|Pictured is Pope Benedict laying his Pallium, the sign of his authority as Bishop on the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V, the last Pope to freely resign.|
by Robert Moynihan
A little more than a year ago, on April 29, 2009, Benedict did something unusual. He left his own "pallium," the sign of his episcopal authority and his connection to Christ, on a tomb in Aquila, Italy. The tomb held the remains of a relatively obscure medieval Pope named was Celestine V (1209-1296).
Celestine V was a holy monk. His model was John the Baptist. He wore hair-cloth and a chain of iron. He fasted every day except Sunday and each year he kept four Lents on bread and water alone. Many kindred spirits gathered about him eager to imitate his rule of life, and before his death there were 36 monasteries, numbering 600 religious, bearing his papal name (Celestini).
But he was not just a monk.
He was elected Pope in 1294, a time of great corruption and contention in the Church, after a conclave deadlocked for more than two years. He was elected at about the age of 80 (Benedict was 78 when he was elected Pope in 2005).
At Celestine's election, some of the Spiritual Franciscans, who opposed the worldliness of the Church hierarchy, proclaimed that he was the first legitimate Pope in nearly 1,000 years, since Constantine had granted the Church huge territorial possessions in the 300s.
So the Church had a holy leader, and many devout Catholics at that time thought the Church would be reformed by this good man.
But the holy Celestine -- who pleaded with the cardinals not to choose him as the Pope -- could not manage to rule the powerful cardinals around him.
The cardinals of 700 years ago seem to have chosen Celestine almost humorously, as it were, not seriously, as if to say, "We can't agree on a serious 'Prince-Cardinal' for Pope, so we will choose this holy, quiet, learned monk to be Pope, and watch with a certain amusement as he struggles mightily but in vain to guide the ungovernable bark of Peter."
After five months, Celestine gave up, and resigned -- the only Pope who has ever done so.
He thought he would end his life in peace, but his successor, Boniface VIII, fearing his opponents might use Celestine as a rallying point, ordered him confined, and some allege, executed (probably wrongly, since he was already approaching 90).
All of Celestine's official acts were annulled by Pope Boniface VIII.
Now, Benedict is scheduled to travel this Sunday, on July 4, to Sulmona, not far from Rome. There, in the crypt of the cathedral, as the last act of his visit, he is scheduled to venerate relics of this same holy Pope, Celestine V. (See bottom for a news report on this upcoming trip.)
So Sunday, the Pope will pray before Celestine's relics for the second time in 15 months.
I am not suggesting Pope Benedict XVI is thinking of following in the footsteps of the saintly Pope Celestine and resigning.
I am suggesting that the studious Pope Benedict and the studious monk-Pope are "connected" in a mysterious way.
I believe Benedict's decisions to leave his pallium in Aquila, where Celestine's tomb is located, and to schedule a prayer before his relics this coming Sunday, are not haphazard.
These decisions are indicators, ways of communicating truths through gestures. They contain a message the Pope cannot deliver any other way.