Pietro da Morrone was born to a poor family in 1215, in the province of Moline, Naples. At the age of seventeen he became a Benedictine monk, and he was ordained as a priest several years later.
The Monastic Life
Pietro was an extreme ascetic. He first sought solitude at Mount Morrone in the Abruzzi Mountains (thus gaining the surname da Morrone), then moved further into the wilderness around Mount Majella. He fasted for days on end, wore a hair shirt and a heavy chain, and prayed long into the night. Ironically, the hermit's obvious self-sacrifice attracted followers, and Pietro became responsible for the founding of more than 30 monasteries with approximately 600 monks. What had become a branch of the Benedictine Order was approved by Urban IV in 1264; they would later become known as Celestines after Pietro's papal name.
The future pope had gained wide renown and admiration for his piety as well as for his achievement in founding and governing the monasteries. But Pietro was not comfortable in his administrative role. He wanted only to devote his life to Christ through self-sacrifice and solitude; so, in 1284, at nearly 70 years of age, he appointed a vicar to oversee the monasteries for him, then returned to the wilderness once more. There he remained, living in austerity, for the next ten years.
Papacy in Crisis
Pietro might have spent the rest of his days in his beloved solitude and self-denial if the papacy had not met with a desperate situation. For more than two years, since the death of Pope Nicholas IV, there had been no one sitting on the papal chair. The 12 cardinals who had met at a conclave in Perugia to choose the next pontiff were evenly split along political lines between the Orsini, led by Cardinal Latino Orsini, and the Colonna, led by Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani. Matters grew heated when King Charles II of Naples paid a visit to Perugia, seeking papal support for his campaign to retake Sicily, and exchanged harsh words with Cardinal Gaetani.
It was Cardinal Orsini who apparently directed the attention of the council toward esteemed monastics. A recent groundswell in spirituality among the latest wave of monks was making the papacy look overly concerned with temporal matters in comparison. It didn't take long to fix on the most admired ascetic in Italy: Pietro da Morrone. The cardinals, exhausted from years of conflict and deadlock, unanimously chose Pietro as the next pope on July 5, 1294.
The Reluctant Pope
To say that Pietro was unhappy with his election would be an understatement. He agonized over accepting the office, wanting only to return to his solitary abode. But the cardinals' miraculously united decision, along with a fervent prayer, convinced him that his election was God's will. He would set aside his personal inclinations in favor of the betterment of the Church.
When word spread that Pietro was to be the next pope, thousands of the faithful flocked around him. King Charles and his son, the nominal King of Hungary, met with the new pope, ostensibly to pay him homage; in reality, they took him into protective custody. The cardinals requested that he come to Perugia, but Pietro, probably under Charles' influence, insisted that the cardinals meet him in Aquila, which was within the borders of Naples. Pietro climbed aboard a donkey and, with the two kings leading it by ropes, he humbly rode to Aquila. Although only three of the Cardinals had arrived, King Charles insisted that Pietro be crowned in the Cathedral of Santa Maria di Collemagio. This ceremony had to be repeated when the rest of the Cardinals showed up; this is the only recorded instance of a pope having two coronations. The last to arrive was Cardinal Gaetani; his rival, Cardinal Orsini, died before he could make it to Aquila.
Almost as soon as he officially became pope, Celestine V began making decisions that caused more problems than they solved. Instead of returning to the Papal States as requested by the cardinals, he ordered the entire curia to come to Naples, an act that was clearly influenced by King Charles. In September he created twelve cardinals, seven of whom were French; this not only ruffled the feathers of the current cardinals, it paved the way for the Avignon Papacy. He upset the cardinals still further by re-instituting the rigid rules governing conclaves that had been enacted by Gregory X, and which had been annulled almost immediately by Adrian V. He made the Bishop of Benevento a cardinal without following any of the usual procedures. He granted privileges and church offices freely, sometimes giving the same benefice or property to more than one individual. He took a Franciscan sect who wanted to live as hermits under his protection (they would become known as "Celestines"), but he also tried to impose the extreme Celestine rule from his order of monks on other monastic houses. And while the influence of King Charles did not last, the pope hardly ever consulted the cardinals for any reason.
Far from cleaning up the papal curia, in five short months Celestine had made it an even greater mess.
The Resignation of Celestine V
Celestine, who was about eighty, recognized that he lacked the administrative ability necessary to lead the Catholic Church. He was also very unhappy and wanted to return to his humble cell in the Abruzzi Mountains. He raised the question of abdication, and it was Cardinal Gaetani, who was the highest authority on canon law, who took the matter under consideration. After a short deliberation, Gaetani decided that, yes, it was within the constraints of the laws of the church that a pope could resign. Although his foes claimed that the resignation was Gaetani's idea from the beginning, scholars are fairly certain that Celestine arrived at the decision on his own.
On December 13, 1294, Celestine announced his resignation. A little over a week later (a delay ordered by those strict conclave rules Celestine had re-instituted), the cardinals met to choose a new pontiff. Within 24 hours they proclaimed Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani as their choice; he took the name Pope Boniface VIII.
The Death of Celestine V
The exhausted ex-pontiff wanted only to return to his life of austerity in the mountains, but Boniface could not, or would not, allow that. There were some who thought that Celestine's resignation had not been legal and that Boniface had engineered everything in order to unlawfully take the papal chair. However strong this sentiment may or may not have been, the new pope and his associates foresaw disaster if their enemies were to get their hands on Celestine and use him to oust Boniface. They took the former pope, now dressed humbly in hermit's garb, back with them to Rome.
But after a short time at San Germano, Celestine fled Rome and returned to the Abruzzi, where his fellow monks received him with joy. Boniface ordered that he be arrested; but for several months, Celestine was able to evade his pursuers by wandering through the mountains and woods. At last, while attempting to sail to Greece, Celestine was apprehended after a storm drove his boat ashore. He was taken back to Rome, where he was installed in the castle of Fumone, given two monks to attend him, and closely watched. Though his guards evidently treated him rudely, he was not deliberately harmed by Boniface (contrary to later rumors), and he spent his last nine months in fasting and prayer.
Celestine died on May 19, 1296.
The Aftermath of Celestine's Pontificate
Most of the provisions Celestine had made were revoked by Boniface. The Franciscan monks he'd taken under his protection were renounced, and only those concessions approved by Boniface were continued. Though extremely well-versed in canon law and possessed of keen political instincts, Boniface would meet heavy opposition throughout the beleaguered nine years of his pontificate, in part because his secular attitudes stood in stark contrast to Celestine's saintliness.
In 1313, Clement V canonized Celestine. Some years later, the saint's remains were transferred to the Cathedral of Santa Maria di Collemagio in Aquila, where they are still greatly venerated today.
Although most agree that Celestine was indeed a saintly man, not everyone was so impressed with him. In his Divine Comedy, Dante places the pontiff at the entrance of Hell because he resigned, calling his decision one of cowardice.