Each pope has left his imprint on the church and world

Father John A. Kiley

Guess the author of the following quote: “We see faith, the root of all the Christian virtues, lessening in many souls; we see charity growing cold; the young generation daily growing in depravity of morals and views; the Church of Jesus Christ attacked on every side by open force or by craft; a relentless war waged against the sovereign pontiff; and the very foundations of religion undermined with a boldness which waxes daily in intensity.

These things are, indeed, so much a matter of notoriety that it is needless for us to expatiate on the depths to which society has sunk in these days.”

No, these words are not from a column of mine from a few years ago, nor do these phrases belong to some elderly archbishop in today’s secularized world. These thoughts were collected by Pope Leo XIII in 1889! So the good old days that are remembered as producing plenty of priests and religious, when Masses were full, when kids knew their catechism, when nickels and dimes built magnificent churches, were perhaps not the religious Golden Age that modern generations assume.

The 21st century Catholic has completely forgotten the anti-clericalism, the anti-Catholicism, the cultural struggle, that consumed the 19th century in much of the Western world. Religious orders were regularly expelled from formerly Catholic countries such as France. Germany did its best to squeeze the Catholic Church out of public life. A uniting Italy saw the pope and his territories as the enemy. At the beginning of the century, Catholics still could not hold office in England. Convents were burned in America. Very early in the century, Pope Pius VII had been kidnapped by Napoleon. An angry mob attempted to throw the body of Pope Pius IX into the Tiber. Times were tough.

But then, in 1889, Pope Leo XIII, formally nominated St. Joseph, the spouse of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus, as patron of the universal church. Since that time, the church, especially in the persons of our Holy Fathers, has grown immeasurably in respect and esteem. Pope Leo XIII is well- remembered for his enlightened response to the Industrial Revolution. His thoughts on social justice were much ahead of their time. His successor, St. Pius X, had a tremendous influence on liturgical practice, on preserving the supernatural in a modernist era, and on renewing Canon Law. Pope Benedict XV actively worked for peace during World War I, arranging prisoner exchanges and outlining cogent peace proposals. He was keenly interested in the Eastern churches. Pope Pius XI finally settled the tension between Italy and the Vatican State. He made insightful statements about marriage and family planning. And he did speak out about Nazism, in spite of any claims to the contrary, and wrote very powerfully about Communism. Pope Pius XII will certainly rival his successors as the theologically most influential pope of the 20th century. Practically all the seeds of Vatican II were quietly sowed during Pope Pius XII’s pontificate. The renewal of Holy Week, the proclamation of the Assumption, pronouncements on medical matters, among many others, show this Pontiff’s mastery of liturgical, doctrinal and moral theology, and he was not a friend of the Nazis.

Pope John XXIII was undeniably a breath of fresh air within the Vatican City and throughout the universal church. His jovial disposition pleased the masses and his calling of Vatican II pleased many awakening voices within the church. While socially liberal, he was also firm in safeguarding church tradition, for which he is given little credit. Pope Paul VI presided over an age of increased liberalism, both within and without the church. Yet his decrees on ecumenism, family planning, and priestly celibacy are courageously prophetic. Pope John Paul II’s influence on the world at large and especially on Eastern Europe cannot be underestimated. But his theology of the body, whose depths are still being plumbed, will probably prove to be his greatest legacy. Certainly Pope Benedict XVI is a worthy successor to these supreme ecclesiastical divines.

St. Joseph has fostered the life of the church during this past century and a quarter with the same vigor with which he protected the Holy Family. Progress has not been uneventful, but it has been enduring.