Since bursting onto the global stage in March (as much as any Argentine cardinal can burst), Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention in a way that previously didn’t seem possible for the Roman Pontiff.
Francis has made it cool to be Pope again.
He speaks off the cuff, he encourages people to help the poor, he kisses babies, he plans to drive his own used car around Vatican City. A few weeks ago, he called a man whose brother had been murdered, hoping to console him. He has seemingly pulled the Catholic Church out of last decade’s sexual abuse scandal-fueled tailspin.
Put simply, Pope Francis is great.
Taking a cursory glance at history, most people think it’s hard to find a pope who can compare with Francis. If you ask the average person, they’d probably assume that, outside of Francis, there hasn’t been a whole lot of positive papal press. For example, Showtime was profiting from the fictionalized exploits of the Bishop of Rome for the last few years with its show The Borgias.
But Francis isn’t the first great pope, and though he certainly deserves recognition, it’s important to recognize that there were other holy men who lead the Catholic Church and did noble, bold and even heroic things. You don’t even have to leave the 20th century to find other great popes. While evangelicals might differ with Catholics on a theological level, many popes throughout history have provided awesome examples of courage, compassion and selflessness throughout history.
In 1908, the Italian city of Messina was obliterated as a result of an earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. This little-known historical event is considered to be the worst natural disaster in Europe’s history, with over 72,000 people killed, and many thousands of survivors displaced. Pope Pius X decided to act before the Italian government could, opening the Apostolic Palace (his living quarters) to 400 orphans and refugees.
This incredible act of charity has been overshadowed by World War I, but Pius X’s proven love for the poor was a major reason why he was the first pope to be declared a saint in the Catholic Church in over 300 years.
When Pius X died on the eve of World War I, the Church was in need of a bold diplomat to try to broker peace among the warring nations. Shortly after Benedict XV was elected in 1914, he described the Great War as “perhaps the saddest and most mournful spectacle of which there is any record.”
Even though his calls for an end to the bloodshed fell on deaf ears, his humanitarian work saved countless lives. Wounded prisoners of war were exchanged between nations, and food supplies were sent to needy countries after the war had ended.
Pius XI, who succeeded Benedict XV in 1922, took a proactive approach against one of the century’s greatest terrors, Nazi Germany. Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”) was drafted by Pius XI and read in churches throughout Germany on Palm Sunday in 1937.
Written in German instead of the customary Latin, the letter (which had to be smuggled into Germany without the knowledge of the Nazis) dashed any hope of a fascism-friendly pope. Pius XI unequivocally pronounced that Hitler’s National Socialism was incompatible with Christianity. A pope speaking out against the politics of one country is unusual, but Pius XI did just that.
In 2009, the Vatican declared that Eugenio Pacelli, who succeeded Pius XI as Pope Pius XII, was Venerable, two stops short of sainthood. Controversy has been quick to follow Pius XII since his death, as there have been more than a few authors eager to criticize Pius XII and his perceived “silence” during World War II.
In the aftermath of his predecessor’s Mit Brennender Sorge (which Pius XII helped to write), the Church in Germany was persecuted, with many religious brothers and priests arrested on trumped up charges. With World War II lingering like a threat on the horizon, Pius XII was confronted with two difficult options: He could loudly and frequently denounce the Nazis, causing more pain to Christians in Germany, or he could work in secret and speak out sparingly.
He chose the latter. Pius still spoke out against Hitler’s policies, most clearly in the 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatus, but he also worked quietly to secure the safety of thousands of Jewish people. Vatican diplomats across Europe sought to help persecuted peoples escape the clutches of Nazis.
In the eyes of historians, it might be easier to say that Pius XII was not great, as he did not vehemently and consistently speak out against the mass murder of the Jewish people. But Pius was great precisely because he picked a different method. He knew that the possibility of expanded Catholic persecution was likely with every denunciation he uttered, so Pius chose the humble path, one that very likely saved innumerably more lives than if he had spoken out more loudly.
John Paul II
When you speak of greatness and popes, it’s important to point out that there was a movement to label Pope John Paul II “the Great” after he died. There’s no formal process to calling someone “the Great.” It’s like a nickname; it just happens. But it’s tough to argue with the title, as history bears it out.
Every Pope in the 20th century opposed Communism, but John Paul II was able to fight the war on the ground. He battled the communists in Poland daily when he was a priest and bishop there, and he stood up against communism on the global level. He spoke to the United Nations, he met with Soviet President Gorbachev and he preached a spiritual revolution. Pope John Paul II is slated to be the first pope to be canonized as a saint since Pius X, and he is certainly worthy of saintly veneration.
There is a reason that one of the pope’s titles is Servant of the Servants of God. The Bishops of Rome do not seek worldly affirmation, but only to serve. Francis, like so many of his brothers before him, has had greatness thrust upon him.
Matt Vaughan can be founding writing long thoughts at Much Vaughanted, and writing much shorter thoughts on Twitter @mpvaughan.