Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
The Pope Who Quit
A Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation

By Jon M. Sweeney

Book Excerpt

Copyright © 2012 by Jon M. Sweeney.

Published in the United States by Image Books, an imprint of the

Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.


Toward the close of the Middle Ages, in 1285, there lived three men whose lives would intersect and forever change history. Each was a man of power. Each was stubborn. Each was skilled at the life and work to which he seemed destined from birth.

The most important of the three and the central figure of this book is Peter Morrone. His surname comes from the mountain that he called home for most of his life. Peter was a monk and the founder of a religious order, and depending on whom you talk to, he was also a reformer, an instigator, a prophet, a coward, a fool, and a saint. He was very much a man swept up in history, and practically overnight he would be transformed from a humble hermit into Pope Celestine V, the most powerful man in the Catholic Church. He would also become the only man in history to walk away from his job, vacating the chair of St. Peter before he died.

If Peter Morrone lived today in the mountains outside of Rome or Los Angeles or New Delhi he might be a celebrity guru. From early in his life he was a man with a mountain, or montagna, and made his casa di montagna. If he'd lived in the twenty- first century, talks to his fellow monks might be smuggled out of his enclave as digital audio files, soon to be packaged and sold by a big New York concern. He would emerge every now and then to speak privately with world leaders, who would also seek him out for personal counsel and, perhaps, photo opportunities. Peter was this sort of figure in his day.

But history rarely revolves around a single individual, and the story of Peter Morrone- cum- Celestine V is no exception. Although fellow monks and supporters would move in and out of Peter's rather long life, there are two men in particular whose power and ambition would directly affect the life of this complex hermit, and, by extension, their actions would influence the world.

The first of these was Charles II of Anjou (1254-1309), supporter, corruptor, the ingratiating king of Naples. Having inherited his crown from a much more powerful father in January 1285, Charles II learned quickly how to use influential men, as well as to be of use to them. Charles would keep the hermit pope on a tight leash.

The second man who is central to our story is Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, one of the eleven cardinal- electors who chose Peter Morrone as pope. Born as Benedetto, son of Gaetani, into a prominent family in about 1235, he was a true Roman and the nephew of Pope Alexander IV (1254-61). Well educated from youth, he trained as a lawyer, was skilled in canon law, and was made a member of the curia at the age of twenty- nine. For the next thirty years Gaetani gained a reputation as a supremely competent papal legate who could represent the Holy See in confronting heresy and spiritual rebellion in places like England and France, asserting moral authority when heretical movements rose to the surface. He would become Celestine V's trusted advisor and would help the hermit pope resign from office—perhaps conniving for his own self-interest because he would take the chair of St. Peter only eleven days later.