The Day of Four Popes

It seems, between the “Francis Effect” and the canonization of Pope John Paul II, who figured so prominently in the last century, the Vatican and the Papacy have received greatly increased focus lately. This month saw perhaps the peak of this attention when two popes were declared saints in a ceremony attended by two popes. That’s a lot of Popes.


The event brought out the good, the bad and the ugly about the world’s relationship with the successors of Peter. Here embraced two living Popes, each of whom is beloved by many, each of whom is a favourite bugbear of opposing factions: one the Grim Rottweiler Failure Pope and the other the Marxist Liberal Clown Mass Pope. The two sainted Popes also remain controversial figures within and without the church, hailed as saints and reviled as corrupt.

Many of my generation loved St. John Paul II in a very personal way. Others felt this affection for Pope Benedict or are deeply attached to our present Holy Father. This is a beautiful relationship to have and I feel a filial love for all these men. However, my particular devotion is not to any one Pope but to the Papacy. I feel a deep love and gratitude for the institution itself, such an essential and beautiful gift to us from Christ. I would say it is the rock on which I build my personal faith. Thus I am disturbed by some of the reactions to these canonizations. While many celebrated the event, from others there was a thundering silence, or a murmuring about the process. Not quite an out and out rejection, but sidelong questions. Is the examination of causes for sainthood grown too lax, too rushed?   (Side note: I love that in the Catholic Church nine years is a rush, just a reminder that we’ve been here from the start and will be here until the end.)  And the sentiment behind these murmurings is troubling.

It does feel very different to witness the canonization of a person who lived while we lived.  The more we know a person, even a person we love and respect, the more opportunities we have for disagreement. This is even truer in an age of mass media saturation. Every little thing any public figure says, does, or does not do is broadcast and endlessly analyzed by everyone from experts to amateurs. Someday, God willing, there may even be a saint who had a Twitter feed. Surely he or she will manage to have said several controversial things in 140 characters or less.

What do most of us know about most of the saints?  Sadly, unless we have a particular devotion to one, our confirmation saint perhaps or a favourite theologian, probably only the childhood lives of the saints abridged version. “St. Augustine did many bad things and rejected the faith but his mother St. Monica prayed for him always and eventually he came back to the church and was a Great Saint. The End.”  “St. Francis loved animals. The End.”  “St. Catherine convinced the Pope to move back to Rome. The End.”  All the complexities of these holy men and women have been left out, their sins forgotten, or made part of their back story, their mistakes ignored. Yet a closer knowledge of any one saint reveals a human being in all his complexity. Saints struggled with various vices. Saints have been personally holy yet held false opinions. The particular pieties of some saints strike us moderns as troubling even. There are myriad roads to sainthood and being declared a saint is not being declared perfect, either intellectually or morally. Saints are not impeccable or infallible.

Speaking of infallibility, some people seem to need a refresher course on it. For some it seems to mean that as soon as you become Pope you can do no wrong and nobody can express anything but complete admiration for every single action and word. For others it seems to be something dependent on whether the particular statement of the Pope is in keeping with their own (presumably infallible) opinion. These types grudgingly acknowledge Papal authority when absolutely necessary but expend a great deal of energy making sure they never give him any benefit of trust.

Consider Lumen Gentium 25:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.

Guess what falls under the Pope’s magesterial authority. Canonizations. Yup. The nature and degree of faith required, religious assent or the submission of faith, is debated but that we should not withhold assent is clear. So grumbling when someone is declared a saint is a dangerous path to walk down for the faithful Catholic. Just as grumbling about Popes is dangerous. It is OK to have favourite saints and saints you are less fond of. It is OK to question the wisdom of some words and actions of a Pope. However, both these things must be undertaken with respect for the office of the Papacy and the teaching authority of the church as a constant factor.

This day of four Popes can serve as a challenge. If even saints are fallible, if even saints are sinners in fact, then  surely we too are called to sainthood. Next we might take the opportunity to examine our own attitudes to the modern Popes, to stop seeing each Pope as in competition with the others rather than in continuity. To love Francis is not to betray Benedict. To love John XXIII is not to hate the Extraordinary Rite. To pray for the intercession of John Paul II is not to deny individual instances of clerical malfeasance that happened during his long reign over a vast hierarchy.

And finally, we might reaffirm our reverence for the Papacy itself, a divinely instituted office that has given us not only these four intellectual and moral giants but many more through the centuries. A position that has been held by good men, bad men, and great men but that through it all has been specially protected by the Holy Spirit, sometimes in magnificent, miraculous fashion. In the midst of all this Pope watching, we must never forget why we watch, what fuels our fascination: because Jesus Christ gave us a visible head with the keys to heaven in his possession.


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