St. Peter Celestine, Pope and Confessor
HUMILITY raised this saint above the world, and preserved his soul free from its poison, both amidst its flatteries and under its frowns. He was born in Apulia about the year 1221. His parents were very virtuous and charitable to the poor to the uttermost of their abilities. After his father’s death, his mother, though she had eleven other sons, seeing his extraordinary inclination to piety, provided him with a literary education. His progress gave his friends great expectations; but he always considered that he had only one affair in this world, and that an affair of infinite importance, the salvation of his soul: that no security can be too great where an eternity is at stake: moreover, that the way to life is strait, the account which we are to give of all our actions and thoughts most rigorous, the judge infinitely just, and the issue either sovereign happiness or sovereign misery. He therefore made the means, by which he might best secure to himself that bliss for which alone he was created, his constant study. An eremitical state is only the vocation of souls, which are already perfect in the exercises of penance and contemplation. Peter had made the practice of both familiar to him from his tender years; and by a long noviceship was qualified for such a state, to which he found himself strongly inclined. Therefore at twenty years of age he left the schools, and retired to a solitary mountain, where he made himself a little cell under ground, but so small that he could scarcely stand or lie down in it. Here he lived three years in great austerities, during which he was often assailed by violent temptations; but these he overcame by the help of such practices and austerities as the grace of God suggested to him. Notwithstanding the care he took to sequester himself from the world, he was discovered, and some time after compelled to enter into holy orders. He was ordained priest at Rome; but in 1246 returned into Abruzzo, and lived five years in a cave on mount Morroni near Sulmona.
He received great favours from heaven, the usual recompense of contemplative souls who have crucified their affections to this world: but then they are purchased through severe interior trials; and with such Peter was frequently visited. He was also molested with nocturnal illusions during his sleep, by which he was almost driven to despair, insomuch that he durst not say mass, and once determined to abandon his solitude; but was encouraged by the advice of a religious man, his confessor, who assured him that it was no more than a stratagem of the enemy, by which he could not be hurt if he despised it. For further satisfaction he determined to go to Rome to consult the pope on that subject, and received great comfort by a vision he was favoured with on the road; a certain holy abbot lately deceased appearing to him, who gave him the same counsel, and ordered him to return to his cell and offer every day the holy sacrifice, which he accordingly did. The wood on his mountain being cut down in 1251, he with two companions removed to Mount Magella. There, with the boughs of trees and thorns, these three servants of God made themselves a little inclosure and cells, in which they enjoyed more solid pleasure than the great ones of the world can find in their stately palaces and gardens. The devil sometimes endeavoured to disturb them; but they triumphed over his assaults. Many others were desirous to put themselves under his direction; but the saint alleged his incapacity to direct others. However, his humility was at length overcome, and he admitted those who seemed the most fervent. 1
Peter spent always the greater part of the night in prayer and tears, which he did not interrupt, whilst he was employed in the day in corporal labour or in copying books. His body he always treated as a most dangerous domestic enemy. He never ate flesh; he fasted every day except Sunday. He kept four lents in the year, during three of which, and on all Fridays, he took nothing but bread and water, unless it were a few cabbage leaves in lieu of bread. The bread which he used was so hard, that it could only be chopped in pieces. His austerities were excessive, till he was admonished in a vision not to destroy that body which his duty to God required him to support. If the Holy Ghost sometimes conducted the saints by extraordinary paths, we must learn from their fervour the condemnation of our sloth, who dare undertake nothing for the sake of virtue, and who shrink often under indispensable duties. St. Peter wore a shirt of horse-hair full of knots, and a chain of iron about his waist. He lay on the ground, or on a board, with a stone or log of wood for a pillow. It was his chiefest care always to nourish his soul with heavenly contemplation and prayer; yet he did not refuse to others the comfort of his spiritual succours. He gave advice, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, and during his lents, which he passed in inviolable silence. Finding his solitude too much disturbed, he went with some of his disciples to a cavern, which was almost inaccessible on the top of Mount Magella. This but increased the ardour of others to pursue him. Wherefore, he returned to Mount Morroni, where many lived in scattered cells under his direction, until he assembled them in a monastery; and in 1274 obtained of Pope Gregory X. the approbation of his religious Order, under the rule of St. Bennet, which he restored to its primitive severity. The saint lived to see thirty-six monasteries, and six hundred monks and nuns; and this institute has been since propagated over all Europe, but is at present much mitigated. 2
Upon the death of Nicholas IV. the see of Rome continued vacant two years and three months, when the cardinals assembled at Perugia unanimously chose our saint for his successor, out of pure regard to his eminent sanctity. This election, on account of its disinterestedness, met with a general applause, and the saint seemed the only person afflicted on the occasion. He was, indeed, alarmed beyond measure at the news; and finding all the reasons he could allege for his declining the charge ineffectual, betook himself to flight in company with Robert, one of his monks, but was intercepted. He would gladly have engaged Robert still to attend him, but the good monk excused himself by an answer worthy of a disciple of the saint: “Compel me not,” says he, “to throw myself upon your thorns. I am the companion of your flight, not of your exaltation.” Peter, thereupon, dropped his request, and sighing before God, returned to Morroni, where the kings of Hungary and Naples, besides many cardinals and princes, waited for him. Thence he proceeded to the neighbouring cathedral of Aquila, to be ordained bishop of Rome, being accompanied by the two kings, and an incredible number of princes and others; yet he could not be prevailed upon to travel any other way than riding on an ass: he even thought it a great deal that he did not go on foot, as he desired to do. He was consecrated and crowned at Aquila on the 29th of August, taking the name of Celestine V. from an allusion to the Latin name of heaven, where he always dwelt in his heart: his monks have been distinguished by the name of Celestines ever since. Charles, king of Naples persuaded him to go with him to his capital, to regulate certain ecclesiastical affairs of that kingdom, and to fill the vacant benefices. The new pope disgusted many of the cardinals by employing strangers in conducting matters, the care of which had been usually intrusted to them. He was sometimes led by others into mistakes, which gave occasion to complaints, and increased his own scruples for having taken upon him so great a charge, to which he found himself unequal; especially on account of his want of experience in the world, and his not having studied the canon law. He continued his former austerities, and built himself a cell of boards in the midst of his palace, where he lived in solitude amidst the crowds which surrounded him, humble on the pinnacle of honour, and poor in the midst of riches. He shut himself up to spend the Advent in retirement that he might prepare himself for Christmas, having committed the care of the church to three cardinals. This again was an occasion of fresh scruples, when he reflected that a pastor is bound himself to a personal attendance on the duties of his charge. These fears of conscience, the weight of his dignity, which he felt every day more and more insupportable, and the desire of enjoying himself in solitude, moved him at length to deliberate whether he might not resign his dignity. He consulted Cardinal Benedict Cajetan, a person the best skilled in the canon law, and others who agreed in their advice, that it was in the power of a pope to abdicate. When this became public, many vigorously opposed the motion; but no solicitations or motives could make the holy man alter his resolution. Wherefore, some days after he held at Naples a consistory of the cardinals, at which the King of Naples and many others were present: before them he read the solemn act of his abdication, then laid aside his pontifical robes and ornaments, put on his religious habit, came down from his throne, and cast himself at the feet of the assembly, begging pardon for his faults, and exhorting the cardinals to repair them in the best manner they were able, by choosing a worthy successor to St. Peter. Thus having sat in the chair four months he abdicated the supreme dignity in the church, on the 13th of December, 1294, with greater joy than the most ambitious man could mount the throne of the richest empire in the world. This the cheerfulness of his countenance evidenced, no less than his words. Cardinal Benedict Cajetan, the ablest civilian and canonist of his age, was chosen in his place, and crowned at Rome on the 16th of January following. 3
Men, as it usually happens on such occasions, were divided in their sentiments with regard to this extraordinary action, of which we see a specimen in the writings of those great men who in that age began to restore at Florence the true taste of polite literature. Dante, who has stained his reputation with many blots in his moral and civil conduct, and his works with many falsities and unjust prepossessions, ascribes this cession of Celestine to pusillanimity. But this base censure is justly chastised by his countryman Petrarch, who passed his unjust and glorious banishment at Vaucluse near Avignon, respected by the whole world, till he was courted by his fellow-citizens to honour his native country again with his presence, though he preferred to it a retirement at Padua. 1 This great man, speaking of the abdication of our holy pope, says: “This action I call a sublime and heavenly fortitude, which he only possesses who knows the emptiness of all worldly dignities. The contempt of honours arises from a heroic courage, not from a want of that virtue; as the desire of them shows that a soul raiseth not herself above herself.” 4
St. Celestine immediately stole away privately to his monastery of the Holy Ghost at Morroni. But several who were offended at some acts of justice and necessary severity in the new pope, raised various reports as if he had by ambition and fraud supplanted Celestine: others advanced that a pope could not resign his dignity. Boniface, moreover, was alarmed at the multitudes which resorted to Morroni to see Celestine, on account of the great reputation of his sanctity; and fearing he might be made a handle of by designing men, the consequence whereof might be some disturbance in the church, he entreated the king of Naples to send him to Rome. The saint seeing that he could not be permitted to return to his cell, betook himself to flight, and put to sea, with a view to cross the Adriatic gulf; but was driven back by contrary winds into the harbour of Vieste, where he was secured by the governor, pursuant to an order of the king of Naples, and conducted to Pope Boniface at Anagni. Boniface kept him some time in his own palace, often discoursing with him that he might discover if he had ever consented to those who called his abdication null and invalid. The saint’s unfeigned simplicity bearing evidence to the contrary, many advised the pope to set him at liberty, and send him to his monastery. But Boniface, alleging the danger of tumults and of a schism, confined him in the citadel of Fumone, nine miles from Anagni, under a guard of soldiers. The authors of the life of the saint say, that he there suffered many insults and hardships, which yet never drew from his mouth the least word of complaint. On the contrary, he sent word to Boniface, by two cardinals who came to see him, that he was content with his condition, and desired no other. He used to say with wonderful tranquillity, “I desired nothing in the world but a cell; and a cell they have given me.” He sang the divine praises, almost without interruption, with two of his monks who were assigned him for his companions. On Whit-Sunday, in 1296, after he had heard mass with extraordinary fervour, he told his guards that he should die before the end of the week. He immediately sickened of a fever, and received extreme unction. Even in that dying condition he would never suffer a little straw to be strewed on the hard boards on which he always lay, and prayed without interruption. On Saturday, the 19th of May, finishing the last psalm of lauds at those words, Let every spirit praise the Lord, he calmly closed his eyes to this world, and his soul passed to the company of the angels, he being seventy-five years old. During his ten months’ imprisonment he never abated anything of his ordinary austerities. Pope Boniface with all the cardinals performed his funeral obsequies at St. Peter’s. His body was sumptuously buried at Ferentino; but was afterwards translated to Aquila, and is kept in the church of the Celestines near that city. Many miracles are authentically recorded of him, and he was canonized by Clement V. in 1313. Boniface fell into great calamities. Philip the Fair, king of France, who was his declared enemy, sent a body of troops, under the command of William Noggret, to support the conspiracy of Stephen and Chiarra Colonna against him, by whom he was made prisoner at Anagni. After much ill treatment he was rescued out of their hands by the Ursini from Rome; but died soon after of grief in 1303. 5
A spirit of retirement or a love of holy solitude and its exercises, and an habitual interior recollection, are essential to piety and a true Christian life. Some, by a particular call of God, dedicate themselves to his service in a state of perfect solitude, in which the first motive may be self-defence or preservation. In the world snares are laid everywhere for us, and its lusts often endeavour to court and betray us, and the torrent of its example or the violence of its persecutions to drive and force us into death. Whoever, therefore, prudently fears that he is not a match for so potent an enemy, may, nay sometimes ought to retire from the world. This is not to decline the service of God or man, but sin and danger: it is not to prefer ease and security before industry and labour, but before a rash presumption and a fatal overthrow. But entire solitude is a safer state only to those who are animated with such a love and esteem for all its exercises as give an assurance of their constant fervour in them; also who seriously cultivate interior solitude of mind, and will never suffer it to gad abroad after the objects of worldly affairs, vanities and pleasures: lastly, whose souls are free from envy, emulation, ambition, desire of esteem, and all other busy and turbulent passions, which cannot fail by desires and hankerings to discompose the mind, and muddy the pure stream, and adulterate the relish of a retired life. The soul must be reduced to its native purity and simplicity, before it will be able to taste the blessings of true liberty, of regular devotion, and elevated meditation. 6
Secondly, An indication that God designs certain persons for retirement is the discovery of talents fitted for this state rather than for any public station; for these are active and contemplative gifts. Those who are destined by heaven to a retired life, in it become most eminently serviceable to the world by proving excellent examples of innocence, and the perfect spirit of every Christian virtue, and by their prayers and continual pure homages of praise and thanksgivings to God, from which others may reap far more valuable benefits than from the labours of the learned or the bountiful alms of the rich. Thus the world never loses a member, but enjoys its service in its proper place, and in the most effectual manner, says an ingenious Protestant writer; who adds, that such a one retires not from the world to avoid its service, but its fooleries. 7
Thirdly, The same author observes, that the main end of retirement ought always to be to dedicate ourselves entirely to God by the exercises of compunction and holy contemplation. This may be easily demonstrated from reason and religion, and from the examples of so many illustrious saints. Retirement is recommended by particular motives to persons who, after going through the station of a public life, are at liberty to embrace it in order to fit themselves for eternity. 8
Note 1. Dante died in 1321, at Ravenna, whither he was exiled upon account of his factious and turbulent spirit. In his poetry there are many beauties, but his indecencies shock us. Petrarch was also exiled, but unjustly, and died at Arcqua in 1374. His works in prose and verse render his name immortal. See on Dante and Petrarch, Specimen Historiæ Literariæ Florentinæ a Jannotia Manetto. Florentiæ, 1747, in 8vo. a work composed in the fifteenth age. [back]
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume V: May.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866.