Given the current situation with Pope Benedict XVI (now Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), I suspect that there will be much renewed interest in The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney. When I first saw it in Barnes & Noble, I avoided it since the cover makes it look like a book full of drama and conspiracy theories. The Pope Who Quit is written for a popular audience, but it does a good job of presenting a specific period of history with an engaging writing style.
The Pope Who Quit has many merits. One of them is a clear presentation of the life of one man: Peter Morrone, an old hermit who suddenly found himself becoming Pope Celestine V only to abdicate a few months later. Sweeney’s writing makes clear the background that led to these events and justifies Morrone’s decision to leave the papacy. The Pope Who Quit does mention a couple of conspiracy theories, but it keeps speculation to a minimum. Sweeney likewise gives the necessary information to understand Morrone’s life—monasticism and hermetic movements during the 13th century.
Since Sweeney is writing for a popular rather than a scholarly audience, he finds himself with the difficult task of quickly presenting a panoramic picture of 13th century life. For the most part, Sweeney does this well. I question a few of his statements, but I won’t mention most of them since they’re probably necessary oversimplifications, not errors. This was the statement that I found to be most problematic: “Medieval chronicles are full of descriptions of warrior priests—men who not only held religions office, but as rulers of the Holy Roman Empire led armies into battle” (175). This comment is brief, so it sounds like Sweeney means the strange idea of mace-wielding priests that I discussed in “Misuse of the Word ‘Medieval’ Part 8: The Crusades.” Sweeney’s source, De Re Militari, describes an archbishop arming himself and going into battle along with his troops. However, it also appears he did so only to rescue allies from a siege. I’m having difficulty finding more information on the “warrior priest” that doesn’t involve tabletop RPGs, so I’m not sure if Sweeney is suggesting that it was common for priests to enter battle, or simply to have a hand in directing military affairs.
But, I digress. The question of warrior priests is not a vital one to understanding Pope Celestine V. What is essential is the political climate of the 13th century, the affairs of kings, the creation of new monastic orders, and the life of a hermit. Sweeney outlines all of these with skill.
The Pope Who Quit stars Peter Morrone, but it is framed with commentary on Pope Benedict XVI. Judging from Pope Benedict XVI’s actions of devotion when visiting Celestine V’s grave, Sweeney speculates that Pope Benedict XVI feels a special spiritual connection with Peter Morrone. He doesn’t draw many specific conclusions, but many will find this relationship interesting in light of the recent retirement.
Table of Contents
- Time Line of Events
- Part I: When the Unexpected Happened
- A Letter that Changed Just About Everything
- The Bizarre Papal Election of 1292–94
- A Most Unlikely Decision
- Spreading the News
- They Came to Take Him Away
- Part II: Peter of Morrone, 1209–93
- Now I Will Tell You of My Life
- I Became a Man When I Became a Monk
- A Hermit Loves His Cave
- The Hundred-Meter Fast
- Walking to Lyon
- Part III: Turbulent Times
- Obsessed with Salvation
- Riding on an Ass
- The Colorful Kings of Naples and Sicily
- Fifteen Disastrous Weeks
- Awkwardness in Robes
- Part IV: The Passion and the Pity, 1294–96
- I, Peter Celestine, Am Going Away
- The New Advent of Friar Peter
- Murdered by a Pope
- The World is Falling Apart
- Is Saint Enough?