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A Hermit Over His Head
February 12, 2013 11:34 AM   Subscribe

In the wake of Pope Benedict's resignation yesterday, the world has become re-aquainted with a more famous papal resignation; that of Celestine V, a hermit who proved wildly incompetent as pope and never wanted the job in the first place – but was canonized nevertheless, and received special acclaim from Pope Benedict just three years ago.

Born to Sicilian farmers in 1215 and christened “Pietro Angelerio,” he joined a Benedictine Monastery at 17, then retreated to a nearby cave only seven years later to live a hermit’s life; he moved to Central Italy, just outside Rome, sometime in the 1240’s and spent the next several years in largely uneventful austerity (he did found a new ultra-ascetic order of Benedictine monks, but didn’t want the hassle of dealing with them and turned them all over to someone else to run so he could go back to his cave).

Even so, he heard about and was dismayed by the struggles the church was facing in appointing a successor to Pope Nicholas IV. Nicholas IV died in 1292, but the Papal election – disrupted by plague, Roman riots, and internal power struggles fueled by graft from rival Italian noble families – dragged on for two solid years, long enough that one of the electors died. An incensed Pietro wrote to the cardinals in 1294, warning them that God would punish them if they did not immediately select a pope. When his letter was read aloud to the electorate, Cardinal Latino Malabranca declared out of desperation that Pietro be elected Pope himself. Pietro had no interest in the Papacy, and even tried to run away when his entourage came to escort him to his coronation. But he finally took the name Celestine V and tried to run the church as best he could – which wasn’t very good at all; he would often appoint four clergy to the same post simply because he couldn’t bear to say “no” to any of them.

After five months - reassured by his advisor, one Cardinal Gaetani - Celestine made one final decree affirming the right of a pope to resign, and then stated he was doing just that, moved by “the desire for humility, a purer life, a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, [and] his longing for the tranquility of his former life." But he had attracted enough admirers that Gaetani – who succeeded Celestine as Pope Boniface VIII – tried kidnapping him to Rome where he could be kept out of the public eye. Celestine went on the run for several months, until a storm swamped plans to escape to Greece. Celestine accepted his fate (“I only wanted a cell,” he observed, “and a cell you have given me”) and died in prison nine months later.

His chaotic stint as Pope gave him a bad rap – Celestine is believed to be the unnamed person whom Dante refers to in Canto III of The Inferno (“I saw and recognized the shade of him/Who by his cowardice made the great refusal”). But his humility and obvious innocence finally won him sympathy, and he was canonized in 1313. His disastrous election lead to the institution of the Papal Conclave, and his resignation formalized the procedure for any other pope who’s wished to do the same. In fact, any time a modern pope makes a visit to his remains, Vatican insiders and theologians take it as a sign they are considering stepping down themselves.
posted by EmpressCallipygos (44 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is an expansion of what I'd written about here - the story is rather richer than I'd remembered.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on February 12, 2013


I cannot read this without imaging it as a door slamming farce, men in robes chasing after each other!
posted by The Whelk at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm seeing a Catholic version of King Ralph.
posted by brundlefly at 11:44 AM on February 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'd actually watch the shit out of a Celestine biopic. Publically the church denies it, but the rumors were strong enough anyway that Gaetani kind of sleazed the whole plan together from the get-go - manipulating the other cardinals to finally appoint him to break that two-year logjam, and setting himself up as the poor incompetant guy's advisor so he'd be in place for an obvious succession. Gaetani was the one that Dante really hated; he's in Inferno too, in the Eighth circle of hell. There was even a rumor for a while that Gaetani had him killed in prison.

And Celestine just seemed like this poor and completely overwhelmed guy who had really strong faith and a really simple view of things, and tried in some ways to reform the church, but just did not know what the HELL he was doing and got taken advantage of. But some people got what he was trying to sell and agreed with him, and that's what doomed him because they wouldn't accept the new pope and that's what drove the Vatican to arrest him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on February 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


Although I do grant that him writing to the cardinals and the cardinals finally saying "fine, let's elect HIM pope" does come across as a really huge "oh yeah? You think you can do better than us, YOU try being pope, you asshole".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:46 AM on February 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


I'm seeing a Catholic version of King Ralph

I was thinking 13th Century Hudsucker Proxy myself.
posted by The Whelk at 11:47 AM on February 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


But who would play Celestine in the biopic?
posted by blucevalo at 11:47 AM on February 12, 2013


Steve Carell
posted by The Whelk at 11:48 AM on February 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Ralph Wiggum, naturally.
posted by aramaic at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2013


Needs to be someone really meek-looking and older. Pietro was 80.

...Patrick Stewart would kind of rock as Gaetani, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lord, it's like Mr. Smith Goes to the Vatican, except he dies in prison at the end.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:50 AM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


That's an awesome story.

Poor guy. I'm going to use him as an example next time I have to explain to a fresh young face why it is unwise to speak up in meetings or elsewhere.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:58 AM on February 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


Celestine is played by Bob Balaban

Gaetani is played by Tim Curry.
posted by RobotHero at 12:08 PM on February 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


If you meet the papacy on the road, flee from it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:13 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


D'oh, forgot to add the link to Pope Boniface in the post.

Boniface actually comes across as really kind of a dick - one of the very first things he did as Pope was annul everything that Celestine did. Which in some cases was good - Celestine really did NOT know what he was doing - but Boniface was flat-out corrupt whereas Celestine was just incompetent, and so Boniface was doing things like threatening kings with excommunication if they didn't give the church all their money and shit like that. So it's kind of like "Mr. Smith Goes to the Vatican," with Mr. Smith dying in prison and Darth Vader taking his place.

And based on the picture in that link, Tim Curry isn't a bad casting choice. I'm also seeing Alfred Molina.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:13 PM on February 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


aramaic: "Ralph Wiggum, naturally."

"Sleep! That's where I'm a Templar!"
posted by brundlefly at 12:20 PM on February 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


In the movie, Celestine is played by Brian O'holloran uttering his catchphrase "I'm not even supposed to BE here today!"
posted by dr_dank at 12:24 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Needs to be someone really meek-looking and older. Pietro was 80.

How about Woodhouse from Archer?
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 12:27 PM on February 12, 2013


For a Papal politicking movie fix, I quite liked The Conclave, although I may have been in thrall of the Borgias TV series at the time I saw it.
posted by juv3nal at 12:32 PM on February 12, 2013


I was thinking 13th Century Hudsucker Proxy myself.

X

"You know, for kids!"

(rotate 45 degrees)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:38 PM on February 12, 2013




"You know, for kids!"
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:04 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I cannot read this without imaging it as a door slamming farce, men in robes chasing after each other!

Does your imagination also include the requisite loop of Yakety Sax?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:11 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Colbert employs the Speculatron 7500.
posted by obscurator at 1:15 PM on February 12, 2013


Well we got no shortage of aging actors but I nominate Clint Eastwood.

No, really. Watch Gran Torino again if you don't get my drift.
posted by localroger at 1:17 PM on February 12, 2013


Reddit got their movie, this should be ours.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:42 PM on February 12, 2013


Reddit got their movie, this should be ours.

I WOULD TOTALLY WRITE OR AT LEAST CO-WRITE THE SCREENPLAY YOU GUYS
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:48 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does your imagination also include the requisite loop of Yakety Sax?

Mine certainly did.
posted by KathrynT at 2:04 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hollywood's hot new genre: religious farces set in medieval Italy starring old men!
posted by The Whelk at 2:04 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


This could be the second shot Roberto Benigni has been waiting for!
posted by yellowbinder at 2:32 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


So, he sent them a concerned letter, and they responded by POPEING* HIM, making an ascetic hermit into the most powerful man in the world. He resigns, and they hunt him down and throw him into a cell. It's actually kind of funny, in a tragic way.

*"Pope" is great as a general verb. "Pause the movie, I gotta go take a pope."
posted by JHarris at 3:06 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


This won't end up being anything like The Pope Must Die, will it?
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:32 PM on February 12, 2013


It wasn't quite a concerned letter, it was more like a crazypants rant ("God appeared to me and told me to tell you that He's pissed y'all have been dragging this out for two solid years and if you don't get on the stick He's gonna smite all y'all's asses", basically). Which....I actually don't know if that makes it funnier or more tragic. Maybe a little of both.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:36 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sometimes there's a pope... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a pope. And I'm talkin' about Pietro here. Sometimes, there's a pope, well, he's the pope for his time and place.
posted by speicus at 3:45 PM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


The last pope to resign was not Celestine but Gregory XII in 1415.
Personally my favourite pope was always Pope Joan.
posted by adamvasco at 4:24 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I imagine this opening at the end of the movie. A pair of guards are nervously trying to get him to come to the door for his food. They can't see into the cell because its dark, only illuminated by a small barred window to the outside near the ceiling. The light from that window only lets you see Pietro's feet. They get their boss - the head guard or whatever - to open the door. They go in with a lamp and Pietro is just laying there, dead, a huge beatific smile on his face like he's the happiest man on Earth. The guards all look at each other, nervously.

CUT TO

The red, corpulent face of Pope Boniface. He is sweating. The head guard is describing finding the body. He concludes with something about how Pietro's hands were locked in prayer or around a rosary or some other thing that indicates his final moment were spent in blissful contemplation of God. Boniface struggles to maintain his composure. Wordlessly, he dismisses the guard and then gets down on his knees to pray. He starts two or three times, but realizes that the words won't come. He stands up and move to his Pope throne (or whatever is appropriate to the time period) and looks at the vast hall before him.

Suddenly, he imagines the hall teeming with cardinals and priests. One of them is him as a younger man. They are gathering around the throne where they've just found Pope Nicholas IV dead.

etc. etc. etc.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:35 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I would actually dissolve from "Boniface reflecting on the past" straight to the tail end of the election after Nicholas. Otherwise that's a long two years to try to cover before we get to Pietro even entering the picture.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:50 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am imagining this more as Boniface's story in a similar way to Amadeus actually being Salieri's story. Pietro essentially stays true to himself, but Boniface eventually realizes that in his quest for power and control, he's become a monster. He can only wish for the peaceful happy end of Pietro. In his dreams, Boniface sees himself if the inferno that Dante proposed for him.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:04 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm thisclose to suggesting we email back and forth about this, for serious. (I like the whole "he sees Inferno" bit, actually.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:14 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Turturro as Celestine, John Goodman as Boniface.

I'LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE HERMIT
posted by speicus at 6:07 PM on February 12, 2013


I'LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE HERMIT
I got chills.
posted by variella at 9:08 PM on February 12, 2013


but Boniface eventually realizes that in his quest for power and control, he's become a monster. He can only wish for the peaceful happy end of Pietro. In his dreams, Boniface sees himself if the inferno that Dante proposed for him.

You're basically gonna be quoting the end of Danton for this one.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:24 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never seen Danton but just looked it up and it sounds really excellent. Thank you for the tip!
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:18 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Papal Securities
posted by homunculus at 2:55 PM on February 17, 2013


NPR is late to the party: The Hermit Pope Who Set The Precedent For Benedict XVI
posted by filthy light thief at 11:47 AM on February 26, 2013


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