly, while other papal proclamations, such as the current Year of Faith, the 2009 Year for Priests, and the 2008 Year of Saint Paul, have received much attention, the Celestine Year, which ran from August 28, 2009, through August 29, 2010, received very little. In retrospect, perhaps we should have paid closer attention.
After Celestine V's renunciation of the papacy, no other pope has taken the name Celestine. Dante's judgment on the unfortunate shade almost certainly played a role. And yet Celestine was canonized in 1313 by Clement V, and he has been greatly venerated, especially in the Abruzzo region of Italy, over the past eight centuries.
Considering the early reactions to Pope Benedict's decision to resign the papacy, a similar fate may await the Holy Father. At least one traditionalist Catholic, apparently without a hint of irony, has anonymously declared Benedict a "coward." And the secular media that have refused to acknowledge that no one has done more to end the scourge of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have cackled with delight at Benedict's revelation that he feels himself not up to the tasks of his office.
But, as I mentioned earlier, history is likely to be far more kind to Benedict XVI than contemporary critics have been. For a man who never wanted to be pope, and a man who never felt himself equal to the task, he leaves behind an extraordinary legacy—not least in the example of humility that he has offered in renouncing the authority of the papacy.