You know what brackets are good for? Teaching my kids how to divide by two. My seven-year old glanced at the spreadsheet, saw that the results of the Sweet Sixteen matchups we’re in, and said, “Oh. There’s only eight left now.”
See? Seven years old. He’s a genius.
Eight Successors of Peter are left, and we get ever closer to determining who will be the greatest Pope of all time.
MATTHEW DIVISION HIGHLIGHTS:
John Paul II vs. Benedict IX
In a battle that surprised no one with its outcome, Blessed John Paul the Great easily bested Benedict IX. Benedict’s advance this far in the tournament was purely because of dumb luck and impossible circumstances, much like his acquisition of the Papacy over almost a thousand years ago. In fact, when finally pitted against a legitimate rival, Benedict pulls one of those cartoon tricks where he runs away so quickly that there’s just a Benedict-shaped cloud of dust in his wake.
Result: John Paul II, without even breaking a sweat.
MARK DIVISION HIGHLIGHTS:
Gregory I vs. Urban V
As the tournament advances, matchups against truly good men become more and more frequent. Holy Mother Church has been blessed with an abundance of dedicated servants, and these two men are no exception. Urban V was a strong supporter of education, founding and reforming numerous universities. He tried to get the Papacy to leave Avignon and return to Rome, but his influence was not strong enough to resist the power of the French Cardinals, who were anxious to keep the Papal seat in France. After just a short while, Urban V returned to France, and the “Babylonian Captivity” continued for another six years.
This matchup pitted Urban against Pope Gregory I, a.k.a. “Gregory the Great”. So it’s not too hard to see who’s going to come out on top of this round. Besides being so Great, he was raised by a saint – literally. (Gregory’s mom was an actual saint.) His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. This guy was groomed for greatness from infancy. He was declared to be “the last good Pope” by no other than John Calvin (not that we care what you think, John), and converted his family’s country estate into a monastery after his father’s death.
Gregory loved the monastic life so much that when he was elected Pope in 590, it was with a heavy heart that he left the contemplative life he preferred. However, following the will of God and not himself, Gregory served the Church as her earthly head, re-igniting missionary efforts in Northern Europe, giving the world the gift of Gregorian chant, and making reforms to the liturgy that are still present today.
The state of the Papacy was in shambles when Gregory took the seat. Under his leadership, he fixed Church finances, solidified power, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that care for the poor (in terms of the body, mind and spirit) was the Church’s primary concern. He made sure that the starving were fed, the naked clothed, and amassed a small “army” of monks to make daily deliveries of household items for people who were too infirm to get them of their own accord.
It was this tender concern for his flock that won the hearts and minds of the Roman people, and through Gregory’s leadership, they began to look to the Pope for protection and leadership, rather than secular heads of state.
Result: They didn’t call him “the Great” for nothing. Gregory I easily wins this round.
JOHN DIVISION HIGHLIGHTS:
Sixtus V vs. Paul III: “The Rumble of the Reformers”
The Protestant Reformation is the backdrop for this matchup, as we have two Popes who were tasked with the twin burdens of attempting to put down the Protestant heresies while identifying and implementing much needed reform within the Church herself.
Paul III found himself as the Successor of Peter less than 20 years after Luther’s “95 Theses” had been nailed to the door, and seven years after the Holy Roman Emperor had raped, burned, and desecrated his way through Rome. To say this was a man who faced a Church in crisis would be an understatement.
His response was decisive. Despite being rebuffed by both Protestant Heads of State, and his own Cardinals, he attempted dialogue again and again. He convened the Council of Trent, which set the stage for the Counter Reformation, and defined Church teachings on a number of important issues.
While not trying to prevent Christendom from unraveling, he was a promoter of the arts, commissioning Michelangelo to paint “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, Titian to paint the papal portrait, and various other sculptures and monuments.
His rival for this matchup, Sixtus V, took the seat of Peter during no less tumultuous a time. Criminals were terrorizing the Roman countryside, impeding travel, the Church’s finances were in a dismal state, and the Protestant Reformation was taking an ugly and bloody turn in England with Elizabeth I ramping up her persecution of Catholics.
Within a few years, Sixtus had more or less secured the countryside and instituted a massive overhaul of the Papal State’s finances, resulting in a tidy surplus, and had renewed the excommunication on Elizabeth. He began a number of public works, including improvement of water supplies and roadways in Rome and the surrounding areas.
In a move with lasting impact even to today, it was Sixtus who first articulated the Church’s protection of human life from the moment of conception. Contemporary thought was that a human fetus wasn’t ensouled until movement could be felt, so an abortion procured before that moment was of a lesser concern than ones after. Sixtus, recognizing the dignity of life at all stages, made no distinction in level of severity.
Result: In the toughest matchup yet, Paul III moves forward to the next round, owing to the significance of the Council of Trent.
LUKE DIVISION HIGHLIGHTS:
John XXIII vs. Pius XI
In the hotly contested John XXIII vs. Pius XI matchup that went into overtime, John XXIII proved to win a decisive victory. The Father of the New Evangelization, “Johnny Walker” himself moved on to face yet another Pius – this time, Pius IX.
Had our good and gracious God seen fit to give Good Pope John a longer Pontificate, this matchup would have played out differently. But in his unfathomable wisdom, he called John XXIII home less than five years into his reign, while Pius IX was asked to serve Holy Mother Church for the longest period in history- a staggering 32 years.
Pius IX filled those three decades with amazing accomplishments. He convened the First Vatican Council, which articulated the concept of Papal Infallibility, among other things. He defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He funded major archeological expeditions in Rome, which resulted in significant discoveries, including the need for restoration of the Christian catacombs under the city. He attempted to negotiate a middle ground for Poles living under the Russian-controlled annex. He struggled with many of Europe’s leaders, trying to prevent oppression of Catholics living in those countries, which won him few friends in government, but endeared him enormously to those he was trying to protect.
Result: We are given only the time we are given, and both Popes made exemplary use of their allotment. But, as much as it physically hurts me to type it, Pius IX goes on to the next round, as he was able to do more with the greater time he was given.