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Pope Benedict XVI is not the only pope to hand over the Keys of St. Peter to someone else But there seems to be some confusion in the media as to who, exactly, was the last pope to resign. Some say Gregory XII, while others say Celestine V. The truth is that both men gave up the papal tiara, though under radically different circumstances. Here is a look at two of the remarkable figures that made the same dramatic choice as Benedict.
Gregory XII (1406-1415)
Born Angelo Correr around 1326 to a noble family in Venice, Gregory had a reputation as a particularly pious and honest churchman. The Roman Catholic Church was currently mired in the Western Schism, a complex ecclesiastical conflict that had produced the spectacle of multiple ‘popes’ reigning at the same time and hurling excommunications at one another. When the Roman pope Innocent VII died in 1406, the cardinals unanimously elected Correr as pope. Each member of the conclave had sworn an oath that, if elected, he would renounce the papacy if the rival in Avignon, Benedict XIII (who is often referred to as an ‘antipope’) would do the same, thereby bringing the Western Schism to an end.
At first, Gregory seemed willing to adhere to his promise. He entered into negotiations with Benedict, and the two pontiffs agreed to meet in the neutral city of Savona in Liguria. But Gregory’s determination started to waver in the face of opposition from his relatives and King Ladislaus of Naples. He eventually backed out of the meeting, claiming that he was afraid of being captured by Benedict’s supporters.
Gregory’s cardinals were none too pleased at his change of heart, and although he ordered them to remain in the city of Lucca, several of them slipped away and entered into secret negotiations with their counterparts in Benedict’s camp. The two groups of cardinals decided to convene a general council to depose both popes and elect a single successor. The council eventually met in Pisa, but neither Gregory nor Benedict attended. In June 1409, the Council of Pisa duly deposed Gregory and Benedict and elected a successor, who took the title of Alexander V. But Gregory created several new cardinals and convened them in a rival council that condemned both Benedict and Alexander.
Western Christendom was now split between three popes, and although Alexander V died after a very brief reign, he was succeeded by another antipope, John XXIII. Under pressure from secular rulers, John convened another council in the city of Constance. Although convened by an antipope, the council was legitimized when Gregory sent representatives with a bull that retroactively summoned the council and approved its succeeding acts. He also empowered one of his representatives to resign the papacy on his behalf, and he duly fulfilled his commission. In gratitude, the Council made Gregory Cardinal Bishop of Porto and legate to Ancona, where he died shortly thereafter.
Celestine V (1294)
The man who would become Celestine V was born with the name Pietro to humble parents in the Kingdom of Sicily in 1215. He entered the Benedictine Order at the age of seventeen and soon developed a reputation for asceticism. He eventually decided to take up residence in a cavern, first at Mt. Morrone (which is why he eventually became known as ‘Pietro di Morrone’) and then Mt. Maiella. Emulating the example of St. John the Baptist, he tortured his flesh relentlessly, wearing a hair shirt roughened with knots, fasting every day except Sunday, and keeping four Lents throughout the year (during three of which, he only consumed bread and water).
Morrone’s brand of piety proved quite popular, and he founded a religious order that would eventually be named after him. Although it was eventually made part of the Benedictine Order, the Celestines had to endure a much severer way of life. But they became so popular that the order soon boasted 36 monasteries and 600 monks. Morrone ended up handing control of the order to someone else so that he could escape into the solitude of the wilderness.
When Pope Nicholas IV died in 1292, the cardinals gathered at Perugia to elect his successor. Their deliberations dragged on for two years, and Morrone sent them a letter filled with righteous indigation, warning them that God would surely punish them for their dilatory behavior. Desperate for a candidate, the Dean of the College of Cardinals nominated Morrone himself, and the rest of the cardinals readily assented to his election. When Morrone was informed of his election, he at first refused to take up the papacy and contemplated fleeing, but pressure from crowds of believers and the Kings of Naples and Hungary persuaded him to take office.
Morrone took the regnal name Celestine V, his papacy soon got off to a rocky start. He alienated his cardinals by reviving a decree of Gregory X that required cardinals to be isolated from the outside world when electing a pope and imposed strict living conditions on them for the duration of the election. He also proved to be a better ascetic than an administrator, and he resented the fact that the temporal business of the papacy often got in the way of his prayers.
Ultimately, the burden of his office proved to be too much, and Celestine began to contemplate resignation. But a papal resignation was an extremely rare event, and there was considerable uncertainty among church lawyers as to whether or not it was even possible. Celestine used his power as pope to declare that it was in fact possible for a pontiff to resign, and he took advantage of that pronouncement just a short while later. All told, he had reigned for five months.
Unfortunately, Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII, had him arrested and thrown into a tiny cell in the castle of Fumone. He endured terrible conditions and rude treatment by his guards for nine months before finally dying at the age of 81.