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
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.