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Hermit who quit papacy is a role model, says Pope

Whatever his deficiencies, Pope Benedict XVI could never be accused of spending too much time fretting about spin and public relations. A PR-savvy pontiff, facing hostile headlines over sex abuse in the church, perhaps wouldn't be seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of a predecessor whose chief claim to fame was his incompetence and the fact that he quit after just five months.

Yet Benedict is urging people to see the ascetic lifestyle of a 13th-century hermit as an inspiration for modern men and women to reject material things and rediscover the simple art of contemplation.

The pontiff has visited the mountain town of Sulmona in the Abruzzo region for festivities to mark the 800th birthday of Celestine V, the only pope so far to have resigned. Following an open-air Mass in stifling heat, a perspiring Benedict visited the area struck by the 2009 earthquake before praying before the salvaged remains of Celestine.

"We live in a society where it seems that every space, every moment must be filled with initiatives, activities, sounds," he said. "Often there isn't even the time to listen."

Benedict himself has come under fire for allegedly failing to listen, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was told that paedophile priests in Germany and the US were a danger to children.

By paying homage to a cerebral, elderly and beleaguered predecessor, who quit after failing to get to grips with murky corruption at the Vatican, Benedict risked inviting unfavourable comparisons.

The hairshirt-wearing Pope Celestine V was chosen as head of the church as a mutually acceptable choice by warring factions within Rome on 5 July 1294, but had to be dragged down from his cave on Mount Morrone by a multitude of monks and cardinals.

Once in Rome he quickly showed himself to be completely out of his depth amid the labyrinthine politics and backstabbing in the Vatican. Frequently manipulated, the hapless pontiff was said to have handed titles and offices to whoever asked for them. As a result some offices of the Holy See had several holders at the same time.

Eventually, conceding his inability to cope, the 80-year-old Pope asked to resign, but was told he couldn't – until a cardinal Benedetto Gaetano, who wanted the papacy for himself, stepped in and declared Celestine's resignation legal.

Cardinal Benedetto Gaetano was proclaimed Pope Boniface VIII, and promptly threw Celestine in prison, where he died within a year and a half – probably killed, judging by the hole found in his skull.

Celestine came in for enormous criticism for quitting the papacy. Some historians have identified him as the nameless figure seen in the entrance to Hell in Dante's Inferno, "the shade of him Who by his cowardice made the great refusal".

But the Vatican has a short memory, and he was declared a saint in 1313 by Pope Clement V. Fresh claims about his sanctity surfaced just last year when his remains were recovered unscathed from L'Aquila's stricken cathedral following an earthquake which killed 300. It was proof, said some, of his ability to work miracles.

n Italian victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests are planning a protest rally in September. Hundreds are expected to take part in the rally in the northern city of Verona on 25 September, with victims' groups from other countries, including the US, likely to attend.