The pope who “due to cowardice made the great refusal”, so Dante mentioned him in the “Divine Comedy”. The real reasons for his resignation and stories about the treasure of the Templars in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio.
Celestine V, his name was Pietro Angelerio, was born in Isernia or, perhaps, in Sant’Angelo Limosano in 1209 (other sources indicate 1215). He was the second last of twelve children. His father Peter and mother Maria Leone were farmers without land owned. He showed his tendencies towards religious life from an early age, including the envy of the brothers who saw him exempted from doing the hard work of the farmers.
He embraced the monastic life at a young age, taking his vows in the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria in Faifoli. Since he aspired to asceticism, at age 30 he withdrew to live in a cave on Mount Morrone, near Sulmona, since then he was called Pietro da Morrone.
After a few years Pietro da Morrone went to Rome to escape to the continuous visits the pilgrims who considered him a holy man. He had the desire to become a priest. He was housed in the Lateran Palace in Rome where he studied and was ordained a priest. In 1241 he returned to the Mount Morrone, he stayed in a cave near the church of Santa Maria di Sagezzano.
Disciples began to gather around him, hundreds of young people attracted by the holiness of Peter and by the hermit’s life. He moved to the mountains of the Majella to find the isolation and to devote himself to the prayers, in a cave almost inaccessible, said Ripa Rossa. Pietro built the monastery of the Spirito Santo on the mountains of Majella, which was the headquarters of the “Celestini” (so the monks were called who followed the rule of Pietro da Morrone) for many years.
He spent most of his life on the Majella, often changing haven to escape to visitors who visited him for his fame as a miracle worker. At 64 years he decided to go on foot in Lyon, in the middle of winter, to intervene in the Council that was gave in 1274. He intended to speak directly with the pope for the recognition of his monastic order, that wicked people accused of erethism.
Pietro da Morrone was hosted in Lyon by the Templars Fathers who, impressed by his holiness, intervened with Pope Gregory X to recommend the full recognition of his monacal rule. Gained recognition, transformed the monastic community in the congregation.
He resumed his life as a hermit come Majella. In 1293 he summoned a General Chapter among his monks and announced the intention to retire permanently in a hermitage on Mount Morrone. Specifically he made to dig a cave in the mountain which he dedicated to S. Onofrio, where he retired awaiting the end of his earthly life, having considered concluded his personal path to holiness research.
In 1292 Pope Nicholas IV (Girolamo Masci) died. He had been elected pope in 1288. Nicholas was the first pope belonging to the order of the Franciscans. The conclave was rejoined to elect a successor in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, then to Santa Maria Maggiore. Despite the Sacred College was composed of only twelve cardinals they failed to reach an agreement on the new pontiff.
Meanwhile, a plague hit Rome. The cardinals suspended the conclave in fear of the epidemic. A component of the Sacred College had the plague and died. Only after many months the cardinals survivors met again. The Sacred College went on the conclave in Perugia, to escape the epidemic, on October 18 of 1293.
The Cardinals, despite the passage of time, could not find an agreement on the person to be elected pope despite the long spent time, for the contrasts between the cardinals who wanted a pope Colonna, Colonna family had two cardinals in the conclave, and who was opposed to this solution.
The King of Naples, Charles II of Anjou, was in a hurry to have done a pope since he had to ratify what had been established in a treaty between the Anjou and James II of Aragon. The papal ratification was necessary because Naples was a fiefdom of the pope. The treaty, which followed the revolt of the Sicilian Vespers, stated that the kingdom of Sicily went to the Aragons, while Charles II was recognized the kingdom of Naples.
Charles II, accompanied by his son Charles Martel, went to Perugia. He, against all the rules, burst into the room where the conclave was held, to force the cardinals to hurry their choices. Cardinal Caetani chased away badly the king. However, this episode led the Cardinals to become aware that they were to elect the pope without wasting any more time.
Also a Pietro da Morrone message came to the conclave in those days that, from his hermitage in the mountains, urged the cardinal the election of the new pope. Pietro threated “severe punishment” by the Holy Spirit because of the interweaving of venial interests that prevented concord among the cardinals. It seems that this missive had been solicited by Charles II.
This a surprise move of the king of Naples was successful to solve the matter. In fact, the dean of the college, Latino Malabranca, who read the hermit’s missive to the cardinals, proposed to elect as pope Pietro da Morrone, widely known as a holy man.
After 27 months of conclave, on July 5, 1294, Pietro Angelerio da Morrone was elected to the papacy. He was 85 years old at the time of election.
On August 5 Pietro da Morrone was reached in his hermitage by three rappresentatives of the sacred college, who conveied the news of the appointment. Pietro was dismaid for the difficult task entrusted to him. He accepted the assignment taking the name of Celestine V after much hesitation.
The King of Naples, evidently moved by personal interests, personally went to the new pope to lead him to the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, where the coronation ceremony was done in the presence of all the Sacred College on August 29.
The first official act of the pope was the issue of the Bull of Forgiveness (Bolla del Perdono), which granted a plenary indulgence to the faithful who went to the Basilica of Collemaggio to confess and ask forgiveness of their sins between August 28 and August 29 of each years. Even today it is celebrated the Forgiveness (Perdonanza) in L’Aquila, in memory of Celestine V.
The pope established the seat of his papacy at Naples, in Castel Nuovo (Maschio Angioino). A small room, furnished poorly in the likeness of his hermitage, was given him in the castle. He had the protection of Charles of Anjou, who received an acknowledgment by Celestine V to the Treaty with the Aragonese, in which it was determined that the kingdom of Sicily, after the death of James II, returned to Anjou.
Celestine was surrounded by fixers, businessmen, clergy seeking honors and sinecures in the three and a half months of his papacy. Not even King Charles was able to take away from the pope the crowd of solicitors.
Celestine V decided to renounce his appointment for the good of the church, deeply prostrated by this untenable situation and too old to oppose. On 13 December 1294 he announced his abdication from the papal throne in front of a stunned consistory.
On 24 December of that year the conclave elected Pope Boniface VIII with impressive speed. Boniface VIII was that Benedetto Caetani who had driven with brusque Charles II by the conclave, but then he had allied himself with the King of Naples to win the competition and be made pope.
The poor Celestine, returned Pietro da Morrone, fled back to his mountains to resume hermit life. Aware that he has become an enemy of Boniface VII and Charles of Anjou tried to flee to Greece. Boniface not allowed, Pietro da Morrone was captured and held prisoner in the papal palace of Alagni. After a short time Celestine was transferred to the gloomy tower of Castel Fumone.
On 19 May 1296, the temperament of the old hermit surrender to the hardness of his imprisonment. He died at 4pm on that day. He was buried in the church of Sant’Antonio belonging to his congregation.
Two reconnaissance of Celestine skeleton were performed over time. A hole in the skull was detected, corresponding to the measure of a nail of 10 centimeters. This matter made suspected that Celestine had not died of natural causes but brutally murdered. Recently a new reconnaissance has found that the hole is dated after the death of the poor hermit.
In 1313 Celestine V became a saint for the decision of Pope Clement V. St. Celestine is remembered on 19 May. In 1317 The mortal remains were transferred in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio.
The congregation of the Celestines, which was originally called the Brothers of the Santo Spirito or Majellesi, had a first major development when Pietro was still alive. Monasteries were opened in Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia and Lazio. It depended directly from the pope. The congregation spread to Lombardy and France after the death of the founder. The monastic rule that followed the Celestine monks was the Benedictine rule. The principal monastery was the Santo Spirito Monastery where the Abbot of the congregation lived. He had similar to that of a bishop’s authority. Each monastery had a prior who was involved in the general chapter of the order.
The decadence of the Celestine congregation began with the French Revolution. All the monasteries of the order were suppressed in France. In 1807 Joseph II Bonaparte, King of Naples, suppressed the monasteries of Celestini also in the kingdom of Naples. In 1810 the order was dissolved in the rest of Italy. Only the female branch of the congregation has survived until today, with the monastery of San Basilio in L’Aquila and San Ruggero in Barletta. Other female monasteries of Benedictine-Celestine were created during the last two centuries.
The treasure of the Templars
Pietro da Morrone had gone to Lyon, on the occasion of the council, to meet Pope Gregory X and to obtain the recognition of his congregation. He was hosted in the Commandery of the Knights Templar of that city. The Grand Master of Templars, James de Bejau, resided in that monastery. The Grand Master was able to appreciate the holiness of Pietro and helped him to achieve the desired papal recognition.
Pietro stopped in L’Aquila returning in his Molise. One night he had a dream in that place, the Virgin asked him to build a shrine in her honor to thank the success of the trip to Lyon.
Pietro, who did not have money and did not have experience necessary to build a sanctuary, asked to the order of the Templars to help him. The Templars provided means and architects. The Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio was erected. The special feature of the church was to be built according to the canons mystical and mysterious of Templar order.
The Templars were the custodians of the tomb of Jesus. They had gathered many relics of Christ and of his martyrdom. They had taken steps to conceal the relics in various places, in order to prevent the theft of the same. They had also concealed the huge treasure of the Order, divided in various shares, along with the relics.
It is said that several secret transports took off from France the treasure that was kept in monasteries of Templars in 1307, at the time of the destruction of the Order in France. This destruction was ordered by King Philip IV the Fair through false accusations of heresy. A part of the treasure was taken to Edinburgh, later to be transferred by sea to America. The continent was still not discovered by Columbus, but the existence of its was known to the monks through the Vikings and Normans, fellow-countrymen of Erik the Red.
Years ago another part of the treasure, along with a portion of the relics, had been hidden in the basement of Collemaggio sanctuary. It was entrusted to the custody of Pietro da Morrone directly from the Grand Master Jacques de Bejou. Two of these relics, the finger of St. John the Baptist and a plug belonged to the crown of martyrdom of Jesus, were also the object of worship among the faithful of the Basilica, although today do not know the place where the same are preserved.
Some recent research, done with modern equipment which scans the walls, have noted the existence of a secret room, completely walled, with walls with two meters thickness, in the foundations of the basilica. It could be the treasure room created by the Templars at the time of construction of the temple. The research, to be carried out with excavation, are at a standstill due to lack of funding.
This discovery would explain the reluctance of Celestine V to accept the appointment of Pope and his resignation to return to his homeland where he had the sacred role of guardian of the precious relics of Jesus Christ.
Ignazio Silone, L’avventura di un povero cristiano, Mondadori, Milano 1998
Peter Herde, Celestino V e la spiritualità francescana, “Schede Medievali”, 12-13, 1987: 11-24.
Paolo Golinelli, Celestino V. Il papa contadino, Mursia, Milano, 2006.
Valerio Gigliotti, Fit monachus, qui papa fuit: la rinuncia di Celestino V tra diritto e letteratura, in “Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa”