Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914)I have a personal devotion to this pope. From a very poor family, he was a diocesan priest and parish priest (pastor) before being made a bishop of Mantua and then Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. Being called to the episcopacy was something he never wanted and tried hard to resist being made bishop. As pope, he wanted to 'restore all things in Christ.' He made reforms to church music and the Gregorian chant. Out of his devotion to the Eucharist, he encouraged people to receive Holy Communion frequently and children to receive Holy Communion at an early age. He worked hard at the end of his life to call for a meeting of minds and hearts to avert the Great War.
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922)He deliberately took the name Benedict as a call to peace. He continued to work hard to call for peace in Europe and although this largely fell on deaf ears he worked on humanitarian efforts to bring relief to the suffering. He promulgated the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
Pope Pius XI (1922-1939)He wrote the encyclical ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ on the 40th anniversary of the ground-breaking social Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII called ‘Rerum Novarum’ Pope Pius stated that social and economic policies are important to the Church from a moral point of view. More and more he encouraged lay participation in the church and founded the Catholic Action movement. He died some months before the beginning of the Second World War.
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958)Before he became pope, Pius XII worked in the Vatican’s Dept. of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and then became Apostolic Nuncio to all of the German Empire. He was Cardinal Secretary of State to Pope Pius XI. He was elected pope quickly after one ballot and took the name Pius. Pius XII’s pontificate spanned the years of World War II and the years following when Europe was divided between east and west. In 1937 he published the encyclical ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ written not in Latin but in German. It condemned the paganism of the National Socialism ideology.
Blessed Pope John XXIII (1958-1963)A well-loved and human pope, John changed the style of the papacy with his informality and sense of humour. He announced (to the shock of many in his inner-circle) a Synod for Rome and an Ecumenical Council of the whole Church. This was to be known as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) He also wrote a heartfelt and powerful encyclical called Pacem in Terris. This was as a response to the fear of Atomic War between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R in 1962. For the first time, an encyclical was addressed not just to the Cardinals, Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops etc. But to; “All men of good will.” Blessed Pope John XXIII will be canonised a Saint on April 27th this year.
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978)Pope Paul VI, like Pius XII rose through the ranks of the Vatican Diplomatic Service. Shortly after his election, he worked to complete Vatican II. He was the first Pope to travel abroad and travel in an aeroplane. He met with and prayed with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem in 1964 and this led to the lifting by both Churches of their mutual excommunications and the ending of the Great Schism between East and West. He became the first pope to travel, very briefly, to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he made the plea; “War never again.” Interestingly, Peter Hebbelthwaite wrote in his biography of Paul VI that the moment he died in August 1978, the “Polish alarm-clock went off!” (He had a polish alarm-clock beside his bed from his days in the Diplomatic Service)
Pope John Paul I (August 1978-September 1978)His papacy had lasted only a month when he was found dead. He will be remembered as having a beaming smile and being known as the ‘smiling pope.’
Blessed Pope John Paul II (1978-2005)He was the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years and the first Slav. His was one of the longest papacies in history and he made a huge contribution to the church, to the world and to the fall of the Berlin Wall for example. He travelled the world to 129 different countries and was seen in person by millions of people. Pope John Paul suffered an assassination attempt in 1981 and was very badly injured but recovered and in 1983 he visited his attacker, Turkish gunman, Mahmet Ali Agca, in prison. As the years went on, we saw this pope who was an accomplished skier, kyaker, and mountaineer grow old and frail before our eyes. Eventually he even lost his ability to speak. He died on April 2nd 2005 and will be canonized a saint in April this year along with Blessed John XXIII. For me, Pope John Paul taught us all that we are called not just to be ‘good Christians’ we are called to be Saints.
Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013)Pope Benedict, a Bavarian, was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during most of the papacy of Pope John Paul. As pope, his first papal encyclical was on love, entitled ‘Deus Caritas Est’ which surprised many people who perhaps stereotyped him from his time as the Vatican’s guardian of doctrine. He surprised us even more this time last year when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign the papacy. He lives in the Vatican as ‘Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.’
Pope Francis (2013 –The first pope from the ‘New World’ and a Jesuit, he took the name Francis and this would be the first pointer to his simple and humble style of papacy. He chose not to move into the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican preferring instead to live at the Casa Sancta Marta – the Vatican Guest House. Many would agree that this papacy too will surprise us.
The Shoes of PeterOn reflecting on the popes, while they all brought different styles to their papacies, I believe they never lost sight of their ultimate focus for the Church, and this was to preach Jesus Christ. They were men of holiness and intense prayer who led by example and, especially as world travel became more and more easy, like Paul the Apostle, they left the Vatican and came to meet the people where they were at. A case in point is Pope John Paul II who circumnavigated the globe something like 30 times or more than one million, two hundred thousand kilometres (750 thousand miles)
Any rock star would love to have the access to the masses that a pope has. Pope John Paul II regularly offered Mass in the presence of millions of people and for example, in Manila in the Philippines before some 4 million people in 1995. While there will be some media coverage of a new religious leader in some other Churches or Faith group, there is nothing like the wall-to-wall coverage of a papal funeral or a papal conclave and election. This was evidenced by the blanket coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the Election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Similar scenes greeted the resignation of Pope Benedict and the Election of Pope Francis last year. News organisations and satellite vans decamp to Rome to make sure they don’t miss the breaking news and the Sistine Chapel ‘chimney watch.’Pope Francis is about to celebrate a year as Pope and what a year it has been for the Church. He has made the cover of Time magazine and has been made their 2013 Person of the Year. While Rolling Stone magazine has stars like Bono, Eminem, Justin Bieber, Miley, David Bowie, and Rihanna on their covers, Pope Francis has also made the cover of the magazine too. More important than the coverage and the media profile, fundamentally, Pope Francis is a man of God whose priority is to lead us all to Jesus Christ. As they say; watch this space.