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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 28, 2022
Pope Francis prays in front of the tomb of St. Celestine V, a 13th-century pope who resigned, at the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L'Aquila, Italy, on Aug. 28, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

A day after creating 20 new cardinals, Pope Francis prayed at the tomb of Celestine V, the pope who abdicated five months after his election in 1294. Contrary to speculation in the media, however, he gave no indication that he himself intends to resign. Indeed, he has already stated clearly in recent interviews that such an idea has not entered his head.

The hermit monk who was elected pope on July 5, 1294, resigned from the papacy on Dec. 13 of that same year, the last pope to do so voluntarily before Benedict XVI. Francis, in his homily, praised him for this gesture of humility which, he said, cannot be understood by the logic of this world.

Francis traveled by helicopter from the Vatican to the central Italian city of L’Aquila early this morning, Aug. 28, to preside at Mass and open the Holy Door of Forgiveness in the city’s Basilica of Collemaggio where Celestine V is buried.

Soon after his election, Celestine issued a papal bull (decree) granting a plenary indulgence (known as the Perdonanza Celestina, the Celestine Forgiveness) to all pilgrims who visited the church of Collemaggio and passed through its holy door on the anniversary of his coronation as pope (Aug. 28). Every year since then, pilgrims from far and near have come to obtain that indulgence on this day.

That event was the precursor for the Holy Year that was established by his successor, Boniface VIII, in the year 1300 and has been celebrated throughout the Catholic church every 25 or 50 years since then.

Francis is the first pope in 728 years to open the Holy Door of Forgiveness. Significantly, he and Celestine share the emphasis on forgiveness and God’s mercy. Indeed, from the beginning of his papacy Francis has spoken repeatedly about God’s mercy and forgiveness, and he decreed a Jubilee Year of Mercy from Dec.8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016, a jubilee that he opened in Bangui, the capital of the war-torn Central African Republic. Francis has also convoked a Holy Year for 2025.

On arrival in the city of L’Aquila this morning, Francis greeted the families of those who lost 309 relatives in the violent earthquake of early 2009. He also wore a helmet while visiting the city’s cathedral, because the church was very badly damaged and is being restored. From there, he drove in the popemobile to the esplanade in front of the Collemaggio basilica where he presided at Mass attended by thousands of people, who greeted him with cheers and great enthusiasm.

Francis said, “Today we celebrate the Eucharist on a special day for this city and this (local) church: the Celestine Forgiveness.” He recalled that “the saintly pope” whose remains are to be found in the church was a man of great humility. “Erroneously”, he said, Dante Aligheri, the famous Italian poet, had presented him in the Divina Comedia as the man who “made the great refusal,” whereas “Celestine V was not the man of the ‘No’, he was the man of the ‘Yes’.”

"Celestine V was not the man of the ‘No’, he was the man of the ‘Yes’.”

Pope Francis insisted that “there is no other way to do the will of God except by adopting the strength of the humble.” In the eyes of men, he said, “the humble appear weak and losers, but in fact they are the true winners, because they are the only ones who trust completely in the Lord and know his will.”

Pope Francis told his audience, “The strength of the humble is the Lord, not strategies, human means, the logic of this world, calculations.” In that sense, he said, “Celestine V was a courageous witness of the Gospel, because there was no logic of power that was able to imprison or control him. In him we admire a church free from worldly logic and a total witness to that name of God which is mercy. This is the very heart of the Gospel, because mercy is to know that we are loved in our misery. They go together.”

Departing from his prepared text, the Jesuit pope insisted that “we can only understand mercy when we understand our misery.” He reminded them that “Jesus, the Son of God, is the Mercy of the Father and the Love that saves. He is mercy, and it is only with his mercy that he can speak to our misery. If one of us thinks they can reach mercy another way than through their own misery, they have taken the wrong way. This is why it is important to understand one’s own reality.”

Francis recalled that for 728 years, “L’Aquila has kept alive the gift that Pope Celestine V himself left it. That gift is the privilege of reminding everyone that with mercy, and with mercy alone, can the life of every man and every woman be lived with joy. Mercy is the experience of feeling welcomed, put back on our feet, strengthened, healed, encouraged. To be forgiven is to experience here and now that which comes closest to being resurrected. Forgiveness is the passage from death to life, from the experience of anguish and guilt to that of freedom and joy.”

He prayed that this church of Celestine “may always be a place in which people can be reconciled and experience that Grace that puts us back on our feet and gives us another chance.” He reminded everyone that “Our God is the God of second chances.”

He assured everyone that “even in one’s own misery we will always find a light that is the way to go to the Lord. He gives us light in our misery.”

Francis recalled the great suffering the people of this city endured during the 2009 earthquake and their efforts at trying to get back on their feet. He told them, “You can treasure the gift of mercy because you know what it means to lose everything, to see everything that had been constructed crumble, to leave everything that was dear to you, to feel the hole left by the absence of those whom you loved. You can treasure mercy because you have experienced mercy.”

Francis said, “In their lives, everyone, even without living through an earthquake, can experience an ‘earthquake of the soul’, so to speak, that puts us in contact with our own frailty, our own limitations, our own misery. In this experience, we can lose everything, but we can also learn true humility. In such a circumstance, we can allow life to make us bitter, or we can learn meekness.”

He concluded, “humility and meekness are the characteristics of those who have the mission of treasuring and witnessing to mercy. Yes, because mercy, when it comes to us and because we treasure it, we can also bear witness to this mercy. Mercy is a gift to me, for my misery, but this mercy must also be transmitted to others as a gift from the Lord.”

“Humility and meekness are the characteristics of those who have the mission of treasuring and witnessing to mercy."

Then in words that were read also as a message for new cardinals and others in positions of power and responsibility, Francis said, “Too many times people base their worth on the place they occupy in the world” but, he emphasized, “A person is not the position he or she holds. A person is the freedom that he or she is capable of that is fully manifested when he or she occupies the last place, or when a place is reserved for that person on the Cross.”

Francis said, “The Christian knows that his or her life is not a career after the manner of the world, but a career after the manner of Christ who said of himself that he had come to serve and not to be served (cf. Mk 10:45). Unless we understand that the revolution of the Gospel is contained in this type of freedom, we will continue to witness war, violence and injustice, which are nothing other than the external symptoms of a lack of interior freedom. Where there is no interior freedom, selfishness, individualism, personal interest, and oppression, and all these miseries, find their way in. And misery takes control.”

At the end of Mass, Francis invited everyone to pray for the people of Pakistan hit by massive flooding, and to pray for “forgiveness and peace” in the world, and especially in Ukraine and other places where wars are being fought.

He was then pushed in his wheelchair to the Holy Door of the basilica of Collegmaggio, just behind where he had presided at Mass. On arrival there, he got to his feet and, following tradition, he struck the Holy Door with an olive branch three times, and it was opened for him. As He walked through the door, the crowd broke into thunderous applause. He had opened the doors for forgiveness.

Once inside the basilica, he returned to the wheelchair and was pushed to the altar behind which is the tomb of Celestine V. He prayed there in silence for some minutes, as Benedict XVI had done in April 2009, but unlike his German predecessor who made the symbolic and highly significant gesture of placing and leaving his pallium (the symbol of office) on the tomb of Celestine, Francis did no such thing.

Tomorrow, he will preside over a meeting of some 197 cardinals that have come from all over the world. He said he wants them to discuss Predicate Evangelium, the constitution he has promulgated for the reform of the Roman Curia, but many cardinals believe that he also wants them to get to know each other well in advance of the conclave that will one day elect his successor.

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