Jon M. Sweeney on The Pope Who Quit
Date: April 16th, 2012

Winners never quit, and quitters never win.  But does this old adage apply to the papacy in the 13th century?  Independent scholar Jon M. Sweeney, editor-in-chief at Paraclete Press and author of numerous books about Christian history, joins us to discuss the life and times of Peter Morrone, who became Pope Celestine V’s in 1294.  This discussion is based on his well-written and lively book,  The Pope Who Quit: A True Medeival Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation.  Celestine’s reign as the head of the Catholic Church lasted a short fifteen weeks before he voluntarily retired from the papacy, the only pope ever to do so willingly.   After a brief diversion discussing Jon’s own personal religious background, we dive into the early life of Peter Morrone and trace his path from child in a large, relatively poor family to his life as a spiritual hermit.  Despite his hermetic lifestyle, Jon notes that one of the ironies of Morrone’s life is that people were drawn to him, leading him to create and establish his own monastic branch of the Bennedictine Order.  Peter Morrone’s life is one of venturing forth into the world followed by retreat, balancing contact with the ecclessia spiritualis (spiritual church) and the ecclesia carnalis (material church).  Indeed, Peter’s life represents the ongoing tension within Christianity between those who saw it as a higher spiritual calling and those who used the offices of the Church for personal power and financial gain.  After discussing how popes were chosen back in the 13th century, Jon then details the fascinating story of how Peter Morrone was selected for the highest office of the Church.  And it all began with a simple letter complaining about the process of selecting popes.  At 84 years of age, it appears as if Peter Morrone was a “safe choice” for pope that could buy the College of Cardinals a bit more time to negotiate between feuding families seeking the papal office.  Jon then covers the various “oddities” and mistakes of Celestine V’s short tenure, including a plenary indulgence and the insistence that he live in a humble wooden hut within the walls of the palatial Castle Nuovo, built by Charles II in Naples and the building that housed the Holy See during this time.  With the help of the interesting, and perhaps maniuplative, Cardnial Gaetani (of the Orsini) family, Celestine V is given a “legal out”  from the throne of St. Peter, paving the way for Gaetani to become Pope Boniface VIII.  We end the story in mysterious fashion with Friar Peter being arrested by Boniface on his way back to spiritual seclusion.  After two years of imprisonment, Peter Morrone died at the age of 86.  But was it murder?  And we conclude with Jon’s thoughts on how this interesting tale of a rather obscure pope tells us about our contemporary religious landscape.  Recorded: April 3, 2012.

RELATED LINKS

Jon M. Sweeney’s biography.

The Pope Who Quit: A True Medeival Tale of Mystery,  Death, and Salvation, by Jon M. Sweeney.

Verily, Verily: The KJV – 400 Years of Influence and Beauty, by Jon M. Sweeney.

The St. Francis Prayer Book, by Jon M. Sweeney.

Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood, by Jon M. Sweeney.

Beauty Awakening Belief: How the Medeival Worldview Inspires Faith Today, by Jon M. Sweeney.

Paraclete Press.

Almost Catholic, a blog by Jon M. Sweeney.

RELATED PODCASTS

Jim Papandrea on the Early Church Fathers and Patristic Exegesis.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II.

James Felak on Pope John Paul II.


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