Pope Benedict gazed out on the crowd packing the piazza of a small Italian town. Below him lay the bones of Celestine V, the last pontiff to choose to retire; above rose sunlit crags where the “hermit pope” took refuge from a troubled medieval world.
A few weeks after that visit in July, 2010, to Sulmona, in the Abruzzo mountains, the then 83-year-old Benedict told a German interviewer he would not hesitate to become the first pope since Celestine in 1294 to resign of his own free will, if he was no longer able to meet the demands of running the billion-strong Catholic Church.
Did the example of Celestine’s “Great Refusal” inspire his aging successor to consider the alternative to death in office?
The working day Benedict spent in Sulmona was part of a typically busy schedule for the pontiff: He met hundreds of people and said mass for the 800th birthday of Pietro Angelerio, a monk who lived in local caves before and after his five troubled months as Pope Celestine V during a conflict between church factions.
Some of Benedict’s words that day may in retrospect betray a sense of weariness and a longing for a cloistered retirement.
In a homily to the crowd of 10,000 in the main square, he said: “A beautiful expression of St. Paul ... is also a perfect spiritual portrait of St. Peter Celestine: ‘Far be it from me to glory, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’”
Later, meeting young people at Sulmona cathedral, where a mosaic showing Benedict with Celestine was unveiled, he praised those with the courage of conviction and recalled the pope whose rejection of the Holy See was seen by some as sinful:
“St. Celestine V,” he said, “Was able to act according to his conscience in obedience to God, hence without fear and with great courage even in difficult moments ... not fearing to lose his dignity but knowing that it consists in existing in truth.”
He also defended Celestine’s retreat into seclusion: “In his choice of the hermit life might there not have been individualism or an escape from responsibility? This temptation does of course exist. But in the experiences approved by the Church, the solitary life of prayer and penance is always at the service of the community, open to others,” Benedict said.
“Hermits and monasteries are oases and sources of spiritual life from which all may draw.”