The Pope Who Quit, by Jon M. Sweeney (LentBooks 2013 #3)

popeWow, I wish I had Jon M. Sweeney’s luck. I mean, The Pope Who Quit was already doing well when it first came out last year, but I’m willing to bet sales have gone through the roof in the last couple of weeks. Sweeney actually discusses, in this book, the possibility that Benedict XVI might choose to resign. Now that the pope actually has done that, I’m sure readers are more intrigued than ever by this well-written biography of the only other pope in history who actually did walk away from the job.

Pope Celestine V, or Peter Morrone as he was known pre-papacy, was a hermit monk who founded a religious order and was a popular preacher and teacher in the Italy of the late 1200s. During a lengthy and fruitless conclave to choose a new pope, one of the cardinals suggested Peter as a candidate, and it appears the suggestion was seized upon as an example of divine inspiration. The reluctant hermit was hauled out of his solitary retreat and made leader of the church, but Peter/Celestine only held the position for fifteen weeks. During that time he was almost completely ineffectual, was believed to be a puppet of the King of Naples, insisted on living in a hut built inside a courtyard of the palace where he was supposed to reside, and made no effort to deal with the complex political and ecclesiastical problems a pope was supposed to handle. Three months into his term he resigned and went home, intending to return to his quiet hermitage. Instead, he was arrested and imprisoned by his successor (who had helped him with the legal procedures necessary for his abdication), and died a short while later in prison, possibly murdered.

Sweeney does a great job of making a medieval story (with the usual sketchy source material of that era) highly readable, and offers some interesting suggestions about Celestine’s motivations. Maybe, he suggests, the pope who quit was not merely ineffectual and unable to cope with the task: maybe his withdrawal from the demands of the job and his subsequent abdication was a form of protest against what the papacy was and represented in that era. Maybe Celestine’s choice was meant to demonstrate that in the medieval church at that time, it was impossible for a truly holy man to hold a position of power. Is it still that way today? Sweeney (a convert to Catholicism) raises some intriguing parallels and possibilities to today’s papacy — though he gets no points for being a prophet, since he concludes there’s virtually no chance Benedict XVI would ever resign, despite rumours and suggestions to that effect.

Well, he has resigned. Unlike many of my fellow Seventh-day Adventists I do not have the horrified fear of or fascination with the papacy that characterizes some conservative Protestants, and I am not looking for signs of the end-times or the antichrist in the election of a new pope. I think of the papacy as a fascinating historical and religious institution and I’m very interested in how it’s changed over the centuries that the office has existed. I didn’t know anything about Celestine V before picking up this book, which I’ve had on my to-read list for several months. It was the resignation of Benedict that inspired me to move the book to the top of the list and read it, and I’m sure many other readers have done the same in the last few weeks. I hope Jon M. Sweeney does very well off the current fascination with popes who quit — both of them. He deserves to, as he’s done a nice job of popularizing a story from history most of us would not know of otherwise.

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