Last Sunday, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor celebrated his last Mass as leader of 2.4 million Catholics. The cardinal had just turned 80, which meant he was no longer eligible to vote for new popes and must be replaced. "Does anybody have a job for me?" he jokingly asked the crowd. While it's policy for aged cardinals to retire, suggesting the same of a pope can cause a real stir. A German bishop accidentally made headlines just a few weeks ago for reportedly calling on the elderly Pope John Paul II to step down. The bishop moved swiftly to smooth things over. After all, the last time a pope resigned was 1294, and the issue then was much more complicated (and dubious) than old age.

In the thirteenth century, the church and the papacy tended toward wealth, worldliness, and political power. A reforming faction, which included many monks and hermits, longed for a leader who would purify the church and thus, they believed, hasten the return of Christ. The division between the two camps was so deep that, when Pope Nicholas IV died in 1292, church officials took 27 months to select a replacement. They finally elected Peter of Marone, founder of the Hermits of St. Damian, hoping he would be a "Papa Angelicus"—an unworldly saint with power to transform the church.

Unfortunately, Peter (as Celestine V) was spectacularly ill-suited to be pope. Already 85 at his election, he had spent much of his life as a recluse in a mountain cave. When bishops fetched him for his new office, they discovered a pale, unkempt, unhealthy man who could barely understand what they wanted. Nonetheless, they brought him back to Aquila, Italy, where he was crowned before 2,000 people. He moved to a palace in Naples, but his ascetic habits remained: he build himself a wooden cell to hide in and often ate only crusts of bread.

Celestine had no idea how to handle the political and financial complexities of the papacy. But someone else did—Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, a proud, fierce man with a diplomatic career behind him. Caetani advised Celestine, and when, after six months, it was clear the pope couldn't manage the job, Caetani answered his questions about the legality of stepping down and wrote his abdication speech. But he might have gone even farther: according to one story, Caetani inserted a reed into Celestine's room and pretended to be a voice from heaven, saying it was God's will that he resign. It's more likely that Celestine recognized his hopeless situation and quit voluntarily, but it's not unreasonable to suspect Caetani of treachery. Upon becoming Pope Boniface VIII, he tracked down his predecessor (who had returned to his life as a hermit) and imprisoned him until his death at age 90. Boniface quickly collected power and privilege for himself. He even enlarged the traditional papal tiara, to further proclaim his authority, and declared in the bull Unam Sanctam, "It is altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." Not surprisingly, this position earned him many enemies—including his contemporary, the poet Dante Alighieri. Dante's struggle with church leaders came to head this week nearly 700 years ago, when he was falsely accused of corruption. During his subsequent exile, he exacted literary revenge. In Canto 19 of the Inferno, Dante speaks to a man trapped upside down in a mock baptismal. "Art here already, Boniface?" the poet asks. "Hast thou tired so soon of that dear wealth which was the tempting boon for which thou didst the Bride of Christ betray?" Celestine also appears in the Inferno (Canto 3) for his "great refusal" of the crown, but he's only in the first circle of hell. Even so, it's probably a harsher sentence than he deserved; his solitary prayers must have been more beneficial for himself and the church than his administration.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a listing of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.netPrevious Christian History Corners include:

Roman, Lend Me Your Ear | When a bishop rebuked a Christian emperor, who had the final word? (Jan. 14, 2000)

Good King, Bad King | How Christian was the king whose name is almost always associated with the Bible? (Jan. 7, 2000)

A 1928 translation of Dante's Inferno can be found online.

Brief biographies of Celestine V are available at and the Catholic Encyclopedia.

See the Weblog for our earlier coverage of the rumors that Pope John Paul II may retire.