Hermit and Pope: Pietro Murrone and Celestine V

Medieval Italy was a battlefield of religious controversy, political intrigue, and incessant warfare. Late 13th-century conflicts ranged from pro-papal Guelphs against the imperialist Gibellines, authoritarian Dominicans against Spiritual Franciscans, to rival papal families Colonna and Orsini. In addition to these struggles, the last decades of the 1200's saw France, England, Spanish Aragon, and the reigning popes in bitter conflict over ecclesiastical and secular prerogatives (such as taxation of clergy) and control of Naples and Sicily. Into this whirlwind came Pietro di Murrone (1215-1296), a life-long hermit.


The life of Pietro Murrone (sometimes Morrone) was not unusual -- except his last two years. He was born as Pietro Angelerio (his family name derived from his birthplace, the town of Sant'Angelo Limosano). His father died young, and his mother was left alone to cope with twelve children, Pietro being the eleventh. In late adolescence, Pietro went to the monastery of Santa Maria di Faifoli near Montagano, where he became a Benedictine monk. He left shortly afterwards to pursue life as a hermit. At the age of 25, he ascended Mt. Morrone or Murrone, living in a cave there. Five years later he moved to Mt. Majella with two companions. It seemed that Pietro would disappear from historical record as an obscure and pious hermit.

As often happens, word of the hermit's piety spread. A community developed on Mt. Majella that grew incessantly. In 1244, Pietro named the community of fellow hermits "Hermits of St. Damiano" and established a Benedictine rule with some additions.

Over the next twenty years, the order spread widely, creating thirty-six monasteries and hundreds of hermit-monks. The order received papal approval by the French pope Urban IV in 1264, with Pietro as superior, but with rumors that Pope Gregory X would suppress recently-created religious orders at the 1274 Council of Lyons, Pietro journeyed to France seeking the pope's approbation, after which he was determined to retire from the post of superior to a renewed solitude, now having turned 60 years old.

Perhaps around this time, construction of the church (later basilica) of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila began, inspired by a dream Pietro had years before in which the Virgin Mary asked him to build a church on that spot. In 1284, a certain Robert succeeded Pietro in administering the order, and Pietro withdrew at last to the beloved Mt. Majella wilderness, nearly 70 years of age.

Pope Nicholas IV had died in 1292. He had named Charles of Anjou sovereign of Naples and Sicily, such that a successor-pope would have to deal not only with the rivalries of papal states and Aragon for control of southern Italy, but also with France. The handful of cardinals, evenly divided between Colonna and Orsini, passed two years unable to agree upon a new pope. Such a situation was not new. Pope Gregory X, who had approved Pietro's hermit order, was elected pope after a three-year vacancy, due to the infighting of rival cardinals and their clans. Indeed, he had not even been a priest, let alone cardinal, when selected! The ideal candidate must not represent any faction, while at the same time be malleable to the strongest one.

The deceased Pope Nicholas IV had not been forceful and independent. He  had been maneuvered to elevate the French Charles of Anjou over Naples and Sicily, and it was now Charles himself who appeared in Rome in the spring of 1294 to pressure the cardinals, especially Cardinal Benedetto Caetani (sometimes Gaetani), clearly the intellectual mastermind of the College of Cardinals. Charles insisted that the cardinals choose quickly -- Pope Nicholas had not lived long enough to ratify the concession of Sicily to Charles.

So the strange choice of Pietro Murrone as pope was not without precedent, understood in this context. The story of Cardinal Latino Orsini reporting that God had told him to elevate a pious hermit to the papacy or face divine chastisement has all the trappings of hagiography. As scholar Bernard Ginn characterizes him, Pietro was an "an aged, simple and almost illiterate Benedictine hermit," loathe to use power, unpretentious, retiring, a lover of solitude -- and totally without political experience or worldly acumen. Who better than to control and manipulate? reasoned the cardinals. It was only a question of which faction would get to the new pope first.

Pope Celestine IV

In the spring of 1294, Pietro Murrone ceded to the cardinals' will and descended Mt. Majella. Charles, King of Naples, and his son Charles Martel, King of Hungary, hurried to join the procession from the mountain -- eager to assure that their influence would not be outdone by the cardinals. The cardinals naturally insisted that Pietro go to Rome to be crowned, but Charles convinced Pietro to remain in Naples. Pietro choose to be crowned in Aquila, in the familiar church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. He would not ride save on a donkey, representing humility, but was ominously flanked by the two French-born kings and only three cardinals, the rest not waiting. The hasty July coronation had to be repeated when the rest of the cardinals finally appeared. Was it prophetic that Pietro took the name "Celestine"? The previous Celestine IV had reigned only fifteen days in 1241.

Pietro Murrone did reign more than that many days, but every moment must have been excruciating. The author of the article about him in the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia writes:

It is wonderful how many serious mistakes the simple old man crowded into five short months. We have no full register of them, because his official acts were annulled by his successor. On the 18th of September he created twelve new cardinals, seven of whom were French, and the rest, with one possible exception, Neapolitans, thus paving the road to Avignon and the Great Schism. ...

However, this is the view of one who saw the poisonous intrigues surrounding the papacy to be the normal and necessary real politik of the power-laden ecclesiastical system. The context must be seen as clearly as the modern Italian writer Ignazio Silone presents it in his historical play, The Story of a Humble Christian, wherein one of the characters, a member of the Celestine's hermit order, states:

As everyone is aware, the princes of the Church are divided, almost equally, into two hostile factions, the Colonna faction on one side, and the Orsini on the other. They aren't worried about the disastrous conditions of the Christian people, but only about their own family interests. Can a more revolting sacrilege be imagined? ... Obscene spectacles ... The cardinals belong to the great Roman families, landowners and money-lenders. Each of them is greedy to add to his ill-gotten riches, laying hands on the patrimony of the Church and the Papal States. ...

This assessment cannot be dismissed. Silone makes Pietro Murrone ponder on the apparent opportunity of bringing his positive influence to the papacy, of transforming the intrigue and vice of the curia into a spiritual and reformative process. He shows Pope Celestine's ignorance of the names of key power-figures throughout Europe, of important cities and their political temperament and wealth. When Celestine speaks of morals and virtue to the cardinals and curial staff he provokes murmurs and laughter. One character in the play remarks: "In this palace mocking the pope is becoming a parlor game."

In his play about Celestine, "Sunsets and Glories," English dramatist Peter Barnes has the new pope thoughtfully address the curia:

Christ was poor, we are rich. Christ was meek and low, we are tall and proud. Christ forsook worldly glory, we hold it fast. Christ washed his disciples' feet, we make men kiss ours. Christ came to serve, we seek to be served. Christ purchased heaven, we give the earth to the rich. Christ rode on an ass, we on fat palfreys. Christ gave power, we grapple it close. Christ loosened, we bind. Christ brought life, we bring death.

In Silone's account, Celestine is presented massive sheaves of paperwork to sign, approving benefices, property transfers, entitlements to friends and allies of various factions, taxations for expensive and unnecessary projects enriching a few contractors, concessions to powerful pleaders and punishments against unsuspecting innocents. There is nearly nothing that has to do with religion and spirituality. When at last Celestine refuses to play along with this automatic approving of whatever his secretaries present, the entire mechanism of the curia stalls, provoking anger and resentment against him.

Celestine himself is not ignorant of the morass into which he has sunk. He was unschooled in theology, rhetoric, geography, and finance. It is not just his ignorance and simplicity that weigh upon him but the very nature of the office and its curia. At one point in Silone's play he burst out:

My God, my God, what filth, what abjection, what wickedness ... Why didn't You leave me in the mountains, among my poor people? ... I never imagined I would have to face such base deceit here, here, at the summit of Your Church.

The historical record does not show whether Celestine was conscious of what he had fallen into or whether he was being maneuvered by Cardinal Caetani. But it does show that Charles of Anjou convinced Celestine to remain in Naples, not to go to Rome, and that Celestine acceded, forcing the cardinals to come to Naples. But this did not change anything materially. Charles could not exert more pressure within the curia. Silone shows the mastermind Caetani as quietly and patiently counseling the beleaguered Celestine, encouraging him, humoring him. Or perhaps painting Celestine into a corner, with Caetani's own succession to the papacy long in mind.

It is true that Celestine curtailed his public availability to spend hours in prayer in his small apartment. It is true that he had the replica of a mountain hut built right into the papal palace to which he retired often. It is probable that Celestine was already distancing himself.

Silone has a monk-friend of Celestine remark to others:

A man like that ... A Christian like that ... Why didn't we oppose his acceptance of the pontificate more strongly? It was an irreparable crime to sacrifice a Christian like him, in this miserable world of ambitious, intriguing rogues. ... I'll confess to you that for some time the pope has aroused pity in me. I see him in the Curia like an innocent lamb among arrogant goats.

And this telling scene with Cardinal Caetani and Celestine:

CAETANI: You are fortunate. For the salvation of the soul, poverty is a true stroke of good fortune.
CELESTINE: You say that in jest?
CAETANI: I would never dare.
CELESTINE: But if you seriously consider poverty a favorable condition for the health of the spirit, why don't you renounce your wealth? Isn't the soul the great boon?

[The cardinal looks at the pope in surprise, then bursts out laughing.]

You know, there are imbeciles who insist you have no sense of humor?
CELESTINE: I have at least enough to appreciate your sarcasm now. ...

So was it inevitable that Celestine would want to resign? Or was it Caetani's idea? We do not know, but the psychology of the situation suggests that Caetani would wait for this inevitability.

As soon as Celestine broached the possibility of resigning to Caetani, the wily canon lawyer, word spread quickly. King Charles was horrified, and organized great street processions in Naples begging the pope not to resign. But Celestine, after five months as pope, had made up his mind. On December 13, he summoned the cardinals and read to them a statement (edited by Caetani?) announcing his resignation. As soon as the proscribed nine-day waiting period was over, a quick conclave elected the new pope -- none other than Cardinal Caetani, who took the name of Boniface VIII.

One of Boniface's first acts was to issue a statement now recorded in the "Liber Sextus Decretalium" (I, vii, i) the very series of documents that Boniface himself commissioned as a compilation of canon laws:

Whereas some curious persons, arguing on things of no great expediency, and rashly seeking, against the teaching of the Apostle, to know more than it is meet to know, have seemed, with little forethought, to raise an anxious doubt, whether the Roman Pontiff, especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honor: Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign. We, therefore, lest it should happen that in course of time this enactment should fall into oblivion, and the aforesaid doubt should revive the discussion, have placed it among other constitutions ad perpetuam rei memoriam by the advice of our brethren.

Indeed, Boniface's main fear was that the resignation -- and his succession -- would be challenged by his enemies, most immediately King Charles of Naples, but also the monarchs of France (Philip IV, the Fair) and  England (Edward I). But there was doubtless an element of vengeance against an exemplar of virtues the opposite of Boniface's. Boniface was well aware of the success of Celestine's hermit order (since renamed "Poor Hermits of Pope Celestine") not only in Italy but in France and England, and he was aware of their friendly relations with the Spiritual Franciscans. After dismissing many of Celestine's decrees, Boniface immediately had the departing Celestine, now in hermit's garb and retracing a slow path home, stopped and detained -- "arrest" being considered too forceful a term to ecclesiastical authorities. Celestine was to be detained until all parties acknowledged the legitimacy of the resignation and the succession of Cardinal Caetani.

What occurred next is not clear, but apparently Celestine escaped capture, doubtless with the help of his compatriot order, who whisked him to the friendly Majella area. The papal intent was now unambiguous. Celestine eluded arrest for several months. His friends tried to escort him in flight to Greece, but he was captured  in May of 1295 at Vieste in Gargano when a storm drove their vessel back to the Italian shore.

Boniface first detained Celestine in his own papal residence a few months, but whatever concession he wanted he could not get. He then confined Celestine to the castle of Fumone near Rome. Boniface had won, but the outcome was not as placid as he had wanted. Peter Barnes has Boniface reflect moodily:

Xerxe's army, they say, drank whole rivers dry, and Hannibal ate through the Alps with vinegar, and the mighty cities of Tarsus and Archiale were built in a day, but what feats could I perform if there was no Father Morrone? The light fades, why doesn't Morrone fade with the light? So much death, paper boats are more durable than we are ... so why doesn't he fade gently with the fading light? ... Why doesn't he?

Ecclesiastical apologists insist that Celestine was content in his cell there and was well-treated. But this was the confinement of an old man gone through great traumas and deliberately isolated from the natural setting and people he preferred -- and clearly not responsible for any wrong-doing. Whether abused or not, Celestine could not abide in a dark and dank castle cell. He died in May 1296, nine months later, at the age of 81.


Was Celestine assassinated? Celestine has engendered great extremes. Ecclesiastical apologists insist that he was not harmed; the contributor to the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia insists: "That Boniface treated him harshly, and finally cruelly murdered him, is a calumny." Silone points to local sentiment averring that Celestine was assasinated. Playwright Barnes has Boniface say, at the end of the drama: "Who will rid me of this holy man?" -- echoing the words Jean Anouilh has Henry II say of Thomas Becket in his play "Becket" -- and Becket was assasinated. Finally, the German playwright Reinhold Schneider accepts the story of assassination in his "Der grosse Verzicht."

When in 1296, King Philip IV of France declared his intention to tax the clergy, Pope Boniface responded with the bull Clericis laicos, then the bull of 1302, Unam sanctam, asserting the absolute authority of the papacy over all secular powers. When next he was threatened with excommunication, Philip sent French forces to seize Boniface, who was forced to escape ignominiously, not unlike how Celestine had escaped Boniface. So Boniface fulfilled the contemporary gibe the he "lived like a fox, reigned like a lion, and died like a dog." Boniface died, imprisoned by King Philip and the cardinals -- again there is a parallel with Celestine, equally friendless in the curia. The next pope Clement IV was the bishop of Bordeaux. The Avignon schism had begun.

Celestine was declared a saint in 1313, King Philip's last revenge against Boniface. But Celestine (or rather Pietro, as his canonization names him) was only categorized as "confessor," whereas Philip had preferred "martyr." Thus, in life and death, Pietro Murrone, the unwitting hermit, has provoked a storm of contention.

And no greater contention than the famous conflict of assessment between Dante (1265-1321) and Petrarch (1304-1374). The contemporary Dante excoriates Pope Celestine as "he who out of cowardice made the grand refusal" (Inferno, 3, 59). Dante's harsh assessment is due to the resignation that facilitated Celestine's successor, for Dante fiercely opposed Pope Boniface for his pretensions to theocratic power and his destruction of the Geulph faction in Florence to which Dante adhered. In another section of the Inferno (28, 58), Boniface is called "Prince of the Pharisees" and declares: "I can open and close Heaven, as you know, with the two keys that my predecessor, Celestine, did not prize."

But not so far removed from the events in question, Petrarch writes glowingly of Celestine in the treatise De vita solitaria (The Solitary Life), specifically alluding to Dante:

This gesture [of abdication] by the solitary and Holy Father Celestine may be attributed by those who will to cowardice of spirit, since the diversity of temperaments allows us to express on the same argument opinions which are not only different, but conflicting. For myself, I believe the gesture was above all useful to himself and to the world.

In fact, for both [the world and himself] that lofty dignity could be full of dangers and risks and disturbances, because of Pietro's inexperience of human things -- he had neglected them in order to contemplate divine things too much -- and because of his constant love of solitude. ... I consider his act as the act of a most lofty and free spirit which knew no impositions, of a truly divine spirit. I think a man could not have so acted if he had not rightly evaluated human affairs and had not set beneath his foot the proud head of fortune. ...

Petrarch elaborates on the rightness of Celestine's resignation. His can be the last word.

The joy and enthusiasm of his descent bear witness to how sad his ascent had been and how contrary to his aspirations. From persons who saw him I have heard it said that he escaped with immense joy, his eyes and his countenance bearing the signs of his spiritual happiness, when, free at last and restored to himself, he went away from the council not as if he had relieved his back of a moderate burden but as if he had freed his neck of a terrible axe, thus there shone in his countenance I know not what angelic light.

And rightly so. He well knew, in fact, what he was to find, and he was not unaware of what he was leaving. From toil he was returning to repose, from vain arguments to divine conversation, he was abandoning the city, he was going with his spirit -- and if his successor's craftiness had not opposed it -- with his body, to a steep and difficult mountain, I agree: but beyond it there would open to him an easy path to celestial things.

Oh, if only I had lived with him! Among so many solitaries, with him alone I would especially have liked to live, because on no other occasion has my desire been closer to the thing desired. The interval that separates us is not great, if he had only delayed, or I had hastened a little, we would have trod together the path of this life, which he followed with our fathers. (De vita solitaria, 2)


The life of Pietro Murrone as hermit and pope vividly illustrates the contrast of two paths, their incompatibility and their fundamental antagonism, especially in the paradigm of Western religion. That a hermit, however intelligent, could productively administer any grand and worldly enterprise is a contradiction. If he were an old, unlettered, unworldly solitary like Pietro Murrone, any contact with the world was likely to be at the pleasure of the worldly, exploiting the hermit, dooming him to misfortune, as in this predictable and sad story. The way of the solitary is not compatible with the world, no matter how religious the trappings or honorific the goal, for society is treacherous and even hope is vain.

NOTE: The Aquila church (later basilica) of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, founded by Pietro Murrone and site of his coronation as Pope Celestine V, was severely damaged by an earthquake in April, 2009. The basilica houses the hermit-pope's relics, which were, however, unscathed. The earthquake occurred on the 500th anniversary of Pietro Murrone's death.