Pope Celestine V and the Courage to Resign

Celestine V

Pope Celestine V – © 2018 Jed Smith

The verb “resign” can be a loaded word.

The word can connote giving up or giving in. When a person is said to have resigned themselves to a situation, it often implies waving a white flag to something beyond their control or their liking.

Then, there is choosing to resign when a person realizes something isn’t working for them, or when they’ve explored a path and gracefully backed out and said, “No, thank you.”

Enter Pope Celestine V

I knew nothing about the man who was chosen as Pope during the 13th century and during the last non-conclave choosing of the Holy Father—that is until I visited L’Aquila with my dear friends Novelia and Peppe. I had, just the day before, visited Celestine’s remote hermitage in the Morrone mountains and seen the small, cramped cell where he had slept. In L’Aquila, I saw Santa Maria di Collemaggio, the inspiring basilica born of his dream. There, I learned the fuller story of the first Pope to resign. I won’t attempt to do what Wikipedia does so well, but I will point out that he’d been chosen after a two-year vacancy of the Papacy. He served in Naples for five months. Historians opine that he wasn’t such an effective or good Pope. But, this was a man thrust into a position that really didn’t fit with his values. It was a position at odds with his soul. Hence, as Pope, he passed an edict that allowed a Pope to resign. And, resign he did, realizing that he preferred a very different life.

Are we willing to resign to what isn’t working for us in our lives?

This has been a gift of Celestine V to me. I’ve been so busy trying to do everything and be everything that I don’t pause and ask myself the above question.

It takes guts to lay aside what society has told us is its measure of success, of having arrived. It takes courage to say “no” in a way that casts a hearty vote for ourselves, for our true nature. I’m too easily influenced by the markings of a full life instead of an authentic one.

Be ready to edit. Be ready to set aside what doesn’t bring you joy.

Life conspires to get needed messages to us. Of this, I’m increasingly convinced. My dear sister, on a recent vacation together, distilled “things” down to this all-important issue. I’d been caught in a mental treadmill of questioning areas and aspects of my life and where I was placing my energies. She calmly asked, “Does it bring you Joy? Or does it rob your energy?” Wow, I kicked myself for having made things so complicated.

Choose the life, the things that feed your soul.

Celestine V learned very quickly that the role of Holy Father, with all its responsibilities, its complexities, its political responsibilities, were at odds with what his soul craved. So, he resigned and attempted to return to the simple life before he’d become Pope. History tells a daunting tale as he relinquished his post and eventually was imprisoned by his successor (I’ll leave you to Wikipedia to learn more).

A modern-day letter to Celestine V conveys his legacy succinctly and shows that his message isn’t lost.

During my visit to Santa Maria di Collemaggio, I passed by the sarcophagus of Celestine V and saw a letter affixed to the ironwork surrounding his crypt. It was from local school children. Simone began translating it for me, and I stood transfixed. Yes, this is his legacy, I thought. Not only did he say “No” to a position that many men would covet, but he literally created a door of redemption for people to make peace with themselves. I love that.

Celestine V

“A Letter to Celestine” from local school children.

Here is the letter and its translation:

Caro Celestino, ti vogliamo bene. Hai fatto bene a costruire questa Chiesa perché ci sta le Madonnina e perché ci hai regelato una Chiesa bellissima nella nostra cittá, l’Aquila. Tu volevi essere povero e stare con i tuoi amici, percio non sei diventato Pape! E hai fatto bene! Hai lasciato tutti I vestiti da Papa e sei tornato povero. Grazie per aver fatto la porta magic ache si chiama Porta Santa perché chi ci passo sotto diventa buono. Chissá dove si trova il tesoro che I Templeri hanno nascoto qui! Ti lasciamo questa letterina come ricordo della nostra vista qui.

Dear Celestino, we love you. You did well to build this Church because there is the Madonnina and because you have given us a beautiful Church in our city, L’Aquila. You wanted to be poor and to be with your friends, so you did not become the Holy Father!  And you did good! You have left all the clothes of the Pope and you came back poor. Thank you for having made the magic door you call the Holy Door because all who step under it become good. Who knows where is the treasure that the Templars have hidden here! We leave you this letter as a memory of our visit here.

I bambini della Scuole dell’Infanzie Torrione.

My visit to Santa Maria di Collemaggio

In closing, I leave with you a short video sharing my brief story of Celestine V and the visit to the basilica that he inspired.