Peter was born in 1210 in Isernia in the Abruzzi, Italy, the eleventh of twelve children of peasant parents. At the age of 20, he became a hermit on Monte Morrone in the Abruzzi hills. He left his hermitage to study for the priesthood and was ordained in Rome and later became a Benedictine monk. In 1251 he was permitted to return to his hermit’s life in the mountains, but his holiness eventually attracted great crowds. Seeking further solitude, he retired with two companions to Monte Majella, but was persuaded to return to Monte Morrone where he organized the hermits into a community and eventually a monastery with a strict rule. In 1274, he received papal approval of his order, which he called the Celestines.
Peter would have been happy to spend the rest of his life with his religious community in the mountains, but an extraordinary occurrence took place in the history of the Church, and his relatively peaceful life was disrupted, never to be the same again. After the death of Pope Nicholas IV, more than two years passed with the papacy remaining vacant because of political rivalry in the college of cardinals. Peter, 84 years old at this time, reputedly sent the cardinals a message telling them that God was not pleased with the delay and that they must elect a successor quickly or the wrath of God would be upon them. To his horror, the cardinals immediately decided upon the elderly hermit himself.
Despite grave misgivings, Peter, deciding that it must be God’s will, accepted and was consecrated Bishop of Rome in August of 1294, taking the name of Celestine. The results were disastrous because Peter was completely unfit for the office of pope in every respect except for his holiness. He immediately fell prey to the schemes of King Charles II of Naples who took advantage of Peter’s simplicity, otherworldliness, and naiveté. He committed many serious blunders in his short time in office; we do not have detailed records of all of his mistakes because his official acts were annulled by his successor.
Heartbroken and overwhelmed by the burden of the office he had not sought and was incapable of filling, Peter abdicated his office in December 1294. He had been pope for less than five months.
Boniface VIII was immediately elected as pope. Because he feared that the popularity of his predecessor might lead some plotters to attempt to put Peter back on the papal throne and cause a further split in the Church, he ordered Peter to be confined to the castle of Fumone. St. Peter is said to have declared, “I wanted nothing in the world but a cell, and a cell they have given me.”
After nine months of fasting and prayer, closely watched by guards but attended by two of his own religious, he died at the age of 86.
1. Some consider Peter Celestine the most pathetic figure in the history of the papacy, but we should look at his failure as pope as yet another proof of Jesus’ promise to Peter concerning the Church: “The gates of hell will never prevail against it.” No matter how imperfect or incompetent a pope may be, Christ will always protect His bride, the Church.
2. Peter may have failed as a pope, but he certainly cannot be faulted for his love of God and the Church. When the cardinals elected him pope, he was known to have wept at the news, but after prayer felt that this was indeed a call from God to leave behind the monastic community he had spent his life building and nurturing. How many of us would be willing to give up our seemingly established lives to take on a what appears to be an impossible burden? Let us pray to St. Peter Celestine for the grace to do as our Blessed Mother Mary instructs: “Do whatever He tells you.”
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