San Pietro Celestino

In 1965 the region Abruzzi e Molise was split into two regions, which, however, maintain a common identity both geographically and in their historical and traditional heritage. An example of this common heritage is Molisan saint Peter Celestine, now the patron of Molise and of many places in Southern Italy.


Born Pietro Angelieri near Isernia, he founded hermitages throughout Molise and Abruzzi; he came to be known as Pietro da Morrone, from one of his early hermitages on Mount Morrone. In 1294 he was made a Pope as Celestino V, but a couple of months later he renounced his title (the only Pope in history to do so). He died two years later, and his body is now kept is the majestic Santa Maria di Collemaggio, L'Aquila.


Pietro was born near Isernia (there is no proof to the actual village) in 1215, from Angelo Angelario (Angelieri - Angelliero) and Maria Leone. He was the eleventh of the twelve children of son of poor but honest, deeply religious peasants, and after the father's untimely death started to work in the fields. His mother Maria was a key figure in Peter's spiritual development: she imagined a far more different future for her deeply beloved son than just becoming a farmer or a shepherd. Since he was child, he showed great intelligence, and love for his fellow beings. In 1231 he became a Benedictine monk in the monastery of Santa Maria in Faifol, near Benevento, where he remained until in 1234 he started his journey to Rome to ask Pope Gregory IX for permission to live as a hermit. For his lifestyle he took as his model St. John the Baptist: he didn't drink wine, he didn't eat meat and he did four periods of penitence every year. He spent his days in prayer, field works and the copying of sacred text.

He loved austere, remote places and along his itineray as a hermit he left testimonials still present in many small mountain and countryside churches. The Majella was his favourite mountain: savage, full of natural caves, the ancient mountain offered him the seclusion he wanted, being at the same time near to the Vatican. Inside the caves where he lived he brought the ideal of penitence to its extreme and soon the news of the presence of the holy hermit and the miracles he made attracted growing numbers of pilgrims and followers

The Majella

He was about twenty years old when he retired to a hermitage near Castel di Sangro. Then he went to Mount Paleno, where he spent three hard winters, in a small, narrow cave which popular tradition calls Taverna and where today is the Madonna dell'Altare. Then he moved his hermitages to remoter place in the Majella.


In 1237 Pietro he founded the hermitage of Sant'Onofrio, under a high rock wall not far from Serramonacesca, near a small fountain - the cave where he lived is behind the altar of the church that now is in the place, and in the cave it is still possible to see two small holes in the ground, made by the saints knees during his prayers. Still unexplored are the nearby grottos of San Liberatore, where cells and tunnels where used by the hermit and his followers, and maybe used also for sepulture.

Santo Spirito

This hermitage near Roccamorice was established in a wide grotto below a rock wall. Under the Caldora Chapel there is a small cave where Pietro established in 1241 the underground church of Santa Maria del Morrone, where he lived and celebrated Mass for five years, in connection also with the nearby Abbey of Santa Maria dei Corvoni.

San Bartolomeo

Nearer to Roccamorice, in the same valley where Santo Spirito lies, is another hermitage where Pietro retired with some disciples from 1274 to 1276. There was a pre-existing settlement of hermits on the spot, and the scenery is extremely solitary and wild, completely hidden among the rocks.

San Giovanni

Near Caramanico there is the last hermitage, at 1227 mt of altitude, on a narrow rock basement hovering over 20 mt-deep abyss. here Pietro lived from 1284 to 1293 in two small cells excavated in the rock, near a stone altar that he and his monks had made. Water was collected from the rain through a system of small canals leading to a tank.

The Celestinian Order

In 1264 Pietro had the inspiration from the Lord to establish a new order of monks following the rule of St. Benedict from Norcia. He asked Pope Urbano IV for his consent, which he obtained on 1st May: the new order was called Brothers of the Holy Ghost, then it took the name of Celestines. At that time the Pope was not in Rome but in Lyon for the 14th Ecumenic Concil. In late November1273 he left his Maiella hermitage and walked to Lyon, where he arrived in early February 1274. The Pope examined the new Rule and approved it with his Bull Religiosam Vitam, where the legitimacy of Peter's community of hermit monks was established within the Benedictine order and the possessions of the Celestines were recognized. According to the bull, the congregation had 16 monasteries in Abruzzi and Lazio. Pietro transformed hermitages in churches and monastery, and his order soon spread from the Maiella to wide areas of Southern Italy.

Santa Maria di Collemaggio

The tradition says that in early 1275 Fra' Pietro da Morrone on his way back from Lyon, where he had met the Pope, to his hermitage, stopped at L'Aquila and spent the night on a hill called Colle di Maio (=May Hill) just outside the city, and there he dreamt of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels at the top of a golden stairway, who asked him to build a church in Her honor on that very hill.The city of L'Aquila was being rebuilt because it had been plundered and put on fire in 1259 by Manfredi of Swabia. In a few years Peter's dream was fulfilled. In 1287 his followers were granted the permission to build a monastery and a church extra moenia (outside the walls) in Colle di Maio (Collemaggio) by the aquilan bishop. Peter sent two monks to buy the site which cost 20 florins. The Church of St. Mary of Collemaggio was consacrated on the 25th August 1288.

The crisis in the Church
Collemaggio When Pope Nicholas IV died on 4 th April 1292 the twelve elector cardinals started a conclave to elect the 192nd Pope. Among the cardinals there were two opposite parties: the Colonna were backed by the Aragonese of Sicily, instead the Orsini were backed by Carlo II of Anjou, the king of Naples. Fearing a schism, on 18th October 1293 the cardinals moved the conclave to Perugia.

But winter passed without an election, so Brother Peter from Morrone wrote a letter where he denounced the uneasinees of the church. the letter arrived on 5th July 1294 and it was read to the presence of all the cardinals, that knowing the sanctity of the hermit were deeply moved the name of Peter was proposed for the candidature, and that same day Peter from Morrone at the age of 79 years old, was elected Pope.

The election to the Holy See

When the messengers of the cardinals went to the hermitage of Santo Spirito to give Peter the document of his election, they found the old man in his hut. When he heard the knews, he knelt to the ground and cried. Then he was for a while deeply absorbed in his thoughts, but finally informed them that he accepted the election. The cardinals would have liked the ceremony to take place in Perugia, but Peter, maybe following King Charles's advise, wanted to be crowned in Aquila, in the very church he had built with his followers. And that is how, on the 29th of August 1294, in the fields before the Basilica of St. Mary in Collemaggio, the new cardinal Ugo Seguin de Billon consecrated the old, holy hermit Pope as Celestine V. An enormous crowd - historical sources say 200,000 people, among them also Dante Alighieri - had come to be part of what was deemed a rebirth of the Church of Christ.

The Papacy

On the very day of his election Celestine wanted to give all those who had come the gift of the general pardon of their sins (the perdonanza). One month later the Perdonanza was consecrated in a Bull, a document which is still preserved in the townhall of L'Aquila. During the months he spent as Pope in the city, he fought to maintain peace among the factions at war with one another and also acted as an intermediary with king Charles II in favour of the Aquilan people. The citizens of L'Aquila had greatly angered king Charles II Anjou with their disregard of the kingdom's feudal laws. But in 1294, after the new Pope Celestine V asked the king to pardon the citizens, Charles granted an amnesty and a diploma which made the town indipendent from feudal ties. This act contributed to a general pacification and marked the year 1294 as a turning point in Aquilan history. The events were duly and colourfully recorded in a poem about the origins and early history of the city by vernacular poet Buccio di Ranallo, and in a group of laudi about the holy hermit-pope.

The Perdonanza

The conditions to be met to obtain the general pardon of sins were to visit the Church of santa Maria di Collemaggio from the vespers of 28th August to the vespers of 29th August, with a repentant soul and reciting a Pater Noster and a Credo. Each 28th of August, for over 700 years now, the Magistrates of the City went with the original Bull to Collemaggio, accompanied by a Celestine friar and six " capiquartiere". The Magistrate read the Bull in the presence of a multitude of faithfuls, thenthe religious authorities led the procession into the Church and then opened the Holy Door, on the left side of Collemaggio. The Bull is still today preserved in a special container in a chamber of the Townhall of L'Aquila, and traditionally carried to the Church on the 28th of August by a young lady (the Dama) accompanied by a young man (the Giovin Signore) dressed in medieval costumes.

The abdication

Unfortunately the new Pope was not prepared to the political, lay aspects of his role, and allowed king Charles to keep him in Naples and exploit him to his ends. He gave out charges and privileges freely, and let a group of three cardinals manage the things of the papacy, keeping himself in his cell to continue his penitential life. Anyway, he was deeply aware of his unfittness to the secular role of the leader of Christianity, and feared anarchy in the church. After a period of deep meditation, he asked Cardinal Benedetto Caetani to prepare a document which allowed popes to renounce their office. Irrevocably convinced of what he was doing, he summoned the Cardinals on the 13 December 1294 and informed them that, out of his humbleness, his longing for a different life and physical weakness, he had decided to leave his high office and give them the chance to elect a new pope. He was sure he had fulfilled the task he had been given, namely to avoid a schism, and therefore was now ready to give place to another person, better qualified for the position. After that, he left the papal ornaments and clothes, put on his old tunic and was again the humble hermit from Mount Morrone. Only a few days later, on 24 December, cardinal Caetani was made Pope under the name of Boniface VIII.

Flight and imprisonment

His successor canceled his official acts and, to avert possible schism among Celestine's ardent followers, kept Celestine in confinement in the castle of Fumone,near Ferentino, until his death in 1296, on 19 May, Celestine was canonized by Pope Clement V in 1313. After his abdication, Celestine went back to his cave on the Morrone. But many people to question the validity of Boniface VIII's election, so the new Pope, fearing a schism, asked the king of Naples to send Celestine to Rome. The hermit tried to escape leaving Italy for the Balkans by sea, but his ship was obliged by a strong wind to go back to Vieste, near Foggia, where he was captured by Boniface's followers and taken to the Fumone castle near Frosinone, where he was kept like a prisoner till his death on 19 May 1296. A prodigy took place that afternoon: when the former Pope was in agony in front of the door of his cell in the ancient castle of Fumone a golden cross appeared floating in the air. The shining cross, a visible sign of the holiness of the old hermit, disappeared at vespers' time, right at the moment of his death, on the Saturday following Whitsunday.

The canonization

At first he was buried in the church of St. Agatha, near Ferentino, but later his body was stolen and brought to L'Aquila, where he was proclaimed the patron saint of the city. Pietro Celestino was considered from then on by the Aquilans as their protector, and when in 1435 Braccio da Montone sieged the city, it was said that the holy hermit appeared to the cruel condottiere and disrupted his army. His remains are still kept in a mausoleum within the Church of St. Maria di Collemaggio. His life and actions deeply influenced his contemporaries: Petrarch who offered him as a model of religious life, and it is surely a mistaken interpretation the widely accepted notion that Dante had meant Celestine as "colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto" in his Purgatory. In the canonization bull of 5 May 1313 Pope Clement V called Celestine "a man of wonderful simplicity, but impratical of the management of the Church, because since his early childhood to old age his soul had been longing not for secular but for divine things".