Monday, February 8, 2016

The Pope Who Quit

Book: The Pope Who Quit
Author:Jon M Sweeney
Edition:Softbound from the Mountain View Public Library
Read:February 8, 2016
249 (288 including end notes and index) pages
Genre:  History, Biography
Rated: 3 out of 5

The author follows the life of Peter Morrone of becoming a contemplative of some renown. In his 80's he is selected as a compromise person for becoming pope. But whether because of age, desire, or ability, he fails as being pope and quits. Even after quitting, he is viewed as a threat and is taken into prison and dies there.

Note: This book was written before the resignation of Pope Benidict XVI's.

Hermits did not live in homes. They didn't aspire to anything permanent. Is Sweeney right on this? Didn't he get this backward that hermits aspire for the permanency of eternity, not the temporal of the material we see around us?

Notes that many Christians have boring lives. But then something awakens them (Spirit of God). Around the time of St Francis there was an outbreak of mystical experiences among the common folks.   The lesson I take from this is that we are called not to seek after the extraordinary, but to be true to our Lord. He will send his Spirit to us as needed.

The Bizarre Papal Election of 1292–94
Methods of reasoning was taking over. Knowledge came from the Muslims/Arabians on how things were. Emphasis from authority to hypothesis, research and evidence.  Which is better? In my mind, it is better to have both-inspiration backed by reasoning.

A Most Unlikely Decision
there was an understanding that time was connected to destiny. This was the statement introducing that a letter which Peter Morrone sent to the Cardinals arrived at a divinely appointed time.  As I am reading the book, I think that the Cardinals were almost all oriented around power. But this letter seemed to them a divine entry. Were these men all about power? Or were they people who thought the power was the way to achieve God's goals on this earth?

They Came to Take Him Away
 Hypothesis: the more a man was able to live every moment of earthly existence as a gift from the Creator, the higher the spiritual state he would achieve. Is this true? What does Sweeney mean by live? If he means activity, I think the statement is false. If he means that each moment is moving the person a step closer to God, then yes. But what does that look like? Feeding the poor or the contemplation effort of Peter Morrone?

The Hundred-Meter Fast
Morrone sought the mountains to both be alone but to also be close to God. Sweeney  indicates that at least the thought in those days was that the higher you got, the closer you are to God. I will admit, when I go to the mountains, I feel closer to Him. But having said that, I think it is there I can contemplate the beauty God has put in there for us. For others it might be the beach, or a sunset or the flight of a bird.

I do not know what Sweeney means by saying that a hermit takes his own suffering into his own hands. Does he mean that the hermit seeks out suffering, or that he has the capacity to understand that his suffering draws him closer to God.

Riding on an Ass
Best line in the book: Every pope before him had died in office. That's what popes do.

The World is Falling Apart
 Sweeney notes that Celestine V was the latest and for many the last hope of those who believed that a man could wield both political and spiritual power, ... Isn't this the hope of most evangelical America? To find a righteous person who can weld the power of the political process? But from what we learned in this book, that may not be possible. To be spiritual says we will not indulge in the shenanigans of the muck of politics. We will love, not despise our enemies. Politics does not allow for that which appears to be weak. Sort of makes politics hopeless for us. Maybe on a local level where a persons reflective goodness can show.

It is noted that until the 14th century the rulers felt a burden to rule under the Church's moral authority. This did involve, to some extent, being involved in the welfare of the people. Isn't this one measure of a good ruler? After that the era of cynicism began. Maybe that is how come we cannot have a united spiritual and political ruler.

Is Saint Enough?
This was the work of Peter Morrone's entire life: to keep praying despite whatever happened... to abdicate as evidence that he understood his most important calling of all--to be a contemplative. Is this really his entire calling? Sort of reminds of the modern phrase of being so holy that you are of no earthly good. Also it sort of makes you wonder if this statement is true, what good is a pope who thinks that he is the primary attraction of the Church, not Christ.

A. N. Wilson is quoted in the New Yorker magazine as saying:  I bend my knee to the unwilling holy man who knew there was no meeting place between the pursuit of power and the worship of God. At least to know the limits of each one of these.

As a history, Sweeney does a good job of laying things out about who Peter Morrone was. As a story, he lacks a necessary rhythm to keep the reader excited about the biography. There are places which Sweeney throws in some points which I do not think he supports particularly well.

But the conclusions he draws should be well taken. You have a contemplative person selected to be pope, who tries to infuse his spirituality into the politics of the 13th century Roman Catholic Church and gets chewed up and spit out.  As such, you wonder, can you really join together the spiritual with the political? Isn't this where American politics and religion have can astray?  Just for this insight, it is a book worth reading.

Notes from my book group:

What pictures does the book evoke on who Peter Morrone was before becoming Pope Celestine V? Where does Sweeney draw his facts from?

Do you see any reasons to trust a hagiographical account of a life? What do you think of the Italian saying quoted by Sweeney on page 72 that translates as: “A lie well told is worth more than a stupid fact”?

Sweeney has in his first chapter that Hermits did not live in homes. They didn't aspire to anything permanent. Is he right? Is that what it means to be spiritual?

The outbreak of new ways of knowledge was just starting at this time. How did the starting of emphasis on reason with hypothesis, research and evidence as the basis cause a change in how power is obtained? If you were the leaders of that day, what effect would that have on you?

Starting chapter five, it is stated, the more a man was able to live every moment of earthly existence as a gift from the Creator, the higher the spiritual state he would achieve.Is this true in what ways? How does this get worked out? Did this show up in the book?

Peter Damian's disciplines served as an inspiration to Peter Morrone. Much of this seems foreign to us in our day and age, unless you remember the Albino in the Dan Brown novel. How does discipline contribute ti spirituality? Are there limits? Did Peter Morrone exceed those limits?

Also in THE HUNDRED-METER FAST, Sweeney talks about how a hermit will take(s) his suffering into his own hands. How do you parse this statement? Does causing your own suffering bring you closer to God?  How does this fit into fasting? Or Nietzsche suggestion that saints and martyrs attempt to dominate the rest of us with these ways of being “holy.”

Contrast how Sweeney describes how popes were in Peter Morrone's day with our current day popes?  How much politics do you think goes into making a pope today? To make him successful? Is this true of other spiritual leaders? What part does cynicism play in today's leaders or at least in how we view the?

Sweeney in his summary chapter notes that Peter Morrone was a great spiritual man who did not operate in the political and power structures of his day. How do you think a spiritual man would operate as President today? (I am thinking of Jimmy Carter, Harold Hughes, and Ben Carson)

What do you think of Sweeney’s concluding thought, that Peter Morrone/Celestine V was a quitter, yes, but that by quitting he also showed himself to be enlightened?

Penguin-Random House Reader Guide
1. Part I — When the Unexpected Happened

The opening paragraphs of this chapter begin to tell you something about who Peter Morrone was. Can you picture him? Have you known a strong, religious person in your life? Do you have positive or negative associations with such people?


How would you describe the typical medieval pope? Is he someone that you would want as your priest or spiritual leader? Was it a sign of his virtue, rather than his weakness, that Peter Morrone was ill-fit for the late medieval papacy? This is a theme that we will return to many times in The Pope Who Quit.


How do you imagine the room in which a papal conclave is held? Who are the characters in that room? Can you imagine the various motivations that the cardinals held in that room in July of 1294 – some good, some not?

Much of the power of the medieval papacy came as a result of one of the most famous (and successful) forgeries in history known as the Donation of Constantine. See page 56. This forgery claimed that the fourth century emperor Constantine donated a great swath of imperial land to the office of the papacy, then held by Pope Sylvester I. The early humanist scholar, Lorenzo Valla, began to expose this forgery in the 1440s. A popular twelfth century legal textbook (known as Gratian’s Decretum) explained what was believed up until that time: “The Emperor Constantine yielded his crown and all his royal prerogatives in the city of Rome, and in Italy, and in western parts to the Apostolic See…. On the fourth day after his baptism Constantine conferred this privilege on the pontiff of the Roman Church, so that in the whole Roman world priests would regard him as their head, as judges do their king.” [See Lorenzo Valla, Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine, for the text of his exposure of the forgery, in both Latin and an old English translation, at]


Where was Peter when the news of the election was brought to his doorstep? See page 66. The Roman poet Petrarch says that Peter actually turned and ran, attempting to flee. Should he have?

6. Part II — Peter of Morrone, 1209–93


Sweeney begins Part II of his book by briefly explaining the use of hagiography in telling a story such as that of Peter Morrone. Do you see any reasons to trust a hagiographical account of a life? Have you read any such accounts of religious figures in the past? What do you think of the Italian saying quoted by Sweeney on page 72 that translates as: “A lie well told is worth more than a stupid fact”?


What do you think of Peter’s family background and how it may have affected his professional course in life? How do you see him as compared to other prominent religious figures, including previous popes, of his own century? How has your own family “determined” your future – for good or ill?


Peter Damian’s writings and reputation had a profound influence on Peter Morrone’s life and thought. Sweeney describes Damian as a zealot, a pessimist, and a reformer. By this point in The Pope Who Quit, do you see Peter Morrone that way, too? Or not?

We return to the theme of asceticism. Ascetic acts were ever-present in Peter’s life. It was the nineteenth century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, son of a Lutheran minister, who first called asceticism a religious person’s way of gaining power over. Nietzsche suggested that saints and martyrs attempt to dominate the rest of us with these ways of being “holy.” He saw an insidious “will to power” in fastings and other physical denials. He called it a “striving for distinction,” nothing other than a way of trying to dominate. What do you think?


This chapter sees Peter Morrone living among the men of power of his era. How do you think those men regarded the hermit? How might Peter have regarded them?

11. Part III — Turbulent Times


Do you see more or less “obsession” with salvation today, as compared to Peter’s era?


See pages 141-146. How did the image of Saint Francis of Assisi impact the world of the thirteenth century? Prophecies of Joachim of Fiore foretold a century before Francis were believed to have been fulfilled by him. Poets writing in the century after Francis wrote about how he was a “new Christ.” There were more followers of Francis in the first half century of his movement than had joined any other monastic movement previously. How was Francis different from other religious figures who’d come before him? Was Peter Morrone at all like Francis?


Fathers and sons. The history of the world could probably be told through the lens of sons sometimes modeling and sometimes rebelling against, their fathers. How would you describe Charles I? And how about his son?


Do you see any similarities between Pope Celestine V and any of the popes who have lived and ruled during your lifetime? Is it conceivable that a pope would make some of the same mistakes that Celestine made, today?


In Sweeney’s telling, the papal curia, Castle Nuovo, and the College of Cardinals all become like “characters” in the story, each influencing the “angelic” Pope Celestine. How did they each impact him – for good or ill?

16. Part IV — The Passion and the Pity, 1294–96


One of the enduring questions from the life of Peter Morrone/Celestine V is this: Was he guileless and saintly, or was he something else? In the final chapter, Sweeney concludes by weighing in on this topic. But at this point, what do you think?


There have been many stories in history of a religious figure running for his life. One thinks, for example, of the 14th Dalia Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fleeing the Chinese communists across the Himalayan mountains from Tibet to India in 1959. A more ancient example might be Celestine’s spiritual model, Jesus Christ, who of course lost his life and never tried to flee. What do you think of Celestine’s running from Naples?


Did Cardinal Gaetani have Celestine V murdered? What do you think? What evidence is missing that would allow a legal case to be made?


The undercurrent of this chapter is also an undercurrent that marks different religions and spiritual teachers from one another. That is, is this the only world or is there another to come? And then, are there ways to be faithful to God that have nothing to do with living in this world? How would you describe Peter Morrone’s beliefs on these topics – based on his actions?


What do you think of Sweeney’s concluding thought, that Peter Morrone/Celestine V was a quitter, yes, but that by quitting he also showed himself to be enlightened?

New Words:
  • hagiography: the writing of the lives of saints.
  •  eremitic: A recluse or hermit, especially a religious recluse.
Book References:
  • Many of them-see the notes at the end of the book

Good Quotes:
  • First Line:Toward the close of the Middle Ages, in 1285, there lived three men whose lives would intersect and forever change history.
  • Last Line: And for that single act, he showed himself to be enlightened, not naive.
Table of Contents:
  • Time Line of Events
  • Prologue
  • Introduction
  • Part I: When the Unexpected Happened
    • A Letter that Changed Just About Everything
    • The Bizarre Papal Election of 1292–94
    • A Most Unlikely Decision
    • Spreading the News
    • They Came to Take Him Away
  • Part II: Peter of Morrone, 1209–93
    • Now I Will Tell You of My Life
    • I Became a Man When I Became a Monk
    • A Hermit Loves His Cave
    • The Hundred-Meter Fast
    • Walking to Lyon
  • Part III: Turbulent Times
    • Obsessed with Salvation
    • Riding on an Ass
    • The Colorful Kings of Naples and Sicily
    • Fifteen Disastrous Weeks
    • Awkwardness in Robes
  • Part IV: The Passion and the Pity, 1294–96
    • I, Peter Celestine, Am Going Away
    • The New Advent of Friar Peter
    • Murdered by a Pope
    • The World is Falling Apart
    • Is Saint Enough?
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index


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