I did mention at the start of this series that I wasn’t a sports fan, right? And that when my husband puts anything vaguely athletic on the TV, I swear space and time freeze in place?
Clearly, all I needed to be interested in sports was to have all the sports figures replaced with historical figures, because this Pope Madness tournament is the first time any brackets have ever held my attention- with the sole exception of the scene in “Karate Kid” where Daniel San advances through the ranks.
We’re now left with eight Popes, and not a single Daniel San among them, but I can forgive them that based on their massive accomplishments.
Pope Cornelius vs. Pope John Paul II
January, 250 A.D., Rome. The persecutions of followers of a Nazarene carpenter are escalated, with the government requiring all citizens to require concrete proof of their allegiance to the Roman religion, or else face death. Many early Christians, fearing for their lives and the lives of their family, chose to pretend a false devotion to a false religion.
A year later, when the head of state had been replaced, and restrictions on religious observations not so dire, the matter arose of how the Church should respond to people who had denied Christ out of fear and pressure, but wanted to make amends and return to the flock.
Two schools of thought arose in answer to this question. On the one side were those who believed that people who had fallen away from the Church required rebaptism before gaining access to the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist again. On the other side, championed by Pope Cornelius, was the thought that the penitents needed only to avail themselves of Confession, then access to the Eucharist was restored.
It was this type of articulation of God’s boundless Mercy that paved the way for someone like Pope John Paul II, who, 1700 years later, worked tirelessly to draw the whole world closer to God’s heart of forgiveness and love.
Result: the brief two years Cornelius served as Pope cannot be overlooked, but they are overshadowed by the enormous presence of John Paul II, who goes on to the Final Four.
Pope Gregory I vs. Pope Pius X
Gregory the Great, who was the first to coin the phrase “Servant of the Servants of God” in describing the role of the Pontiff, lived as he spoke. He was a champion of the poor, he felt so strongly about the missionary efforts in pre-Christian England that he personally set out to convert the country, and though he longed to return to the peace of the contemplative life of the monastery, he stayed fully present in the world of politics and war and confusion that needed him so badly.
1300 years after Gregory sought to spread Christianity through Europe, Pius X fought to keep it there. A strong adversary of the moral relativism he saw spreading through the world, the focus of Pius’ Pontificate was less about the Church reaching out to the world and more about sanctifying the daily lives of Catholics.
To this end, Pius saw to improvements in seminary curriculum, publishing the first Code of Canon Law, and encouraging the practice of daily reception of the Eucharist. He urged the faithful to frequently avail themselves of the Sacrament of Confession, and lowered the age of First Communion from twelve to seven years old.
Result: In a matchup of saints, there’s not really a loser. However, for his efforts to encourage a Sacrament-rich life for all Catholics, Pius X goes on to the next round.
Pope Pius IX vs. Pope Benedict XV
Both men served as Pope under the specter of war. Pius, who lost the Papal States in 1860, saw all of Western Europe erupt in revolution after revolution. Benedict XV was faced with the same problem but on a global level, as World War I played out with devastating results, despite his heroic efforts to bring peace among nations.
Benedict XV continued the world resisting secularism and relativism that his predecessor , Pius X championed, but he softened some of the harder lines that the previous Pope had drawn.
Result: Often overlooked, Benedict XV moves on to the next round for his heroic efforts to bring peace to a world hell bent on destroying itself through war.
Pope Innocent XI vs. Pope Paul III
Though Innocent made necessary reforms to the Church’s government, including strict prohibitions against nepotism and the cessation of forced baptism of Jewish children, it is still the Counter Reformation started by the Pope who came a century before him that the world remembers. Paul’s patronage of the arts and development of the Church’s anti-slavery stance also help tip the scales in his favor.
Result: Paul III