Monday, May 19, 2003

One of this earth's most unfortunate hermits: Pietro di Morone

Today we celebrate a saint who may have been the most unlucky hermit in history. Pietro di Morone, born in about 1209, grew up pious but poor, got a rudimentary education, and when he was 20 years old he went into the mountains to live as a hermit. Word got around about his wisdom and people kept going out to his hermitage to receive his counsel. Eventually, he was persuaded to accept ordination, and became the head of a community of hermits on Mt. Morone. Pietro lived a holy life of prayer in (relative) peace and obscurity, until 1294.

Now, in 1292, Pope Nicholas IV had died. For 27 months, the cardinals had met in conclave --- but political intrigue and family rivalries kept them from electing Nicholas' successor. The faithful were getting antsy. So Pietro the hermit sent a message to the cardinals, calling the wrath of God down upon them unless they did their duty and elected _somebody_ to be the next pope. The cardinals did settle down and do their duty, and elected a pope: Pietro., now renamed Celestine V.

This selection delighted the faithful, who wildly welcomed their new pope. It was also beguiling to the power-hungry and the job seekers and the lovers of intrigue, who saw in this simple other-worldly outsider an opportunity for advancing their various interests by manipulation. For Pietro/Celestine himself, it was just bewildering.

Pietro endured being "Celestine V pp" for 5 months. Tired, bewildered, and homesick for his solitary life, he became convinced that the duties of being the pope were beyond his capabilities, and on December 13, 1294, he abdicated, put off the pontifical vestments, and went back to his hermitage in the mountains.

The conclave met again, and it didn't take very long this time to elect Boniface VIII, the total opposite of Celestine. Boniface was arrogant and cruel and contemptuous, and gifted in political intrigue, whereas Pietro/Celestine was self-effacing and an innocent, politically naive. Boniface had few friends, and made many enemies. Afraid that Pietro/Celestine, whom the faithful still loved, would become the center of active opposition to him, Boniface had Pietro arrested and imprisoned in a fortress. Pietro's reaction to this: "I wanted nothing in this world but a cell, and a cell they have given me." After 10 months in prison, Pietro died, still imprisoned, on this day in 1296. There were reasonably-founded public suspicions that he was assassinated by or at the order of Boniface.

Boniface, in due time, died himself, and Boniface's successor, Clement V, canonized Pietro di Morone, Celestine V, in 1313.

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