When Peter of Morrone started renovating the old Hermitage of Saint Bartholomew, in Abruzzo’s Majella massif, he had no idea what life had in store for him. He wanted a place where he could hide, pray, part from the outside world, and escape secular life. He had been a priest for about a decade, and had just founded a religious congregation. The old, 11th-century monastery he was fixing up was nestled in the mountain rock, 700 meters above sea level.
A few years later, as the fame of his sainthood spread far and wide, his desire for solitude had only grown stronger. The hermitage had become one of Peter’s favorite havens, where he could focus on the life of prayer and silence he longed for. We cannot imagine his reaction when, in 1294, he was summoned in Rome to be elected Pope at almost eighty years old.
Indeed, after a long conclave, the cardinals had decided he was the best person to lead the Catholic Church. He reigned as Celestine V from August 29 to December 13, 1294, when he resigned (many believe him to be the person described in Dante’s verse from the Third canto of the Inferno, “him / who by his cowardice made the great refusal”). His abdication caused a sensation, and sparked opposite reactions. And two years later, his death – in the Castle of Fumone, where he had been imprisoned by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII – led to further theories and debate.
After his months in Rome, he never returned to the Hermitage of Saint Bartholomew – where the silence and solitude seem to still be waiting for him today.