Pope Benedict XVI visited on Sunday the tomb of a 13th-century predecessor who abdicated the papal throne in 1294 at age 85. But Benedict, who is 83 and has been under siege over the clergy sex abuse crisis, made no mention of the controversy surrounding that unique resignation or his own thoughts on retirement -- or if that's even possible
for a pope.
Benedict had traveled to the town of Sulmona, in the central Italian region of Abruzzi, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2009, killing some 300 and leaving thousands homeless. The pope had also visited the region soon after the quake, praying before the salvaged remains of Pope St. Celestine V.
The main reason for this visit, however, was to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of Celestine, a hermit who reigned for just five months before resigning.
Pietro del Murrone was a simple monk known for his humility, which led cardinals in a deadlocked conclave to elect him pope after the papal throne had been vacant for more than two years. Pietro protested, but was convinced to take up the burden of office by King Charles II of the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples. Charles led him on a donkey to his coronation as Pope Celestine V.
During his brief reign, poor Celestine remained a virtual puppet of King Charles. He issued just two major decrees, one providing for the abdication of a pope, and another when he announced his resignation -- something only a handful of popes have done throughout history, and none for the past 700 years or so.
Celestine's Machiavellian successor, Boniface VIII, imprisoned the poor old man after his resignation, and he died 10 months later. A few years after that, Dante wrote "The Divine Comedy" and put Celestine in the Inferno, just inside the gates of hell for what was called his "great refusal" to take on the papal office.
Yet Celestine was also canonized by the church in 1313.
During his homily
at an open-air Mass on a hot Sunday morning, Benedict ignored that history and instead focused on Celestine's personal holiness, and his life as a hermit.
"Silence thus became the element that characterized his daily life," Benedict told the gathering of about 25,000 people. "And it is precisely in external silence, but above all in internal silence, that he succeeded in perceiving God's voice, a voice that was able to guide his life.
"Here a first aspect that is important for us: We live in a society in which it seems that every space, every moment must be 'filled' with initiatives, activity, sound; often there is not even time to listen and dialogue. Dear brothers and sisters! Let us not be afraid to be silent outside and inside ourselves, so that we are able not only to perceive God's voice, but also the voice of the person next to us, the voices of others."
Benedict drove home the message of simplicity in a time of abundance in two other events during his daylong visit. "We too, who live in a time of great comfort and possibility, are called to appreciate a sober way of life, to keep our minds and hearts more free to be able to share our goods with our brothers," he told those gathered in Sulmona's main square at noon.
And later that afternoon he told young people that "the current consumerist culture" tends to "flatten man to the present, to make him lose the sense of the past, of history; but in this way it also deprives him of the capacity to understand himself, to perceive problems and to build tomorrow."
He continued: "So, dear young people, I would like to tell you, the Christian is one who has a good memory, who loves history and seeks to know it."
Benedict XVI certainly has a keen sense of history, and knew that his visit would prompt speculation about his own thoughts on retirement -- views he has never shared publicly. It seems unlikely, however, that a pope as respectful of tradition as Benedict is would upend centuries of custom and retire.
"No one expects Pope Benedict to offer his resignation at this tomb of a pope who did resign," the Rev. Peter Schineller, SJ, wrote on the blog of America
, the Jesuit-run national Catholic weekly magazine, on the eve of the pope's visit. "But a major problem still remains untouched by canon law. What happens if the pope becomes enfeebled or comatose, suffering from advanced Alzheimer's and unable to carry out his office?"
Schineller did suggest that this visit "would be a good occasion for the Holy Father to set forth the regulations or procedures on what would happen if a pope were to become comatose."
Benedict didn't do that either. He did visit a retirement home for priests, and just before boarding a helicopter for a return flight to the Vatican, he prayed before the bones of St. Celestine in the crypt of the Cathedral of Sulmona.