Pope Benedict XVI stands by remains of Pope Celestine V.
(L'Osservatore Romano/AP)
February 26, 2013

The Hermit Pope Who Set The Precedent For Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI leaves office this week, the second pope to resign voluntarily. The first was Celestine V, a hermit who quit in 1294 after a brief and disastrous stint.

Celestine V. lies beneath a glass coffin, wearing a pontiff's miter and faded vestments of gold and purple. He is a tiny man with a wax head.

Celestine became pope at 84, some seven centuries ago, after a long and self-punishing career as a hermit.

Though a celebrated spiritual leader, and founder of a new branch of the Benedictine order, his papacy lasted just over five months. It's widely viewed as an utter disaster.

He left at 85 — the same age as Benedict XVI.

Celestine's resignation proved controversial, and divided medieval intellectual opinion: Many believe he is a shadowy cowardly figure seen in Hell in Dante's Inferno.

A few other popes have quit over the centuries; the last one was Gregory XII in 1415. But, as one expert on the Vatican's turbulent history put it: "they did so with the medieval equivalent of a gun to the heads."

Experts say there's an important link between Celestine's voluntary resignation and Benedict's. There is evidence that Celestine provided inspiration, and a foundation in religious law, for Benedict's astonishing departure this month.

Celestine's coffin lies in Santa Maria di Collemagio, a glorious honey-colored basilica that he built in the city of L'Aquila amid the mountains of central Italy.

In 1294, he was crowned Pope in this same building.

Celestine was a monk, a hermit and a saint who - it's widely acknowledged - never wanted to be pope. "He just wanted to guide the faithful", says Patrizia Innamorati, who works in the basilica, in maintenance.

Celestine came from the mountains not far from the basilica and led an austere life.

George Ferzoco of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University in England, is an expert on Celestine V — or Pietro del Morrone, as Celestine was known before becoming pope.

During his life as a hermit, Pietro slept on bare rock in a cave on a mountainside, Ferzoco says.

Pietro also practiced mortification of the flesh — the belief that pain distracts the mind away from worldly temptations and toward God. He wore a horsehair shirt and an iron girdle.

"The combination of the hair shirt and the iron chains, which he would wear around his skin, these would have cut very deeply into his skin and caused profuse regular bleeding," Ferzoco says.

Pietro's fame spread. He attracted many followers and set up his own branch of the Benedictine order.

The Accidental Pope

Then, in 1292, Pope Nicholas IV died. For the next two years, the church's endlessly scheming cardinals were deadlocked over a successor.

They had heard about 84-year-old Pietro, or Peter, as some call him. He was old, and they thought he would be easy to manipulate. So they set off on horseback to his mountain cave to tell him that he was the new pope.

The job did not work out.

Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University and author of a book about the popes, sums it up this way: "He was really rather an appalling pope."

"For a start, he was extremely feeble," Duffy says. "He was also very much under the influence of the king of Sicily and appointed a number of stooge cardinals. And he really had no head for administration or business, so it was a rather inglorious period."

After slightly more than five months, Celestine quit.

To do so, he signed a document legalizing his resignation. The document was drafted by a cardinal, who promptly became the next pope — Boniface VIII.

About 700 years on, it's proved crucial, says Bristol University's Ferzoco.

"The law passed by Celestine the day before he actually resigned served as the legal bedrock for the decision that Benedict XVI made to resign the papacy," Ferzoco says.

Benedict's Visit

Back outside the basilica, Angelo Micheri arrives to pray, as he does every day. He reveres Celestine.

"He's important because he helps people in need," Micheri says.

Times are tough in Italy these days. Micheri is a carpenter who can't get a job. To survive, he begs.

Micheri is confident Celestine will answer his prayers for work.

"Yes, I think he will. I asked him before, and I found work," he says.

Some construction laborers who do have jobs are working on the basilica. It's still being repaired after part of the roof caved in during a big earthquake that struck L'Aquila four years ago.

After the quake, Pope Benedict came to console victims. He prayed before Celestine's coffin. In a highly symbolic gesture, Benedict laid upon it a most sacred vestment — his pallium, or a kind of scarf.

Shortly after that, Celestine's coffin was moved for a while. It was paraded slowly though the narrow streets, on the back of a small truck, to the nearby town of Sulmona.

Benedict went to pray before Celestine's remains there, too.

The significance of the two visits is "quite staggering," says Ferzoco. To him, it's amazing no one saw the message behind Benedict's actions.

"He was showing that it is permissible, licit, and in some cases spiritually beneficial that a pope may resign for the good of his soul and for the benefit of his flock," Ferzoco says.

Coward Or Hero?

As he performs his final acts as pope, Benedict will be aware that controversy is continuing over his resignation.

That happened to Celestine, too. Celestine's departure divided intellectual opinion in the medieval world.

The poet Dante, in his Inferno, describes an unnamed figure in hell: "He whose cowardice made the Great Refusal."

For centuries, many have assumed that's a damning reference to Celestine — though some scholars disagree.

Others, though, saw Celestine's resignation as heroic: the rejection of a church mired by greed and politics.

Celestine's story has a grim footnote. After quitting, he wanted to go back to being a hermit and headed for his cave.

Boniface, his successor, was worried by the idea of two living popes and feared that people would still rally round Celestine. So he had Celestine arrested and imprisoned in a castle.

Soon afterward, Celestine died.

As she stands next to Celestine's glass coffin, Patrizia Innamorati hopes the world will be a lot kinder to Benedict.

"I will miss him a lot," she says, "because he was a person of great sensibility and courage."


Nuns during pope's last noon prayer
(Alessandra Tarantino/AP)
February 24, 2013

Pope Benedict Gives Last Sunday Blessing at Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI has given his final Sunday blessing at the Vatican before he steps down on Thursday.

In his last Angelus in St Peter's Square, he told thousands of cheering pilgrims his decision did not mean he was abandoning the Church.

Pope Benedict, 85, announced his resignation last week, saying ill-health meant he could not continue.

Cardinals are gathering to choose the next pope amid fears Church sex abuse scandals may overshadow the process.

Speaking from his balcony overlooking St Peter's Square, Pope Benedict used several different languages to salute the Catholics who had come to bid him farewell at the end of his eight-year reign.

He said he was following God's wishes in deciding to abdicate.

"The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain - prayer is not an isolation from the world," he said.

"I am not abandoning the Church and shall continue to serve it in a manner more adapted to my age and strength," through prayer and meditation, he added.

Pope Benedict will hold his last public appearance as pope in the square on Wednesday before he retires to a life of seclusion and prayer.

In total 117 Cardinals under the age of 80 from around the world have been called to the conclave to choose his successor.

The whiff of scandal involving a Scottish and a US Cardinal is overshadowing the transition to a new papacy, the BBC's David Willey in Rome says.

Some Catholics are calling on Cardinal Keith O'Brien from Scotland and Cardinal Mahony from Los Angeles to refrain from voting in next month's election.

Cardinal Mahony was stripped of his duties as Archbishop of Los Angeles last month over allegations he protected priests accused of sexual abuse.

Cardinal O'Brien has denied allegations of "inappropriate behaviour" going back 30 years.

The Vatican has denounced attempts to condition the freedom of all cardinal electors to choose who they want to lead the Church in future.

On Saturday a statement criticised the media for reporting "misinformation" about alleged intrigue and corruption in the church.

A priest displays a placard in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican
(Riccardo De Luca/AP)
February 17, 2013

Pope Benedict Blessing: Tens of Thousands Hear Prayer

Tens of thousands of pilgrims have attended St Peter's Square in Rome for one of the final public appearances of Pope Benedict XVI.

He is stepping down on 28 February.

The Pope recited the Angelus prayer and thanked all those who had prayed for him and shown him support over the past few days since his resignation.

The Vatican has said it may hold the conclave that chooses the new pope early, so he can be in place before the start of Holy Week on 24 March.

Vatican accommodation

The Pope appeared at his study window overlooking St Peter's Square at 11:00 GMT, his first such appearance since announcing his resignation last Monday.

The crowd erupted into loud applause and there were chants of "Long live the Pope".

One banner in the square read: "We love you."

The Pope used his Angelus appearance to urge the faithful to "renew" and "refocus" on God.

He said: "The Church calls on all its members to renew themselves... which constitutes a fight, a spiritual battle, because the evil spirit wants us to deviate from the road towards God."

The pope spoke in a number of languages; speaking in Spanish, he said: "I beg you to continue praying for me and for the next pope."

The BBC's David Willey in Rome says that after the prayer recital on Sunday the Pope plans to spend the rest of the week on a Lenten prayer retreat closeted inside the Apostolic Palace with senior cardinals and bishops.

He says the retreat will be a time of reflection about what Pope Benedict's eight-year long papacy has achieved and what are the priorities now facing a Church whose credibility has been seriously harmed by clerical sex abuse scandals.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said earlier: "The Pope is living through these days calmly even though they're very emotional and packed."

The Vatican said on Saturday it was considering calls from cardinals to hold the papal conclave earlier than planned, to have a pontiff in place before Holy Week, the most important event in the Christian calendar.

Under current rules, the vote cannot be held before 15 March, to give cardinals enough time to travel to Rome. The Vatican is examining the possibility of changing the rule.

After his spiritual retreat, the Pope will have very few public engagements.

He is scheduled to receive Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on 23 February.

The Pope will then celebrate Angelus again on 24 February and hold a final audience in St Peter's Square on 27 February.

Pope Benedict will be flown to his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo on Feb. 28, and he will remain there as accommodation in the Vatican is prepared.

On Feb. 28, he will no longer by pope.

One Vatican official told Reuters news agency it was "absolutely necessary" that Benedict lived in the enclave, "otherwise he might be defenceless".

"He wouldn't have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else," the official said.

There are concerns he could be cited in relation to legal cases connected with alleged sexual abuses by Catholic Church officials.

The 85-year-old pontiff announced his shock resignation last Monday, citing his advanced age as the reason for stepping down.

The last pontiff to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who quit in 1415 amid a schism within the Church.

Priest Anthony Obanla
(Sunday Alamba/AP)
February 16, 2013

Pope's Resignation An Opportunity For Africa's Cardinals

The names of African cardinals are popping up as possible contenders to succeed Pope Benedict as head of the Roman Catholic Church when steps down at the end of the month.

The Mary Mother of Good Council School is one of a number of respected Roman Catholic schools overseen by the archdiocese of Accra, the capital of the West African nation of Ghana. Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle, who trained as a priest at pontifical universities in Rome, is upbeat about the continent's contribution to the Catholic Church.

"The pope himself said that he considered Africa the spiritual lungs of humanity," Palmer-Buckle said, "which means that the pope has a lot of expectation that Africa has something to offer humanity, to give humanity a good breath of life."

With more than 150 million Catholics in Africa and counting, the continent is the fastest growing region for Catholicism in the world. Global bookies are putting the odds on the next Catholic pontiff coming perhaps from Africa.

"Many people look to Africa because that's the place where the church is growing and is very lively," says Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. "What we really need is someone who can deal with the problems of the church, which are in Europe and the United States. So I think that argument is going to go on during the conclave."

The conclave is the gathering of cardinals under 80 who will vote to elect a new pope. Names that keep cropping up as possible African candidates include 80-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson. At 64, Turkson is youngish by Vatican standards, but he already has considerable experience running an archdiocese. In 2009, the pope appointed him to head the influential Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

"Every ordained bishop can be the next pope," Turkson told the BBC. "In that sense, as long as I'm a bishop and a cardinal, I'm a candidate with all the cardinals and bishops around the world."

Turkson said that as the church looks for leadership, it could come from Africa, Latin America or Asia, but that ultimately "we leave it to God to give to the church the leader that would best serve humanity and the task of the church in history."

After Mass in Accra, Ghana, this week, Catholic worshippers shared their views about the possibility of an African becoming pope.

"Considering the fact that the Catholic Church has a lot of hope in Africa, I think there's a very big possibility of us getting an African pope," Marilyn Ofori said. "I think he'll make a lot of difference and then use our African values as well to better the Catholic Church."

February 11, 2013

U of I Newman Center Reacts to Pope Benedict's Retirement

The director of the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois is reacting to Pope Benedict the 16th’s resignation with the same shock as others in the faith.

But Monsignor Gregory Ketcham says the pontiff stayed longer in the position than he had anticipated, serving not only through a transitional period, but establishing his own identity.

And Ketcham says it’s quite possible Benedict’s replacement comes from Africa or South America, where he says the Catholic Church is thriving right now.

Ketcham also suggests another possibility, the first-ever American pope, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

“And I never thought I would say an American would have a shot it at," he said.  "But I do think Cardinal Dolan because of his charism  - he’s very charismatic, and because of his ability to hand on and communicate the faith.  And the way he can even deal with people and even politicians.”

Ketcham says it’s refreshing for Pope Benedict to recognize shortcomings in his health.  But he believes the pontiff’s best days might be ahead of him, noting his body is weak, but his mind is still sharp. 

In a statement, Bishop Daniel Jenky, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, says he too was shocked with the announcement. 

The two met several times, and Jenky noted Pope Benedict has looked a bit more tired the last few months.

February 11, 2013

Cardinal George: Pope's Resignation Shows Courage

Cardinal Francis George says Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign at the end of the month shows "great courage.''

The 76-year-old cardinal is spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which serves more than 2 million Roman Catholics.
In a statement Monday, George says the pope has always "placed the will of God for the good of the Church before every other consideration.''

George may play a role in electing the next pope since all cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in a secret meeting held at the Sistine Chapel.

The bishop of Joliet also issued a statement Monday. Bishop R. Daniel Conlon says the pope's announcement "comes as a surprise to all of us,'' yet is consistent with the pope's "humble disposition.''

January 23, 2013

Supreme Court Rejects Chicago-Area Atheist's Appeal Over Cross

The U.S. Supreme Court has dashed a Chicago-area atheist's final legal bid to challenge the use of state funds to renovate a towering southern Illinois cross.

The nation's high court without comment Tuesday turned back Robert Sherman's request to hear his case involving the $20,000 Illinois grant given in 2008 to the 111-foot-high Bald Knob Cross of Peace near Alto Pass.

Lower courts already had ruled that Sherman lacked standing to sue over the grant.

Sherman calls the Supreme Court snub "a joke." He'd said he considered it a long shot that the court would agree to hear his case.

Sherman sued in August 2010. He argues that using the grant to repair the cross "has the primary effect of advancing a particular religious sect, namely Christianity."

January 11, 2013

US Born Taliban Fighter Wins Prison Prayer Lawsuit

A federal judge has ruled that a convicted Taliban fighter should be allowed to pray daily in a group with other Muslim inmates at their high-security prison in Indiana.

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson sided on Friday with John Walker Lindh, an American convicted of fighting alongside the Taliban.

The judge ruled that the prison was violating Lindh's and other Muslim inmates' religious freedom by banning them from engaging in daily ritual prayer.

Lindh is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

He sued the government after he was barred from praying with other inmates, which he said violated his religious rights.

Prison officials had argued that it would be dangerous, unaffordable and unfair to other inmates.

January 03, 2013

Indiana Lawmaker Wants Lord’s Prayer in Schools

A Republican state senator is pushing for Indiana’s public school students to start the school day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Senate education committee chairman Dennis Kruse of Auburn has filed legislation that would let school districts require the prayer to be recited, but would also grant broad exemptions.

The measure might have little chance of winning approval since the Senate’s leader has assigned it to the rules committee, which rarely advances bills.

But it’s part of a broader push by Kruse and other lawmakers to put religion in Indiana’s public schools.

Kruse sponsored a bill last year seeking to allow schools to teach creationism, the belief that life was created as described in the Bible. This year, he’s seeking to allow questioning by teachers of scientific principles like evolution.

November 01, 2012

Catholics United Seeks to End Partisan Message in Worship

Catholics United is asking Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky to refrain from using the pulpits of his diocese for partisan messages.

Bishop Jenky is ordering all priests in the Peoria Diocese to read a letter during this weekend’s services.

The letter criticizes The President and Democratically-controlled Senate for ignoring what the Bishop calls the Catholic community's grave objections.

Bishop Jenky has publicly denounced the federal mandate that will require Church-related institutions to provide contraceptive coverage for employees in their health-care plans. 

James Salt is the executive director of Washington-DC based Catholics United. He says the Bishop’s demand of his priests to read the letter during weekend mass is troublesome.

"He is trying to dictate to Catholics in churches across the Diocese how to vote," he said. "And we're saying that's just not legal in the sense of IRS guidelines.  But it jeopardizes the standing of the leadership of the bishop within the Diocese.  Catholics won't listen to him, follow him, if he's continually seen as a divisive far-right figure, less one who can inspire the culture."

Salt said the federal contraception requirement does not force anyone to violate their conscience and it doesn’t infringe on a person’s individual religious freedom.

Calls and emails to the Diocese were not returned.

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