THE POPE WHO QUIT by Jon M. Sweeney


A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation
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Ruminations on the career of a most inept and unlikely pope.

In 1294, a deadlocked College of Cardinals suddenly selected an 84-year-old hermit monk, Peter of Morrone, to be pope. Upon taking office as Celestine V, he spent 15 miserable weeks in the custody of the King of Naples before resigning, allegedly the only pope ever to do so. He was imprisoned by his successor, Boniface VIII, who promptly annulled the few actions Celestine had taken. After ten months of confinement Peter died of unknown causes. He was declared a saint in 1313. Unfortunately, the extant well-established facts about Celestine’s tenure appear insufficient to sustain a work of book length. Paraclete Press associate publisher Sweeney (Verily, Verily: The KJV—400 Years of Influence and Beauty, 2011, etc.) provides extensive background information about topics ranging from contemporary poisons to the Sicilian Vespers. He demonstrates his enthusiasm for medieval history, but the information often only has tangential relevance to the life of his subject. Where facts are urgently needed but lacking, the author attempts to compensate with unsatisfying conjecture about such central issues as the true motivation for Celestine’s resignation (he gave a number of reasons) and the cause of his death. Internal contradictions, overstatements and mysteries abound, but the central one concerns Peter’s character. Sweeney declares that Peter proved utterly incompetent as a pope because he did not have “a political bone in his body” and “did not understand how to live and succeed among powerful men on earth,” even though he had traveled extensively, lobbied popes and cardinals and built and administered an array of dozens of monasteries. Was his resignation an act of cowardice, holy wisdom or just weariness? No one really knows. Ultimately, does his story have any ongoing significance? The author labors to argue that Celestine’s resignation and death were a hinge point in the culture of the late Middle Ages, but his contentions are clearly a stretch, and this issue too is left unresolved.

A confused and disappointing ramble through 13th-century papacy.

Pub Date: March 6th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-385-53189-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Image/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2012


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