What does a long dead pope have to do with us everyday Americans, even if we aren’t Catholic? A lot more than you might think, including nuances about the current plague of Covid-19 when you think about it.
Jon M. Sweeney’s book The Pope Who Quit is a definite asset to any study of Western civilization. Billed on the cover as “A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation,” Sweeney’s work will in turn delight, astonish, and maybe even anger the reader a bit. I learned things I had no idea about, and laughed aloud at one pope’s efforts to set the “Muslim Mongols” straight.
I also had no idea how influential the Catholic bureaucracy of yore is when we consider our own political bodies. Why should ecclesiastical courts in Medieval times matter to us? If you can’t answer that question, grab a copy of this book.
I found myself riveted by the tale Sweeney told using solid sources for citations, often including beautiful Psalms and pronouncements by popes. I knew how powerful the Catholic body was in distant times, and still is for that matter. Much of this narrative hit home for me—religious persecution was a key factor in my ancestors on both sides fleeing to the colonies.
Sweeney writes nonfiction with the skill of a novelist, effortlessly spurring you to turn each page. To fully comprehend the importance of the pope who actually quit on his own accord, Celestine V whose given name was Peter Morrone, you have to comprehend the context of the times before and after his papacy.
Pope Innocent III wrote in 1214:
“He [Jesus Christ] has set one whom He has appointed as His Vicar on Earth, so that, as every knee is bowed to Jesus, of things in heaven, and things in Earth, and things under the Earth, so all men should obey His Vicar and strive that there may be one fold and one shepherd. All secular kings for the sake of God so venerate this Vicar, that unless they seek to serve him devotedly they doubt If they are reigning properly.”
Sweeney summed it up clearly: “All created life was subject to the pope. And the pope was in turn subject to no one but Christ.” [pg. 230]
Power centralized and solidified, and by the time Pope Innocent IV (1243-54) took the leadership role, politics and faith had become as entwined as a stubborn vine wrapping itself around your window trim. Innocent IV, wrote Sweeney, “…even sent ambassadors to the Muslim Mongols, telling them that as Christ’s vicar it was within his power to punish them if they continued to break the Ten Commandments.” [pg. 231]
As for Celestine V, the subject of Sweeney’s book, he was ill-equipped to deal with the raw political power influencing Catholic governance of his day. This particular pope sought a life of solitude and penance, even riding a donkey instead of a steed at his first coronation. Yet despite his shortlived papacy, Celestine V had two coronations. The second, according to Sweeney, “is the only instance in history of a double papal coronation.” [pg. 147]
While these events occurred more than 800 years ago, developments during, before, and after that time continue to impact us today:
“From these ecclesiastical courts, run by the hundreds of men known as the papal curia, sprang the legal profession as we know it today; it was already fully formed in medieval Italy by about 1250.” [pg. 170]
Sweeney also recounts how people desperately turned to God for answers half a century after Celestine V died, when plague swept Europe:
“Epidemics flared, and again people saw God’s hand in the dangers and in their losses. There were various outbreaks of bubonic plague leading up to the Black Death pandemic that took place from 1348 to 1350, during which half the population of Europe died, more than thirty million people.” [pg. 224]
Those sheer numbers are almost impossible to absorb. At present the world is grappling with the Covid-19 virus, and more than once I have heard Christians claim mankind is being punished for our misdeeds.
The current pope even declared, in an observance of ‘Earth Day’, “these natural tragedies, which are the Earth’s response to our maltreatment…” I found that ironic, a modern pope’s message so in line with the faith outlook of my pagan ancestors.
I also recognize the human condition in all its frailty—we often are more interested in God when we need Him instead of when times are good. That seems to be a human trait dating to antiquity.
There’s so much in Sweeny’s book it’s hard to capture it all, the multiple directions your mind will take in response to what he writes. I noted with interest the figures on the plague, and I also noted with interest a passage on the use of poisons and magical potions in ancient times. Some concoctions used parts of bats, long associated with myth and folklore. I wondered, considering all the reportage on possible links of Covid-19 to bats, if studying ancient texts might be useful to scientists studying this strange new virus killing and harming so many around the world.
Whether you’re Catholic or that faith’s sibling Lutheran as I am, or of any faith (or for that matter, faithless), reading Jon M. Sweeney’s The Pope Who Quit will entertain and enlighten you. It strikes me that globalism, often debated by political enthusiasts of our day, is nothing new. Globalism has always thrived, sometimes creating war and sometimes conferring benefits to the conquered.
Was Celestine V, who eventually was deemed a saint, really murdered after he resigned the papacy? That question can’t be answered with 100 percent accuracy, but facts are laid out clearly for the reader to consider. Sweeney puts the subject in context, saying the suggestion Celestine V was murdered “is not far-fetched.” [pg. 208] For good measure, the author lists popes who were killed or died in “suspicious circumstances” between 872 and 1012—roughly “a third” of them fit that criteria, according to the scholar Sweeney cites, Eamon Duffy.
If you enjoy history and the impact of the same on present times, Sweeney’s book detailing the life of Peter Morrone is a must-read. Celestine V drew my affection and admiration for his purity at a time when powerful forces made it almost impossible to truly be godly. “Within the span of less than a year,” Sweeney wrote, “Peter had been a renowned hermit, a failed pope, and a wandering hermit, and finally finished up wasting away in prison.“[pg. 208]
Celestine V, originally Peter Morrone who died in 1296, was canonized by the church in 1313.
(Kay B. Day/April 28, 2020)
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Image of Celestine V tomb by Ruggerofilippo