The Perdonanza, after over 700 years

The "Perdonanza Celestiniana" (=Celestinian Pardon) is a historical-religious event held annually in L'Aquila between 28 and 29 August, accompanied by other events which take place during the last week of August.
The celebration was established by Pope Celestine V in 1294 with the issue of Papal Bull "Inter sanctorum solemnia", also known as the Bolla del Perdono (=Bull of Forgiveness), in which he granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who, confessed and communicated, visited the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio from the vespers of August 28 to those of 29. The event is a precursor of the universal Jubilee of the Catholic Church established by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300.
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The Establishment of the "Pardon"

To understand the true meaning of the Aquilan Perdonanza we must go back to what "pardon" meant in the 13th century and also be aware of the real rarity of plenary indulgence.
In the Christian tradition an indulgence is the remission before God not merely of sins, but also of the penance to be expiated on this earth or in the afterlife. The only regular indulgences at the time were that obtained by St. Francis for his chapel Porziuncola, and the yearly indulgence in L'Aquila. To fulfil the longing of all faithful for indulgence Pope Boniface 8th then established the Jubilee (Holy Year) in 1300, a plenary indulgence to be repeated every 100 years (later shortened to 50 and finally to 25).
Beside the ordinary Indulgence, Boniface added an extraordinary indulgence, which up to 1294 was granted to those who left to fight in the Crusades; this indulgence was later extended to those who funded the Crusades; more extraordinary indulgences were granted on other exceptional events. Among these, the jubilee granted by San Pietro Celestino, to be celebrated in l'Aquila each year from 28 to 29 August (the Perdonanza).

The Perdonanza celestiniana

Established on 28 September 1294, when hermit Peter from Morrone, one month after being consecrated Pope in the Basilica of Collemaggio, L'Aquila, established the Aquilana indulgentia, issuing a document with his signature and seal which granted pardon of all sins to any who, "truly repentant and confessed" would visit the Church of St. Maria in Collemaggio "from the vespers of the vigil to the vispers of the 29th August". The "Bolla" with this privilege is hosted in the Townhall of L'Aquila.

The design of the old Pope was much beyond the mere spiritual indulgence: he wanted to encourage people to do good deeds, that would advantage the poorest, and meant the pardon also for the earthly penance to be paid: whoever had debtors, was requested to condone their dues, whoever had enmities ought to make peace, war prisoners were to be released, otherwise no spiritual pardon could be begged from God. The social meaning of the Perdonanza, in an age of great injustice and poverty, was enormous.

The Celebrations

The conditions set by San Pietro Celestino were to visit the Church from the afternoon of 28 August to the afternoon of the 29th, with a devout and repentant heart, and say one Pater Noster and one Credo. For centuries, every 28 August, when the Vesper Mass was being held, the "Signori del Magistrato" would proceed to Collemaggio, after a parade of men of the church and a servant carrying an iron cylinder, covered by red velvet and lined in silver, locked by a key that the "Signori" kept, inside the cylinder was the original Indulgence Bull. The parade included also a Celestine friar and six Lords of the Quarters; the Celestine priest would then read the Bull to the crowd and show the relics of the Pope. The ceremony changed in the centuries, and now a young lady, dressed in red and white velvet carries the Bull.

The Text of the Bull

Celestinus episcopus, servus servorum Dei, universis Christi fidelibus presentes litteras inspecturis, salutem et apostolicam benedicionem.

Inter sanctorum solemnia sancti Johannis Baptiste memoria eo est solennius honoranda, quo ipse de alvo sterilis matris procedens fecundus virtutibus, sacris eulogiis et facundus fons, apostolorum labium et silentium prophetarum, in terris Christi presentiam, caliginantis mundi lucernam, ignorantiae obtectis enebris verbi preconio et indicis signo mirifico nuntiavit propter quod eius gloriosum martyrium mulieris impudice indictum intuitu misterialiter et secutum.

Nos qui in ipsius sancti deollatione capitis in ecclesia sancte Marie de Collemayo Aquilensi, ordinis sancti Benedicti, suscepimus diadematis impositum capiti nostro insigne, hymnis et canticis ac fidelium devotis oraculis cupimus venerabilius honorari.

Ut igitur ipsius decollationis festivitas in dicta ecclesia precipuis extollatur honoribus et populi Domini devota frequentia tanto devotius et ferventius honoretur, quanto inibi querentium Dominum supplex postulatio gemmas Ecclesie donis micantes spiritualibus sibi reperiet in eternis tabernaculis profuturas, omnes vere penitentes et confessos qui a vesperis eiusdem festivitatis vigilie usque ad vesperas festivitatem ipsam immediate sequetes ad premissam ecclesiam accesserint annuatim de omniiipotentis Dei misericordia et beatorum Petri et Pauli apostolorum eius auctoritate confisi a baptismo absolvimus a culpa et pena quam pro suis merentur commissis omnibus et delictis.

Datum Aquile, III kalendas octobris, pontificatus nostri anno primo.

San Pietro Celestino - the Early years

Pietro Angeleri, later called from Morrone because he retired to a cave on Monte Morrone (Maiella), made Pope with the name of Celestine V and finally canonized as Peter Celestine, was born near Isernia in 1215, from Angelo Angelario and Maria Leone. He was the eleventh of the twelve children 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 a child, he showed great intelligence, and love for his fellow beings. In 1231 he became a Benedictine but dissatisfied with the order rule, when he was about twenty years old, he retired to a hermitage near Castel di Sangro.

Then he went to Paleno, where he spent three hard winters, at the mercy of ferocious animals. In 1238 he went to Rome, where he was made a priest, and obtained from pope Gregory IX, the permission to continue his life as a hermit. In 1241 he came back to Abruzzi, taking as his model St. John the Baptist: he didn't drink wine, he didn't eat meat and he did four penance periods a year. He spent his days in prayer, field works and the copying of sacred text. Soon the news of the presence of the holy hermit and the miracles he made attracted growing numbers of pilgrims, so that he moved his hermitage to a remote place in the Maiella, where he founded the Hermitage of Santo Spirito.

In 1264, Pietro was inspired by God to found a new congregation of monks, with 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. Peter from Morrone aimed to restore the original austerity of the Benedictine "Ora et Labora" rule, with perpetual abstinence from meat, except in case of sickness. The uniform consisted of a white tunic with black hood and scapular. Unfortunately, when the Order had already started spreading, Pope Gregory X decided to reform many religious congregations and abolish those founded after the 1215 Council. Therefore er Peter wanted to ask for greater guarantees for his disciples, but had only a letter from Urbano IV, and not a regular document of constitution.

At that time the Pope was not in Rome but in Lyon for the 14th Council. In late November 1273 Peter 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 "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 document, the congregation had at the time already 16 monasteries in Abruzzi and Lazio.

Then Peter decided to start building oratories and monasteries in different places in Abruzzi. The city of L'Aquila was being rebuilt because it had been plundered and put on fire in 1259 by Manfred of Swabia. The tradition says that, on his way back from Lyon, where he had met the Pope, to his hermitage, he 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 flight of stairs, who asked him to build a church in Her honor on that very hill. In a few years Peter's dream was fulfilled. In 1287 his followers were granted the permission to build a monastery and a church in Colle di Maio (Collemaggio) by the Aquilan bishop. Peter sent two monks to buy the site which cost 20 florins, as registered in a document of the time. The Church of St. Mary of Collemaggio was consecrated on the 25th August 1288.

The Election to the Papacy

On 4 April 1292 Pope Nicholas IV died and the twelve elector cardinals met in 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 Charles 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 them a letter where with harsh words he denounced the discomfort of the Christian world. 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, and that same day Peter from Morrone at the age of 79 was made a Pope.

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 news, 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 consecrated in L'Aquila, in the very church he had built with his followers.

And that is how, on the 29th of August 1294, in front of the Basilica of St. Mary in Collemaggio, the new cardinal Ugo Seguin de Billon consecrated the old hermit as Celestine V. An enormous crowd - historical sources report the figure of 200,000 people, among whom Dante Alighieri, kings and princes from all over Europe, had come to be part of what was deemed a rebirth of the Church of Christ.

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. One month later, he wished to repeat the gift but, while in August the pardon had been granted by voice, on the 29th September 1294 the Perdonanza was consecrated in a Bull. 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 favor of the Aquilan people.

The citizens of L'Aquila had greatly angered king Charles II Anjou with their disregard of the kingdom's feudallaws. Under the leadership of Niccolò dell'Isola they had destroyed the castles of their territory to prevent their inhabitants from settling in the city of L'Aquila, as king Charles wished. But in 1294, after the new Pope Celestine V asked the king to pardon the citizens of a town he loved so deeply, Charles granted an amnesty and a diploma which made the town independent 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 colorfully 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 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 by himself in his cell to continue his penitential life. Anyway, he was deeply aware of his unfitness 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.

The Escape and Death

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.

At first he was buried in the church of St. Agatha, near Ferentino, but later his body was stolen and brought to L'Aquila, were he was proclaimed the patron saint of the city. His remains are still kept in a mausoleum within the Church of St. Maria of Collemaggio.

Celestine was canonized by Pope Clement V in 1313. In the canonization bull of 5 May 1313 Pope Clement V called Celestine "a man of wonderful simplicity, but impractical 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".