Benedict XV, Paul III, John Paul II, and Pius X: who will make it to the championship round?
Pope Benedict XV vs. Pope Paul III
God gives His Church the right Pope at the right time. And though it would difficult to find immediate virtues in a Pontiff like, say, Benedict IX, we can at least be thankful that he wasn’t holding the Chair of Peter in the years immediately following Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis.
Paul III was the Pope God gave us during that time, and while certain aspects of his life are troublesome to the faithful (fathering four children and his comfort with the resulting nepotism spring to mind), there can be no doubt that Paul responded to the Protestant rebellion with due attention and gravity. He made numerous attempts to bring religious and political leaders together to discuss the issue. He had a piercing report on the abuses in the Church compiled, along with a series of recommendations for means to correct these problems. His efforts culminated in his convening the Council of Trent, which would pave the way for the Counter-Reformation and an explosion in new religious orders and societies.
Though he was unable to stem the tide of Protestantism, he did make sure the wheels of Church reform were put into motion.
As a young boy, Benedict XV showed a desire to enter the priesthood, but his father forbid him to do so, requiring his son to study law instead. Following his father’s wishes, the future Pope earned a law degree, again asked his father for permission to enter the priesthood, and was reluctantly given permission.
Obedience to his father’s rule served Benedict well, for while still only a priest, he helped negotiate a peace settlement in a land dispute between Spain and Germany. He also organized extensive relief efforts following a cholera outbreak, and these twin gifts of negotiation and humanitarian efforts, would be the hallmark of Benedict’s papacy.
Elected September of 1914, two months after the outbreak of World War I, Benedict called the war “the suicide of civilized Europe”, and tried heroically to negotiate peace among nations.
Germany and France both rejected his efforts, and so Benedict turned his attention to easing the massive human suffering that resulted. Benedict successfully negotiated prisoner transfers, relocation of civilians, treatment of POWs, and managed a flow of information designed to help track down missing persons.
He was particularly concerned with the plight of children, organizing famine relief efforts for children in numerous war-torn countries. Even after the war, he kept an eye on peace and rebuilding of diplomatic ties, despite being cut out of the peace process.
Result: Had Benedict XV been Pope in the opening years of the Protestant Reformation, his tireless work on behalf of peace and unification may have resulted in a different ending. As it was, his war efforts were a shining example of bringing Christ’s light to a darkened world, and so he advanced to the finals.
Pope Pius X vs. Pope John Paul II
Pius X was a Pope who was deeply concerned with the preservation of the Catholic faith in the face of a growing spirit of secularization and nationalism. From the oppression of the Polish Catholics under the twin pressures of Tsar Nicholas and the Russian Orthodox Church to the loss of the Papal States, Pius’ dealings with secular governments were marked by tension.
In his attempt to shore up the Faith against a world that was attempting to make it increasingly irrelevant, Pius X focused on the activities of daily life. He re-iterated a number of guidelines regarding the Sacrament of Marriage, including instructions on how children of religiously mixed marriages should be raised. He crafted an “Oath Against Modernism” which restated a number of dogmatic beliefs of the Faith, and required all clergy take it. He mandated each parish hold catechism classes under the office of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and published a concise Catechism of Pius X to aid the faithful in learning about the Church.
However, two actions stand out as shining examples of Pius’ desire to help all Catholics remain on the path to Heaven. The first, which was considered a scandalous decision at the time, was to encourage daily reception of the Eucharist among the laity. So focused was he on the importance of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, that he referred to it as “the shortest and safest way to Heaven”.
The second gift Pius X gave the Church was the lowering of age of First Holy Communion. He had long wanted to lower the age, as a means of both inspiring the youth and highlighting the importance of parental roles in religious education. However, like a humble servant of Christ, he prudently waited for a divine sign to assure him that he was furthering the Kingdom of God, and not simply pushing through his own agenda.
That sign came in the form a fragile little orphan from Ireland. When Pius X heard about the extraordinary love and reverence four-year old Ellen Organ displayed for our Eucharistic Lord, he knew this was the sign he’d asked for. The minimum age for reception of Holy Communion was lowered from twelve to seven.
This love and attention to the religious experience of children wasn’t limited to Ellen Organ. Pius X always had a special place in his heart for little ones, and two of the alleged miracles that were attributed to him during his lifetime involved children.
John Paul II’s papacy was lived out larger-than-life through television, print media, and extensive world travel. It is Pope John Paul II, probably more than any other Pontiff in this tournament, who directly impacted the life of anyone reading this article.
The threat of Modernism, the effects of which on the Church Pius X worked so faithfully to reduce, had not disappeared by John Paul’s pontificate. However, the 264th Pope was up to the challenge, and stood firm in Church teachings, even when they were unpopular and misunderstood to the secular world.
As a tonic to an increasingly venomous response to the Church, John Paul II issued a “Universal call to Holiness”, which took concrete form in a multitude of beatifications, the accessible and dignified teachings of the Theology of the Body, a view for ecumenism that strove to improve relations among all people of faith, and a charismatic model of Christian discipleship for the world to witness.
John Paul’s role in the downfall of dictatorial regimes of Chile, Haiti, and Paraguay have been meticulously documented, as well as his contributions to the end of Communism in the former Soviet Union. His care and concern for all people living under oppressive forms of rule was unflinching, and it inspired others to live courageously and resist governments that would deny the basic dignity of human life.
Faced with a world whose weariness seemed even heavier due to the increased accessibility of communication among all people, John Paul II was particularly gifted in his ability to find common ground between people, groups, and governments that seemed irreconcilable.
Result: This miserable sinner who credits her conversion to the intercession of John Paul II, who prayed her, kicking and screaming, into the merciful arms of the Church, says that it is Blessed John Paul the Great who advances to the finals.
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