Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review

This review appeared first at the Alan's Eyes and Ears blog:

The Pope Who Quit, by Jon M Sweeney. Paperback.

When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down from his role as leader of the Catholic Church, news reports regularly mentioned that such an event had not happened in over seven centuries. This book tells the story of the only other man to voluntarily leave the papacy. Written while Benedict XVI still served as pope, Jon Sweeney tells the fascinating story of Pope Celestine V, whose tenure lasted only 15 weeks. “Fifteen disastrous weeks,” as chapter 14 is titled.

The College of Cardinals was deadlocked in 1294 about who should succeed Pope Nicholas IV, who had died two years before. The small group of electors was evenly split by their loyalties to different noble families, and they had been unable to achieve the required two-thirds vote. From his hermitage atop the surrounding mountains, the saintly 84-year-old hermit Peter Morrone was disgusted by the length of time the Church had been without a leader. He wrote a letter to the Cardinals telling them that they risked God’s wrath if the let the church remain without a pope for much longer. For whatever reason, be it the Holy Spirit, or be it the opportunity to name an outsider that neither side could criticize, Peter was elected by acclamation to the papacy.

This highly spiritual man was thoroughly unprepared and overmatched by the worldly requirements of the position. If the papacy were merely a job requiring spiritual leadership, Celestine V may have turned out to be a great leader. But there are worldly duties as well, from managing relations with the royal houses of Europe to dealing with issues arising from the Crusades. He had little interest, inclination, or ability to handle these duties, a fact which quickly became apparent.

Within six months of writing his first world-changing letter, he wrote another. With it, Celestine V became the first pontiff to ever abdicate the position. His reign was short and turbulent, but certainly memorable. And Jon M. Sweeney does an excellent job of making the events of the story come alive.

This is very little historical evidence for the events that Sweeney writes about, as he is quick to admit. Much of the specifics in this book are based on general historical knowledge of the period, and is applied to the events of this story. And even the documents that do exist from the period (or shortly thereafter) come in varying degrees of reliability.

What Sweeney had to do was not just find the documents, but evaluate them before deciding which information to include. There are more than twenty pages of notes at the end of the book, indicating the level of research that went into creating this book.

Source: public library.