Saint Peter Celestine, Pope

May 19

Today is the feast day of Saint Peter Celestine.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Peter Celestine was the eleventh of the twelve children of a poor Italian farmer. As a child, Peter had visions of our Blessed Lady, Angels and Saints. His heavenly visitors encouraged him in his prayers and chided him when he fell into any fault. His mother, though only a poor widow, sent him to school, feeling sure that he would one day be a Saint.

At the age of twenty, he left his home in Apulia to live in a mountain solitude. Here he passed three years, assaulted by the evil spirits and beset with temptations of the flesh, but consoled by the visits of Angels. After this his seclusion was invaded by disciples who refused to be sent away; and the rule of life which he gave them formed the foundation of the Celestines, a branch of the Order of Saint Benedict. Angels assisted in the church which Peter built; unseen bells rang peals of surpassing sweetness, and heavenly music filled the sanctuary when he offered the Holy Sacrifice; he had consented to be ordained, to find in the Holy Eucharist assistance against temptation. (2)

By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

Peter Celestine, a holy hermit, founder of the order of Celestine monks, was born in Isernia, in the county of Abruzzo. In early youth he gave clear indications of the virtues and holiness for which he afterwards became renowned. When scarcely six years old he one day said to his mother: “Mother I will some day become a true servant of the Almighty.” His future life made these words true. Having been sufficiently instructed in the sciences, he retired for two years into a dark forest, led by the desire to serve God. At first he shared the dwelling of another virtuous hermit, but afterwards he lived alone in a hut. Persuaded by one of his friends, he went to Rome, was ordained priest and entered the Order of St. Benedict. With the permission of the Abbot, however, he left the monastery, and resumed his solitary life on Mount Morroni; hence he is sometimes called Peter of Morroni.

From thence he went with two companions to Mount Magella, not far from the city of Sulmona. His reason for these changes was the desire to live quietly and hidden from the eyes of men. The austerity of the life he led almost surpassed that of the ancient hermits of Egypt and other lands. Not less admirable was his profound humility. Although, as already related, he had been ordained priest, he dared not go to the altar to offer the divine sacrifice, in consideration of the infinite majesty of God and his own nothingness. At length, admonished by his confessor, he overcame his too great fear, and offered, with great comfort of heart, the holy sacrifice, and deeply regretted at the same time, that he had so long deprived himself of the great consolation it brought to him.

The exemplary life this holy hermit led was soon known in all the surrounding country, and inspired many, some even of high rank, with the desire of living under his direction. Admonished by divine revelation, he built a small Church in honor of the Holy Ghost, and near it erected a monastery. This was the beginning of the celebrated Celestine Order, which, approved by Gregory X., grew even while its founder was yet alive, into such importance, that Celestine alone built 36 monasteries and filled them with fervent servants of God. He visited all of these as often as possible, and having encouraged the inmates to continual zeal in the service of the Most High, he retired to his cell and led a life more angelical than human.

The Almighty, who humbles the proud but raises the humble, was pleased to exalt this His faithful and lowly servant before the whole world in a most unprecedented manner. He inspired the Cardinals, who, after the death of Nicholas IV., disagreed in the choice of a new head of the Church, to choose unanimously this holy hermit as successor to the Papal chair. When, however, the envoys came to inform him of it, the holy man was frightened, and left nothing untried to decline so high a dignity. He endeavored to fly, but all was useless, he was obliged to obey the envoys, or rather, to obey God, and received the Papal crown at Aquila, in 1294. After the coronation he wished to continue his former life of austerity and solitude. But as the many and important functions of his high station rendered this impossible, he was soon weary of his dignity and office, and resigned them voluntarily after the expiration of a few months, with the intention of returning to his solitude. He had already left the city, when his successor, Boniface VII., sent after him, and had him confined in a castle, fearing that a division of the Church might arise. He remained thus in custody almost ten months, always content and never complaining; nay, sometimes he even said jestingly to himself: “Peter! you have so long wished for a quiet cell; behold, you now possess it!”

God revealed to him his end and his approaching eternal happiness. When he had received the holy sacraments with the greatest devotion, he lay down upon the floor, began cheerfully to sing, and expired uttering the words: “Let every spirit praise the Lord! ” Before, as well as after his death, he was honored by God with many miracles. (1)

Saint Peter Celestine

by Dom Prosper Gueranger 1870

Our Paschal Season, which has already given us the admirable Doctor, St. Leo, brings before us, today, the humble Peter Celestine, Sovereign Pontiff, like Leo, but who was no sooner throned on the Apostolic See, than he left it and returned to solitude. Among the long list of sainted men, who compose the venerable series of Roman Pontiffs, our Lord would have one, in whose person was to be represented the virtue of humility; that honour was conferred on Peter Celestine. He was dragged from the quiet of his solitude, compelled to ascend the throne of St. Peter, and made to hold, in his trembling hand, the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. The holy Hermit, whose eyes had been ever fixed on his own weakness, had then to provide for the necessities of the whole Church. In his humility, he judged himself to be unequal to so heavy a responsibility. He resigned the Tiara, and begged to be permitted to return to his dear hermitage. His Divine Master, Christ, had, in like manner, concealed His glory, first, in a thirty years of hidden life, and then, later on, under the cloud of His Passion and Sepulchre. The sunshine of the Pasch came; the gloom was dispersed, and the Conqueror of Death arose in all His splendor. He would have His Servants share in His triumph and glory; but their share is to be greater or less, according to the measure in which they have, here on earth, imitated his humility. Who, then, could describe the glory which Peter Celestine receives in heaven, as a recompense for his profound humility, which made him more eager to be unknown, than the most ambitious of men could be for honor and fame? He was great on the Pontifical Throne, and still greater in his solitude; but his greatness, now that he is in heaven, surpasses all human thought.

Holy Church speaks his praise in these few lines; their simplicity admirably harmonizes with the Hermit Pope, whose life they narrate.

Peter (who, from the name he took as Pope, was called Celestine,) was born at Isernia, in the Abruzzi, of respectable and Catholic parents. When quite a boy, he retired into solitude, that he might be out of the reach of the world’s vanities. There he nourished his soul with holy contemplations, bringing his body into subjection, and wearing an iron chain next to his skin. He founded, under the Rule of St. Benedict, the Congregation, which was afterwards called the Congregation of Celestines. The Roman Church having been, for a long time, widowed of its Pastor, Celestine was chosen, unknown to himself, to occupy the Chair of Peter, and was therefore compelled to quit his solitude, for he was a lamp that was set upon a candlestick, and could not be hid. All men were filled with joy, as well as with surprise, at this unexpected choice. But thus exalted to the Pontificate, and finding that the multiplicity of cares rendered it almost impossible for him to continue his wonted contemplations, he resigned, of his own accord, the onerous honors of the Papal throne. He therefore resumed his former mode of life, and slept in the Lord by a precious death, which was rendered still more glorious by the apparition of an exceedingly bright cross, which hovered over the door of his cell. He was celebrated for many miracles, both before and after his death; which being authentically proved, he was canonized, eleven years after his departure from this world, by Pope Clement the Fifth. (1)

When the report spread that Celestine contemplated resigning, the excitement in Naples was intense. King Charles, whose arbitrary course had brought things to this crisis, organized a determined opposition. A huge procession of the clergy and monks surrounded the castle, and with tears and prayers implored the pope to continue his rule. Celestine, whose mind was not yet clear on the subject, returned an evasive answer, whereupon the multitude chanted the Te Deum and withdrew. A week later (13 December) Celestine’s resolution was irrevocably fixed; summoning the cardinals on that day, he read the constitution mentioned by Boniface in the “Liber Sextus”, announced his resignation, and proclaimed the cardinals free to proceed to a new election. After the lapse of the nine days enjoined by the legislation of Gregory X, the cardinals entered the conclave, and the next day Benedetto Gaetani was proclaimed Pope as Boniface VIII. After revoking many of the provisions made by Celestine, Boniface brought his predecessor, now in the dress of a humble hermit, with him on the road to Rome. He was forced to retain him in custody, lest an inimical use should be made of the simple old man. Celestine yearned for his cell in the Abruzzi, managed to effect his escape at San Germano, and to the great joy of his monks reappeared among them at Majella. Boniface ordered his arrest; but Celestine evaded his pursuers for several months by wandering through the woods and mountains. Finally, he attempted to cross the Adriatic to Greece; but, driven back by a tempest, and captured at the foot of Mt. Gargano, he was delivered into the hands of Boniface, who confined him closely in a narrow room in the tower of the castle of Fumone near Anagni (Analecta Bollandiana, 1897, XVI, 429-30). Here, after nine months passed in fasting and prayer, closely watched but attended by two of his own religious, though rudely treated by the guards, he ended his extraordinary career in his ninety-first year. That Boniface treated him harshly, and finally cruelly murdered him, is a calumny. Some years after his canonization by Clement V in 1313, his remains were transferred from Ferentino to the church of his order at Aquila, where they are still the object of great veneration. (3)

Image: San Pedro Celestino, papa, artist: Bartolomé Román (7)


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