Is this the first time a pope has retired?

While Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was a surprise to Catholics the world over, it is not without historical precedent. Pope Saint Celestine V, an Italian monk in the 13th century, was the first pope to resign the office. Celestine V was a hermit who modeled his life on John the Baptist and was a spiritual director to many. After the death of Pope Nicholas IV, over two years passed with the conclave unable to agree on a choice for his successor. Celestine agreed to become pope after he was chosen, but served only five months before resigning. This raised the question of whether a pope could resign according to canon law (the laws of the Church), and the question was eventually settled. Of this matter, Pope Boniface VIII later wrote:

Whereas some curious persons, arguing on things of no great expediency, and rashly seeking, against the teaching of the Apostle, to know more than it is meet to know, have seemed, with little forethought, to raise an anxious doubt, whether the Roman Pontiff, especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honour: Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign.

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The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the life Celestine V led before being elected pope:

His love of solitude led him first into the wilderness of Monte Morone in the Abruzzi, whence his surname, and later into the wilder recesses of Mt. Majella. He took for his model the Baptist. His hair-cloth was roughened with knots; a chain of iron encompassed his emaciated frame; he fasted every day except Sunday; each year he kept four Lents, passing three of them on bread and water; the entire day and a great part of the night he consecrated to prayer and labour. As generally happens in the case of saintly anchorites, Peter's desire for solitude was not destined to be gratified.
Celestine consented to serve as pope after being chosen by the conclave, but soon stepped down.


Catholic website SQPN.com provides a brief overview of the accomplishments of Pope St. Celestine V during his short papacy, including a call for a "year of forgiveness" and for members of the clergy to live simply and faithfully. Celestine lived out his final days in prayer, similar to Pope Benedict XVI's plan to live in a monastery inside the Vatican.


The Rev. Alban Butler wrote of St. Celestine V in his 1864 work, "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints." He describes St. Celestine's final days:

The saint's unfeigned simplicity bearing evidence to the contrary, many advised the pope to set him at liberty, and send him to his monastery. But Boniface, alleging the danger of tumults and of a schism, confined him in the citadel of Fumone, nine miles from Anagni, under a guard of soldiers. The authors of the life of the saint say, that he there suffered many insults and hardships, which yet never drew from his mouth the least word of complaint. On the contrary, he sent word to Boniface, by two cardinals who came to see him, that he was content with his condition, and desired no other. He used to say, with wonderful tranquillity: "I desired nothing in the world but a cell; and a cell they have given me." He sang the divine praises almost without interruption, with two of his monks who were assigned him for his companions. On Whit-Sunday, in 1296, after he had heard mass with extraordinary fervor, he told his guards that he should die before the end of the week. He immediately sickened of a fever, and received extreme unction. Even in that dying condition he would never suffer a little straw to be strewed on the hard boards upon which he always lay, and prayed without interruption. On Saturday, the 19th of May, finishing the last psalm of lauds at those words, Let every spirit praise the Lord, he calmly closed his eyes to this world, and his soul passed to the company of the angels, he being seventy-five years old.

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