Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
I’ve written before in these pages about how for centuries there were no popes in the modern era who were canonized except Pope St. Celestine in 1315, and then Pope Pius V in 1712. However in the 20th century, we have four canonized popes (Sts. Pius X, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II), and two others (Vens. Pius XII and John Paul I) whose causes are under consideration.
Which raises the question: what happened to all those other popes? Surely there were some good and holy men, no?
In fact, yes, — five of whom are en route to the altars, should Holy Mother Church deign it, as Blesseds or Servants of God:
Blessed Benedict XI
(Pope from Oct. 22, 1303, to July 7, 1304)
A very short pontificate, yes, and a tumultuous one, coming on the heels of the high-handed Boniface VIII (who had so many statues of himself erected he was accused of heresy). Benedict was a member of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), still a “new” mendicant order at the time. He was so fond of his brother Dominicans that the only three cardinals he ever appointed all belonged to that order. Sickly, saintly and scholarly, Benedict did his best to calm the friction between the interminable wars between the powerful Roman Colonna family and King Philip IV of France, who demanded a post-mortem denunciation of Boniface VIII. Blessed Benedict wasn’t very successful in either of these ventures, but he did revoke his predecessor’s bull which had restricted Dominicans and Franciscans from preaching and hearing confessions. He died July 7, 1304, and he was beatified by Pope Clement XII in 1736.
Blessed Innocent XI
(Pope from Sept. 21, 1676, to Aug. 12, 1689)
Like Benedict above, Innocent was of poor health. Unlike Benedict, he legged out his pontificate for 13 years, during which time he encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion (still something of an innovation in the post-Council of Trent era), placed budget cuts on papal spending, demanded a careful discernment when selecting priests and bishops, insisted that monastic vows be kept, and implored the Cardinals to ban nepotism—which they failed to do.
Failure in Rome, though, led to success abroad: Pope Innocent, along with the three-headed Holy League of Venice, Poland, and Russia, pushed back the Turks and recovered Belgrade in 1688, liberated Hungary in 1686, and stopped the siege of Vienna on Sept. 11, 1683. Though his cause was introduced in 1691, Innocent was not beatified until 1956 by Pope Pius XII.
Servant of God Benedict XIII
(Pope from May 29, 1724, to Feb. 21, 1730)
Like Benedict XI, Benedict XIII was a member of the Dominicans. Oddly, he retained the bishopric of Benevento even once elected pope, but continued to visit both dioceses, personally administering the sacraments, consecrating churches and leading catechetical instructions. He vigorously condemned the heresy of Jansenism in his bull Unigenitus (1713). Though elderly when elected at age 75, Benedict maintained the monk-like ascetical lifestyle he’d always led. He canonized the great Carmelite Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, and the young Jesuit St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Though no one could find fault with his personal sanctity or well-meant intentions, his holding of the Diocese of Benevento (while simultaneously being the Bishop of Rome) caused much disdain for him from the Romans upon his death. His cause hasn’t moved much since he was declared a Servant of God.
Servant of God Pius VII
(March 14, 1800, to July 20, 1823)
Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonte studied under the Benedictines and the monastic severity he was exposed to would later serve him well. He was, in a way, a bit of an iconoclast: he shockingly (for the time, and for a pope) declared that democracy and Christianity were not necessarily inimical, and on the political front was able to kick the Austrians and the Neopolitans out of the papal states—which was no small feat. He was less successful in obtaining peace with Germany, Italy and, worst of all, France. To this end, he personally attended Napoleon Bonaparte’s meretricious and gaudy self-coronation in Paris itself, thinking that it would help relations between the Church and France, Bonaparte and himself.
It did not.
Their relationship—it might be better termed a “rivalry”—deteriorated quickly, with the French Emperor annexing the remains of the papal states, and Rome itself. Not content with the land, Napoleon had Pius himself arrested and put into isolation as his prisoner. Napoleon shipped the prisoner-pope around to Fontainebleau, then to Savona, and finally, thinking “the papacy is dead,” released Pius, who re-entered Rome on March 24, 1814.
The blowback on this was severe for all involved: Pius’s health was in shambles, but Napoleon, too was imprisoned on Elba—though he escaped to wreak havoc on the rest of Pius life—and that of Pius’s successor.
When Pius VI died a prisoner (at Valence), Napoleon proudly proclaimed that he had been “the last pope.” But there was almost a worldwide outpouring of sympathy for Pius, and respect for how he stood up to the miniature tyrant who had ravaged all of Europe. In a stroke of genius, Pius had left careful instructions for how a papal conclave should be held in emergency conditions. These were carried out and the papacy continued to fight (and ultimately defeat) Napoleon’s cult of personality.
Blessed Pius IX
(June 16, 1846, to Feb. 7, 1878)
“Pio Nono,” if nothing else, was the longest reigning pope of all time—nearly 33 years. An entire generation grew up knowing no other pope. He was declared Blessed along with John XXIII by St. John Paul the Great, and perhaps a greater disparity between two popes could not be imagined. John reigned only five years; Pio Nono sextupled that. Where St. John was known as “Johnnie Walker” for his impromptu tours around Rome, Pio Nono declared himself a “Prisoner of the Vatican” and never left it after 1871. Where John (as a nuncio) had developed good relations with Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and France, Pius IX wound up losing the papal states at home, and abroad seemingly couldn’t cultivate an ally.
However, stepping back, Pius IX’s papacy was an important one, and not just for its longevity. He founded more than 200 new dioceses, most importantly in the United States and the British colonies, and managed to restore the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem. Further, he centralized the papacy, cutting through much of the curial red tape and getting things done.
And of all his many achievements—including consecrating the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in June 1875—perhaps the most important and far-reaching was the definition of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, promulgated on Dec. 8, 1854.
Pius IX also convened the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), whose crowning achievement was the decretal Pastor Aeternus and its teaching on papal infallibility.
He was pope for so long that it is rumored one of the cardinals complained, “I thought we had elected a Holy Father—not an Eternal Father!”