By today’s standards, it may seem hard to believe that over two centuries went by without a single pope being named a saint: St. Pius V (1504-1572) was raised to the altars on May 17, 1712, but not until St. Pius X (1835-1914) was canonized on May 29, 1954, did another Roman Pontiff join him.

I say that this seems difficult to believe since, looking backward at the 20th century, we have a trove of pope-saints, or popes en route to sainthood:

  • St. John Paul II
  • Venerable Servant of God John Paul I
  • Blessed (soon to be Saint) Paul VI
  • St. John XXIII
  • Venerable Servant of God Pius XII
  • And of course, St. Pius X.

That leaves only two popes elected this past century who are not being considered for sainthood (at least not yet). Who were these two outliers, and where do they fit in amongst the Venerable, Blessed and Sainted predecessors and successors to the throne of St. Peter?


Benedict XV

Upon the death of Pope St. Pius X in 1914, Cardinal Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa was elected Pope Benedict XV. He had been a cardinal for only three months at the time of his elevation to the papacy. He was thrust into the thoroughly unenviable and unwinnable task of (1) trying to contain the madness of World War I—in which all sides were claiming “God was with us,” and (2) trying to hasten a world peace. For this last effort he was constantly ridiculed as a “meddler” while at the same time derided for not taking a side in the worst war the world had known up until that point. Finally, he declared that the Holy See was absolutely neutral, much to the chagrin of all the combatants, thus making enemies for the Catholic Church (and himself) while trying to restore order in Europe.

Benedict’s “restoration of order” — the way things had been in Europe for at least a few hundred years — wasn’t to be. In addition to the Great War, the Russian Revolution not only overturned a centuries-long monarchy, but unleased atheistic Communism across the largest country in the world. Also, in the postwar era, Benedict had to contend with a clutch of other former empires: Austro-Hungary was toppled (thus ending the Hapsburg Empire), as was Germany and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Great Britain was beginning to show signs of dry-rot.

In short, Benedict had a New World Order on his hands, along with a bunch of new countries (born out of the death of the expansive Austro-Hungarian Empire and the spread-too-thin Ottoman empire) that, more or less, had growing pains.

Worse, at home, Benito Mussolini had (on Nov. 7, 1922) proclaimed himself “Il Duce,” and thus Fascism was born right in the pope’s backyard.

Adding insult to injury: the Pope was not invited to join Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations — though ironically the Pope backed the idea — which had pledged itself to “World Peace,” and preventing another “Great War.”

Given the fact that Europe had nearly killed itself — indeed Benedict XV called World War I “the suicide of civilized Europe” — and that the postwar version of the Continent was literally a disaster area, it’s amazing that Benedict got anything at all accomplished, since his attempts at peace had been swatted away like so many summertime flies. But he did.

In the Church he finished the first codification of canon law in centuries, which had been begun by his predecessor St. Pius X. However, Benedict’s greatest legacy was in mission work: having been groomed for the Vatican Noble Ecclesiastic Corps, he’d worked as a diplomat in Spain, and, later, did much to repair the damage done between Church and state in France. Benedict encouraged missionaries in his encyclical Maximum Illud, which stressed that the thrust of the missionary was not about sententious proselytizing, but growing a new and native church — wherever that Church may be.

Benedict hoped against all hope for a reconciliation with the Christian Churches of the East — he felt that the fall of Russia and the Ottoman Empire would hasten this — but it was not to be. Nor was he able to solve the seemingly intractable “Roman Problem” — that is, how the Pope could stop being a Prisoner of the Vatican.

He was a short, disfigured, oddly discolored man who walked with a noticeable limp. His pontificate was among the shortest—barely seven and a half years. However, Pope Benedict XV stands tall, even among his sainted successors (not for nothing did Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger take the name of “Benedict XVI”)


Pius XI

The immediate successor to Benedict XV is also the only other 20th-century pope not en route to Sainthood: Pope Pius XI. Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti (1857-1939) seems, at first blush, almost a welter of contradictions: he was the Prefect of the Vatican Library and the Papal Librarian—but also an avid mountain-climber. He began by believing Mussolini to be the best thing for the still-newly-unified Italy—only to denounce Il Duce and his Fascist regime within a few years. Pius had two extremely-qualified Secretaries of State whom he leaned on (Cardinals Gaspari and Pacelli), yet overall he was a bit authoritarian and actually reduced the role of the College of Cardinals. He possessed three doctorates and was fluent in several languages, but instead of being a pope-theologian, he was thrust into the role of being a pope-diplomat, trying with all his skill to avert what was to become the sequel to the Great War: World War II. His efforts exhausted him and he died on the eve of WWII.

In a sense, Pius XI was ultimately a pragmatic man, one who — ably assisted by Cardinals Gaspari and Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII)—was able to settle “the Roman Question”: that is, he oversaw the creation of the Vatican City-State as we know it today and its independence from (but with continuing influence on) Italy. He broke with a half-century tradition and gave his “Urbi et Orbi” blessing from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica—thus presaging the day that the Pope would no longer be a “prisoner” of the Vatican.

Pius was the first pope to use radio and was not afraid of scientific advances—indeed he embraced them to the point of establishing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936, which admitted scientists from many different countries.

Pius, despite all his book-learning, was not one to back down from a fight and when it came to dealing with Adolf Hitler, who had in the meantime all but torn up the concordat Cardinal Pacelli had hammered out. He penned one of the most damning documents on Fascism/Nazism, “Mit brennender sorge” (“With Searing Anxiety”).

Like Benedict XV, Pius was completely committed to the Church’s missionary activity, going so far as to require that every religious congregation engage in some sort of missionary work. He personally consecrated several native Chinese bishops in 1926, and then a native Japanese bishop the following year, along with native priests for India.

In sheer numbers Pius grew the Church from 9 million Catholics in missionary lands to 21 million at the time of his death.

Church historian Eamon Duffy sums up Pius XI as having “Not a liberal bone in his body. He distrusted democratic politics as too weak to defend the religious truth which underlay all true human community. He thought the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain feeble and smug and no match for the tyrannies he confronted [here, Pius was 100 percent right!]. He loathed the greed of Capitalist society, and thought that liberal capitalism shared with Communism a ‘satanic optimism’ about human progress.”

Pius was not only a man of his time, but a man ahead of his time—his views on both Communism and Capitalism (let alone Fascism)—were all shared by the future Pope St. John Paul II the Great.

Both Benedict XV and Pius XI may not be Saints—or even “Servants of God,” for that matter—but their pontificates surely paved the way for the many saintly popes who followed their Christ-like leads.