THE BLOG
07/08/2014 09:40 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2014

Pope Francis Declares Jubilee Year for the First Pope Who Quit

On July 5, 2014, Pope Francis declared a Year of Jubilee. This concept originated in the Hebrew Bible's Book of Leviticus and offers a special occasion for the remission of sins and divine pardon. It is a kind of gift from God to humankind which, in a Catholic context, may be instituted by the pope.

This Jubilee Year, already begun, is in honor of a pope who quit. Not Pope Benedict XVI. We're talking about the first and only pope who willingly and on his accord stepped down from the papal throne before Benedict did in February 2013. His name was Pope Celestine V and he stepped down in December 1294. Celestine V only ruled for fifteen disastrous weeks, and then abdicated before Christmas.

I wrote a book about Celestine V and his story two years ago. Elected in his eighties while living as a hermit, none of the curia expected much of him, except that they could easily control him. Celestine V was supposed to be a "puppet pope." But to millions of the faithful, he was recognized as a holy man. He was "too good" to be pope, which in those days meant leading an army, building treasuries, protecting territory, and wielding God's power over princes and kings.

Celestine V spent most of his time in private prayer instead of engaging with his responsibilities as a world leader. But there was no positive effect of a profound personal, spiritual witness in a pope in 1294. (The faithful were unable to witness their Holy Father live, streaming on the Internet, or broadcast on television.) There were some, even during Celestine's own lifetime, who believed him to be "angelic," but a spiritual pope had no hope of saving the world 700 years ago.
Why did he quit? Celestine V was unwilling to do what popes were required to do. His worst expectations were confirmed within weeks, prompting him to make the decision that would save his soul - if not the Church. He quit, and for that act he showed himself to be enlightened, not naïve.

But not everyone would agree. Pope Francis praised today a man in history who has often been reviled. Dante, for instance, called him a coward, placing him in the vestibule of Hell in his Inferno. The great poet thought it was a sign of moral and spiritual weakness to simply walk away.

Was Dante right? In the case of Celestine V, I don't think so. When a cardinal's entourage marched up a mountain to tell the old hermit of the papal election, shocking him with news that he was the one elected to the Chair of St. Peter, the wisest instinct Celestine ever had was the one that told him to flee. Medieval accounts tell us that he actually began to run - until someone stopped him. He should have run. It wasn't that Celestine did not know, or was unprepared for, the rigors of the corrupt late medieval papacy. He simply knew better, and he wouldn't participate in the nonsense. As Pope Francis said today, Celestine "made a choice of a life against the current...not only as personal ascesis, but as prophetic testimony."

I like what this Jubilee Year says about Pope Francis's vision for the future of the Catholic Church. No more nonsense. No more pretending.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation, which has been optioned by HBO.