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The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation Paperback – February 14, 2012
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Q&A with Author Jon M. Sweeney
Most people believe that popes serve until death-- like the modern popes. Why do you think this story of Pope Celestine V has been somewhat hidden in modern times?
Well, it has been hidden and then not-so-hidden. I mean, there have been novels and plays about a pope who quits. Morris West’s The Clowns of God in 1981 spent twenty-two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list in hardcover. Clearly, these stories are inspired by Celestine V – since he’s the only one who ever did. But, yes, people today don’t tend to realize what it meant to be pope in the Middle Ages. What did it mean to be pope, then?
It was quite a different job back then. In fact, it wasn’t a job. It was a divine calling. To quit as pope in 1294, as Celestine V did, was at least shocking, and then treasonous and blasphemous to many. The pope was not simply a spiritual leader. That is a modern idea. Who was this man who became Pope Celestine V? Where did he come from?
Peter Morrone, a hermit who lived in the mountains. He was in his eighties. He was a simple, simple man, who never desired or dreamed that he might be asked to be pope. How did you conduct the research for this book?
I first encountered the name of Peter Morrone years ago while writing a book about Francis and Clare of Assisi. I wanted to come back to him again someday. So I was delighted by the opportunity to do that. I spent two years writing The Pope Who Quit. I traveled to Rome and Naples and many places in between to see the sites for myself. And I spent thousands of hours in the library at Dartmouth College. Do you think we’ll ever know what truly happened to Pope Celestine V?
No. We know so little for sure about the people of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For instance, scholars are still debating whether or not Geoffrey Chaucer -- author of The Canterbury Tales -- ever existed. Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed that he would not hesitate to relinquish his post if he no longer felt “physically, psychologically and spiritually” up to the job. How do you think that would impact the Church?
Yes, isn’t that amazing!? He said that in a book of interviews published in late 2010. I think that that book embarrassed a lot of the members of the papal curia. They did not like their Pope talking like a Celestine V! If he were to ever step down, I think it would seriously rock the Church, just as Celestine V’s abdication did long ago. But, that said, it could happen. Some thought that Pope John Paul II should have stepped down, too, when he was ill. Do you agree?
I don’t know, perhaps so. He certainly was no longer the administrative leader of the Church toward the end of his life. We know that for certain. Neither was Celestine V – and that is primarily why he stepped down. The difference between the two is that in the television age a pope can lead by spiritual example, on television, inspiring the faithful. In the late thirteenth century, a pope could not lead in that way. A pope had to be strong – or else.
“Jon M. Sweeney’s loving portrait of Celestine V is that rare work of history that also feeds the soul. Anyone interested in the collision of hope, despair, and faith will come away nourished.” —John L. Allen Jr., author of A People of Hope
"I have read several of Jon Sweeney’s books, always with pleasure. He is a conscientious researcher, and a fine storyteller, with a wonderful gift for creating a sense of place and time. This time he tells the story of Celestine V, a hermit who was elected pope, then abdicated five months later. In The Pope Who Quit, Sweeney gives us a vivid snapshot of a tumultuous period in the history of the Catholic Church and Western Europe." –Thomas J. Craughwell, author of Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics
More About the Author
He has written more than 20 books, seven about Francis of Assisi, including "When Saint Francis Saved the Church" and "The Complete Francis of Assisi." HBO has optioned the film rights to "The Pope Who Quit."
Sweeney has been interviewed on CBS News, WGN-TV, Fox News, and WTTW's Chicago Tonight. He also appeared on CBS Sunday Morning to talk about St. Patrick on March 17, 2013.
Jon's first 20 years were spent as an involved evangelical (a story told in the memoir "Born Again and Again"); he then spent 22 years as an active Episcopalian (see "Almost Catholic," among others); and on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi in 2009 he was received into the Catholic Church. Today, Jon is a practicing Catholic who also prays regularly with his wife, a rabbi. He loves the church, the synagogue, and other aspects of organized religion. He would never say that he's "spiritual but not religious."
In all of his writing, Jon is drawn to the ancient and medieval (see "The Road to Assisi," and "Inventing Hell"). Many of his books have been selections of the History Book Club, Book-of-the-Month Club, and Quality Paperback Book Club.
Top Customer Reviews
But there too was greatness in this man, Peter Morrone, who would become Pope St. Celestine V, "the pope who quit," and Jon Sweeney does a remarkable job of bringing him to life for us today. In The Pope Who Quit, Sweeney vividly recreates that intriguing world of 13th century Europe and the remarkable manner in which a powerful cardinal and a king brought down to the chair of St. Peter a holy hermit living atop a mountain east of Rome. This book is full of intrigue, the planning and machinations of the likes of Cardinal Benedict Geatani (who would succeed Celestine as Pope Boniface VIII) and King Charles II (nephew of St. Louis IX, King of France) who would house this unlikely spiritual and temporal leader, not upon Peter's chair in Rome, but within his own castle at Naples.Read more ›
While such historical inconsistencies could be overlooked in the context of an exciting story, Sweeney spends most of the book explaining the going-ons of the Church and the various Cardinals, Priests, Popes, and famous Theologists during Peter's lifetime. Unless you are knowledgeable about the Catholic Church during the High Middle Ages, all of these names and background information simply get in the way of why the reader purchased the book: to learn the dramatic tale of Celestine V.
Ultimately if you are hoping to get an interesting, dark Medieval story about the hermit turned murdered Pope, you will be disappointed to find a book that summarizes the political climate of the Medieval Catholic Church. It will be interesting for those interested in Church history, but for the reader wanting what the book advertises, "the tale [of Peter Morrone], as exciting and compelling as any novel or film," you will be disappointed to find that Celestine rarely shows up in his own story.
The book also provides a solid account of the life and politic surrounding the childhood and adulthood of Peter Morrone. I was able to visualize the context of his life, which is helpful in understanding the man.
Worth reading (or listening to!) for the history of the Italy of the day and the papal history as well. The author does a great job of connecting current events to the events of long ago. Recommended.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Very readable interesting interpretation of events in the middle agesPublished 4 months ago by Ralph H.Lataille
What a change from a loyal monk to a high official in the church, a man who never wanted to be a Pope. Read morePublished 11 months ago by J. Robinson Tinsley
This book is poorly written. I've never encountered a text on a topic that seems to dance around its focus the way this author does. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Dr. John Switzer
I was interested because of the resignation of the last pope. It is interesting and informative....not exciting...but informative.Published 18 months ago by elston
The book began extremely slowly, for by my own mistake I had thought I would be reading a fictional story or imaginative tale based on historical facts. Read morePublished 19 months ago by Zechariah
Good overview of a period in Italian and Church history pulling the diffeent threads together in the life of one man.Published 19 months ago by Amazon Customer
Portions that speculated on the lifestyle of the hermit turned pope are interesting, and the path he took to become a pope had some merit, but then the book bogged down in all the... Read morePublished 23 months ago by jhw
Having read both Kevin Vost's (laudatory) and Miss_Kitty89's reviews (critical), I would say the truth of the book lies with both. Read morePublished 24 months ago by Pete Bogg