St. Peter Celestine, Pope and Founder of a Religious Order
Peter Celestine, a holy hermit, founder of the order of Celestine monks, was born in Isernia, in the county of Abruzzo. In early youth he gave clear indications of the virtues and holiness for which he afterwards became renowned. When scarcely six years old he one day said to his mother: “Mother I will some day become a true servant of the Almighty.” His future life made these words true. Having been sufficiently instructed in the sciences, he retired for two years into a dark forest, led by the desire to serve God. At first he shared the dwelling of another virtuous hermit, but afterwards he lived alone in a hut. Persuaded by one of his friends, he went to Rome, was ordained priest and entered the Order of St. Benedict. With the permission of the Abbot, however, he left the monastery, and resumed his solitary life on Mount Morroni; hence he is sometimes called Peter of Morroni.
From thence he went with two companions to Mount Magella, not far from the city of Sulmona. His reason for these changes was the desire to live quietly and hidden from the eyes of men. The austerity of the life he led almost surpassed that of the ancient hermits of Egypt and other lands. Not less admirable was his profound humility. Although, as already related, he had been ordained priest, he dared not go to the altar to offer the divine sacrifice, in consideration of the infinite majesty of God and his own nothingness. At length, admonished by his confessor, he overcame his too great fear, and offered, with great comfort of heart, the holy sacrifice, and deeply regretted at the same time, that he had so long deprived himself of the great consolation it brought to him.
The exemplary life this holy hermit led was soon known in all the surrounding country, and inspired many, some even of high rank, with the desire of living under his direction. Admonished by divine revelation, he built a small Church in honor of the Holy Ghost, and near it erected a monastery. This was the beginning of the celebrated Celestine Order, which, approved by Gregory X., grew even while its founder was yet alive, into such importance, that Celestine alone built 36 monasteries and filled them with fervent servants of God. He visited all of these as often as possible, and having encouraged the inmates to continual zeal in the service of the Most High, he retired to his cell and led a life more angelical than human.
The Almighty, who humbles the proud but raises the humble, was pleased to exalt this His faithful and lowly servant before the whole world in a most unprecedented manner. He inspired the Cardinals, who, after the death of Nicholas IV., disagreed in the choice of a new head of the Church, to choose unanimously this holy hermit as successor to the Papal chair. When, however, the envoys came to inform him of it, the holy man was frightened, and left nothing untried to decline so high a dignity. He endeavored to fly, but all was useless, he was obliged to obey the envoys, or rather, to obey God, and received the Papal crown at Aquila, in 1294. After the coronation he wished to continue his former life of austerity and solitude. But as the many and important functions of his high station rendered this impossible, he was soon weary of his dignity and office, and resigned them voluntarily after the expiration of a few months, with the intention of returning to his solitude. He had already left the city, when his successor, Boniface VII., sent after him, and had him confined in a castle, fearing that a division of the Church might arise. He remained thus in custody almost ten months, always content and never complaining; nay, sometimes he even said jestingly to himself: “Peter! you have so long wished for a quiet cell; behold, you now possess it!”
God revealed to him his end and his approaching eternal happiness. When he had received the holy sacraments with the greatest devotion, he lay down upon the floor, began cheerfully to sing, and expired uttering the words: “Let every spirit praise the Lord! ” Before, as well as after his death, he was honored by God with many miracles.
St. Peter Celestine dared not, during a long period, offer the divine sacrifice in consideration of the infinite Majesty of God and his own unworthiness. Being admonished, however, by his confessor, he offered it daily, to his own great comfort. There are persons too scrupulous to receive Holy Communion. They fear that they are not worthy to receive it frequently. The thought of the great majesty of the Almighty and their own nothingness prevents them; while others, who are accustomed to go often to Holy Communion have too little reverence, and think either not at all, or not enough, of the greatness of the mystery of which they partake, and of their own unworthiness. These actions do not show that they are impressed with the Majesty of the Most High. Their preparation is lukewarm, without attention, without devotion. Both the too scrupulous and the too confident do great wrong. The latter ought to know that the frequent receiving of Holy Communion ought not to lessen but to augment their reverence. If we go often to Holy Communion we should not, therefore, take less time or be less fervent in the preparation for it: on the contrary, the devotion ought to be greater in consideration of our privilege of receiving it frequently. The former, however, ought to know that the scruples which, under the pretext that they are not worthy, prevent them from partaking frequently of the Holy Sacrament, do not come from God. It is right that we humble ourselves before the divine Majesty, and that we consider ourselves not worthy of such a grace; but we ought also to be encouraged in contemplating the measureless love and kindness of Christ; and the thought of our own poverty ought to excite in us a burning desire for this heavenly bread. If you wish to wait for Holy Communion until you are worthy of it, tell me, when will the day come on which you can partake of it? Act as you think you ought. Cleanse carefully your conscience: ornament your soul with virtues: prepare yourself with great zeal, and then go to the Lord’s table with lively faith, firm hope, burning love, and the deepest reverence; and go as often as your confessor gives you permission. “Do what is your duty,” says Thomas a Kermpis, “and do it with proper care; not because you are accustomed to it, not because you are forced: but receive the Most Holy Body of our dear Lord with humility and reverence.”
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.