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It's been more than two weeks since Pope Benedict XVI astonished the world by announcing that he would resign. The response to his decision among the world's more than one billion Catholics has been mixed. NPR's Philip Reeves says to truly understand Benedict's decision, there's an unusual man you need to meet: a hermit from many centuries ago.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Only two popes have resigned voluntarily. One is Pope Benedict, now in his final days in office. The other is here, amid the mountains and ancient hilltop towns of central Italy. His name's Celestine V, or, as the Italians put it, Chelestino Quinto.

We've come to a big honey-colored medieval basilica. The winter sun is just strong enough to melt the snow on the roof tiles.

PATRIZIA INNAMORATI: (Italian spoken)

REEVES: Patrizia Innamorati works here, taking care of the church, which is called the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. Right now, the church is locked, but Patrizia is a big fan of Celestine. She's eager to introduce us to a cleric who very briefly - some 700 years ago - was the most powerful man in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR UNLOCKING)

REEVES: She unlocks a big wooden door and leads us inside the basilica to a glass coffin on a plinth. Beneath the glass, wearing a miter and faded vestments of purple and gold, there's a tiny man in effigy. Somewhere in there are his bones. It's freezing. Patrizia's hands are blue with cold, yet her eyes sparkle with warmth as she tells Celestine's story.

INNAMORATI: (Italian spoken)

REEVES: He was a monk, a hermit and a saint, she explains. He never wanted to be pope.

INNAMORATI: (Italian spoken)

REEVES: He just wanted to guide the faithful. Celestine came from the mountains not far from here. His life was austere.

GEORGE FERZOCO: Celestine, during his life as a hermit, would sleep on bare rock in a cave on the side of a mountain.

REEVES: George Ferzoco is from the department of theology and religious studies at Bristol University in England. He's an expert on Celestine V, or Pietro di Morrone, as Celestine was known before becoming pope. Ferzoco says Pietro practiced mortification of the flesh - the belief that pain distracts the mind away from worldly temptations and towards God. He wore a horsehair shirt and an iron girdle.

FERZOCO: The combination of the hair shirt and the iron chains, which he would wear around his skin, these would have cut very deeply into his skin and caused profuse regular bleeding.

REEVES: Pietro became famous. He attracted a lot of followers and set up his own branch of the Benedictine order. Then, in 1292, the pope, Nicholas IV, died. For the next two years, the church's endlessly scheming cardinals were deadlocked over a successor. They had heard about Pietro, or Peter, as some called him. They figured he was old and easy to manipulate, so they set off on horseback to his mountain cave.

FERZOCO: And when they approached, in essence they said to him, guess what? And he would have said, what? And the reply would have been: You're pope.

REEVES: Pietro was 84. The job did not work out.

EAMON DUFFY: Well, he was really rather an appalling pope.

REEVES: Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University and author of books about the popes.

DUFFY: For a start, he was extremely feeble. He was also very much under the influence of the king of Sicily and appointed a number of stooge cardinals, really. And he really had no head for administration or business, so it was a rather inglorious period.

REEVES: After just over five months, Celestine quit. To do so, Celestine signed a document legalizing his resignation. This was drafted by a cardinal, who promptly became the next pope - Boniface VIII. Seven hundred years on, that's proved crucial, says Ferzoco.

FERZOCO: The law passed by Celestine the day before he actually resigned served as the legal bedrock for the decision that Benedict XVI made to resign the papacy.

REEVES: Back outside the basilica, Angelo Micheri arrives to pray, as he does every day. He reveres Celestine.

ANGELO MICHERI: (Through translator) He's important because he helps people in need.

REEVES: Times are tough in Italy these days. Angelo's a carpenter who can't get a job. To survive, he begs. Angelo's confident, though, that Celestine will one day answer his prayers for work.

MICHERI: (Through translator) Yes, I think he will. I asked him before, and I found work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

REEVES: Some construction laborers who do have jobs start working within the basilica. The church is just outside the city of L'Aquila. It's still being repaired after part of the roof caved in during a big earthquake that struck L'Aquila four years ago. After the quake, Pope Benedict came here to console victims. He prayed before Celestine's coffin. In a highly symbolic gesture, Benedict laid upon it a most sacred vestment - his pallium, or a kind of scarf.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

REEVES: Shortly after that, because of the repair works, Celestine's coffin was moved for a while. It was paraded slowly through the narrow streets on the back of a small truck to the nearby town of Sulmona. Pope Benedict went to pray before Celestine's remains there too.

FERZOCO: I think the significance of these two visits is quite staggering.

REEVES: George Ferzoco says it's amazing no one saw the message behind Pope Benedict's actions.

FERZOCO: He was showing that it is permissible, licit, and in some cases spiritually beneficial that a pope may resign for the good of his soul and for the benefit of his flock.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Singing in Latin)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Amen.

XVI: Grazie.

REEVES: As he performs his final acts as pope, Benedict will be aware that controversy continues over his resignation. That happened to Celestine too. Celestine's departure divided intellectual opinion in the medieval world. The poet Dante, in his "Inferno," describes an unnamed figure in hell. This is: He whose cowardice made the great refusal, he says. For centuries, many have assumed that's a damning reference to Celestine, though some scholars disagree. Others at the time, though, saw Celestine's resignation as heroic: the rejection of a church mired by greed and politics. Celestine's story has a grim footnote. After quitting, Celestine wanted to go back to being a hermit and headed for his cave. His successor, Pope Boniface, was worried by the idea of two living popes and feared people would still rally round Celestine. He had Celestine arrested and imprisoned in a castle. Soon afterwards, Celestine died.

As she stands next to Celestine's glass coffin, wringing her cold, blue hands, Patrizia Innamorati hopes the world will be a lot kinder to Pope Benedict.

INNAMORATI: (Through translator) I will miss him a lot, because he was a person of great sensibility and courage.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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