Papal Holiness


Convivium, 12 October 2018

Father Raymond de Souza travels to Rome for the canonization of Pope Paul VI, which he notes is part of a 21st century uptick in papal sainthoods.

ROME – I am in the Eternal City for what used to be rare thing, but is now almost an expected thing, namely the canonization of a pope as a saint.

October 11th is, in fact, the liturgical feast day of Pope John XXIII, canonized in 2014 along with Pope John Paul II.

On Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize Pope Paul VI (1963-1978). When the decision was announced earlier in the spring, Pope Francis joked that “Benedict and I are in the queue.” Some years back, a satirical site “reported” that Pope Francis, in a characteristic and refreshing break with hidebound tradition, was going to canonize himself.

The popes of the early centuries are almost all canonized—and the great majority of them were martyrs. Being called to Peter’s See for a long time meant following Peter to martyrdom.

See for a long time meant following Peter to martyrdom.

Is there a link between persecution and holiness? After Christianity became legal, and later State-supported, the worldly power of the Bishop of Rome grew. The almost routine practice of declaring popes saints also waned. By time of the Renaissance, when even the most partisan of Catholics acknowledges that the papacy had been occupied by a series of corrupt popes, holiness seemed not even to be expected.

Is there a link between holiness and unity? The Reformation was not unrelated to a papacy that itself was in need of reform. The “Catholic Reformation” was the answer to that need, and found its most formal expression in the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563). Not long after, a rather severe and austere man was elected pope, Pius V, who had a short but productive pontificate, 1566-1572. In time, he was canonized as a sort of rebuke in the flesh to the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the first pope in nearly three hundred years to be declared a saint.

But for a long while after St. Pius V, it appeared as if he might be the last pope canonized. Pope Innocent IX (1676-1689) was beatified – the final stage before canonization – but no pope was canonized until 1954, when Pope Pius X (1903-1914) was recognized as a saint.

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