The First Jubilee

On November 29, 1998, with the papal bull Incarnationis Mysterium, Pope John Paul II officially declared the Great Jubilee of the year 2000...

On November 29, 1998, with the papal bull Incarnationis Mysterium, Pope John Paul II officially declared the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. According to Catholic doctrine, believers who perform certain acts of devotion during a jubilee (or Holy Year) receive plenary indulgence: they are spared temporal punishment for the sins for which they have already been absolved through confession. In modern times, jubilees have normally been observed every 25 years, but this time the impending end of the millennium makes the occasion momentous, and Rome is expected to be the destination of millions of pilgrims.

In proclaiming 2000 a Holy Year, John Paul II is following a tradition that dates back to 1300, when Boniface VIII instituted what is widely considered the first jubilee. Yet, unbeknownst to many people, even to most Catholics, Boniface's predecessor had already taken a very similar step: he granted indulgence not to people who visited Rome, but to those who traveled to a little town 70 miles away--L'Aquila.

Nestled among the Apennine Mountains, in the heart of the Abruzzi region of Italy, L'Aquila was still young in 1294 when it hosted what is, arguably, the most significant event in its history. Thousands of people gathered in front of the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, waiting for the arrival of the new pope. After a bitter conclave that had lasted more than two years, the cardinals had finally agreed on the identity of the new head of Christianity. Their choice had fallen on a 79-year-old man, the founder of a religious order, who was considered by many to be a saint. His name was Pietro Angelerio, but he was also known as Pietro da Morrone, from the name of the mountain where he had spent years in solitude and prayer.

The singularity of the choice (Pietro was not a cardinal and did not belong to a powerful family) was matched only by the new pope's remarkable behavior: from the hermitage of Sant' Onofrio, where he received the news, he rode by donkey to L'Aquila, where his coronation took place on August 29 in the Church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. Pietro Angelerio chose the name Celestine V, and granted plenary indulgence to all those who, after having confessed and repented for their sins, visited the church that day. A month later, with the bull Inter Sanctorum Solemnia, he made that concession permanent. Plenary indulgence would from then on be granted every year, from August 28 to 29. L'Aquila, in the words of historian Paolo Golinelli, would be for one day each year "the equivalent of Rome during the jubilee."

"Che farai, Pier da Morrone? Sei venuto al paragone" ("What will you do now, Pier da Morrone? Now we'll see what you're worth"). With these ironic and yet concerned words, friar Jacopone da Todi addressed the new pope, wondering how he would manage to reconcile his ascetic ideals with the administration of a heavily politicized and power-hungry church. "This test will show whether you are gold, iron, or copper..."

History would soon dispel Jacopone's doubts. Five months after his election, feeling inadequate in his new role and disappointed by the institution he was supposed to lead, Celestine V abdicated. The text of the resignation lists humility, desire for a better life, moral obligation, and physical weakness among the reasons that inspired his decision. But if he had really sought, as he stated, to recover his lost tranquillity, his hope was short-lived. His successor, Boniface VIII, afraid that supporters of Celestine would question his own legitimacy as pope, locked him in Fumone Castle, where he died in 1296.

When the church proclaimed him saint, in 1313, his corpse had not yet found a final resting place. It took years of negotiation and litigation before the body was taken to a site this most unusual pope would probably have approved of, the one that saw the beginning of his greatest adventure: Santa Maria di Collemaggio, in L'Aquila.

If Dante, as some believe, was among the crowd that witnessed Celestine's coronation, if he shared the hopes for a renewal of the church that Celestine's election seemed to represent, disappointment at the abdication dispelled any positive memories. In the Divine Comedy, he claims to have seen among the Neutrals--those "hateful to God and to His enemies"--"he who made, through cowardice, the great refusal" (Inferno, III, 60), a figure his earliest commentators identified with Celestine V. Petrarch, on the contrary, has words of praise for this "truly divine soul" who devoted all his efforts to spiritual pursuits (De Vita Solitaria, II, 8).

Throughout the centuries, the figure of this man who chose his own conscience over worldly power has fascinated scholars and writers alike. He is one of only five popes to be proclaimed a saint in this millennium, and one of only two to have resigned. As recently as 1968, Ignazio Silone wrote a play, significantly titled L'avventura di un povero cristiano (The Adventure of a Poor Christian), culminating in a dramatic dialogue between Celestine V and Boniface VIII, in a confrontation between two opposite interpretations of the church's mission in the world.

Nor would L'Aquila ever forget "its" pope, and the honor he had bestowed upon the town. In spite of Boniface VIII's prompt and official revocation of Celestine's indulgence (the first of his bulls on this subject, Sicut Plurimorum Assertio, is dated June 18, 1295), and his repeated injunctions that the town surrender Celestine's bull to him, the citizens jealously preserved the symbol of their privilege, and observed the Celestine Forgiveness, or Perdonanza, throughout the centuries.


L'aquila today is a lively university town that boasts many cultural institutions: a repertory theater, a symphony orchestra, a fine-arts academy, a state conservatory, and a film institute. The week leading to the Perdonanza has become an opportunity for the town to show off its many talents. Jazz, classical, and folk music is performed each evening in the numerous squares that characterize its well-preserved medieval center. Conferences and theatrical performances complete a calendar that attracts an increasing number of visitors each year. Then, on the afternoon of August 28, a rich procession, featuring people from nearby towns and villages wearing historical or traditional costumes, leaves from the town hall. At the rear, a young woman carries the 700-year-old papal bull with which Celestine granted plenary indulgence. The sun is setting by the time the procession reaches its destination, Santa Maria di Collemaggio, and the cardinal opens the Holy Door. Throughout the night and the following day, a stream of people visits the basilica to receive the indulgence. On the evening of August 29, the door is shut, not to reopen for another year.

On August 27, 1998, during a meeting in L'Aquila with its bishop, Giuseppe Molinari, vicar Demetrio Gianfranceschi, and Abruzzi historian Gia-cinto Marinangeli, we discussed the significance of the Perdonanza--its importance for both the religious and the civil life of the town. I was especially interested in knowing its relationships with the indulgences that preceded it, and whether it was correct to claim, as posters all over town had been doing for a month, that the Perdonanza was the first jubilee. "Although Celestine did not mention in his bull the words 'jubilee' or 'Holy Year‚'" Marinangeli answered, "his is undoubtedly the first written document to establish a recurring plenary indulgence in a specific place. In 1216, Saint Francis had obtained plenary indulgence for the people visiting the Porziuncola Chapel, in Assisi, between August 1 and 2. However, in that case, the privilege was granted orally, and there is no written record attesting to it."

The rest of the discussion concerned the relationship between Boniface VIII and his predecessor. Local newspapers had been reporting recent medical examinations that described a fracture in Celestine's skull. The first of such examinations dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, when a group of doctors concluded that the skull had been perforated by a knife or similarly sharp object, and that the lesion could not be accidental. Although the new results did not add anything substantial to the old ones, they rekindled the suspicion that Celestine's death was not a peaceful one.

One raises such an issue with a certain apprehension; after all, the idea that a saint found his moral duty to be incompatible with his position as pope is distressing enough to the faithful without adding the hypothesis that his successor not only locked him up, but actually had him killed. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was told that, in the turbulent 30 years between Celestine's death and the installation of his remains in Santa Maria di Collemaggio, several people could have inflicted such a blow. Furthermore, if Boniface VIII had really wanted to get rid of his frail, elderly prisoner, he would probably have resorted to more discreet means (a Machiavellian argument that I found particularly convincing).

At this point the bishop, who had been listening silently, intervened. "Instead of focusing on a past enigma," he asked, "why don't we concentrate on the wounds being inflicted on our brothers and sisters every day? This," he added, "is the true message of Celestine."

Loeb associate professor of the humanities Laura Benedetti was born and raised in L'Aquila. Research for this article was in part made possible by a grant from the Clark Fund.


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