The Return of the Canonized Popes

COMMENTARY: The upsurge in canonizations in recent decades is a reflection of the reality that another age of persecution is now underway.

The body of Pope St. Pius V in his tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore.
The body of Pope St. Pius V in his tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore. (photo: CC BY 2.0 / Public Domain)

For centuries after Pope St. Pius V, who died in 1572 and whose feast day was April 30, Catholics may well have thought that he was the last of a dwindling tribe, the canonized pope. 

That has changed dramatically in recent decades. Indeed, April 27 marked the 10th anniversary of the twin papal canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. The canonizations have returned because the age of persecution has returned. Pope Francis marked another anniversary recently that underscored that fact, two centuries since the death of Pope Pius VII.

In the first Christian centuries it was the norm for the pope to be canonized. Nearly all of the first 50 were, because martyrdom was the customary end to a pontificate in the age of persecution. Then papal martyrdoms — and canonizations — dropped off markedly.

The second millennium began with several popes raised to the altars in the 11th century: St. Leo IX, St. Gregory VII, Blessed Victor III, Blessed Urban II. The last three served consecutively. 

Then from 1100 to Pius V (1566-1572), there were only five papal saints and blesseds. After Pius V, it stopped entirely. The next papal beatification was in 1951, for Pope Pius X (1903-1914), who was then canonized in 1954.

That opened the gates. 

Pope Innocent XI (1676-1689) was beatified in 1956, and then Pius IX and John XXIII were beatified in 2000. Pope Paul VI was canonized in 2018 and Pope John Paul I was beatified in 2023. There is a cause open for Pope Pius VII, and Pope Pius XII has already been declared “Venerable.” 

Pope Francis himself joked about the return of the popes to the altars: “There are two Bishops of Rome who have recently become saints: John XXIII and John Paul II,” the Holy Father said in February 2018. “Paul VI will become one this year. One cause for beatification is underway, John Paul I; his cause is open. And Benedict and I are on the waiting list!”

Roman curialists given to mischievous humor observe that papal canonizations have built up so much momentum that it is only a matter of time before a pope canonizes himself! It would give a dramatically deeper meaning to the favored governing instrument of Pope Francis, the motu proprio, meaning “by his own initiative.” 

Pope Francis visited Venice on Sunday. Three patriarchs of Venice became pope in the 20th century: Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul I. The Church has declared them all to be in heaven.

Just a week before heading to Venice, Pope Francis welcomed a group of pilgrims to Rome marking the bicentenary of the death of Pope Pius VII (1800-1823), whose cause for canonization was opened in 2007.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789), anti-Catholic forces came to violently dominate French politics. Napoleon kidnapped Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) in Rome, and imprisoned him in France. He died in exile in 1799. Gregorio Chiaramonti was elected to succeed him in 1800, taking the name Pius VII.

Like his predecessor, Pius VII was taken by French forces in 1809 to be a prisoner in France. He remained there for five years, before returning to Rome in 1814.

“In the dramatic moment of his arrest, to those who offered him a way of escape from imprisonment in exchange for compromises regarding his pastoral responsibilities, Pius VII answered: Non debemus, non possumus, non volumus,” recalled Pope Francis.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? ‘We must not, we cannot, we will not,’ confirming, at the price of his personal freedom, what he had promised to do, with God’s help, on the day of his election.”

The arrest and long imprisonment of Pius VII marked a rise in the impact of the papacy on the universal Church — and eventually a return to papal beatifications and canonizations. 

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, given distance and communication, the pope was a distant figure for most Catholics. But the news — even if it traveled slowly — of Napoleon’s outrages against Pius VI and Pius VII stirred up sentiments of sympathy and loyalty to the papacy across the world. Five years of praying for an imprisoned pope served to awaken the historical memory of the first centuries, the age of persecution. 

As mass communications spread later in the 19th century, the cult of the papacy — including posthumous devotion — greatly increased. Renewed hostility from worldly principalities and powers restored the profile of martyrdom to the papacy. 

Pius IX briefly had to flee Rome to Gaeta in the face of invading forces. The conquest of the Papal States in 1870 began the “prisoner in the Vatican” phase of the papacy, which lasted nearly 60 years, until 1929. Pius IX’s successor, Leo XIII, never left the Vatican during his lengthy 25-year pontificate. 

The pope became not only the most famous Catholic in the world, but one consciously arrayed against hostile forces. A sort of “white” martyrdom returned to the Petrine office. The glory of the martyrs is found not upon an earthly throne but upon the altar of sacrifice. 

By the time of the beatification of Pius X in 1951, the entire Church was vividly aware that a new age of Christian martyrdom had been inaugurated by the 20th-century totalitarian regimes. Pius XII watched Nazi soldiers patrolling the border of St. Peter’s Square from his windows. John Paul II was nearly killed in St. Peter’s Square by communist forces in 1981.

Thus the stage was set for a return to papal canonizations. The papal saints have returned because, in part, the princely power of popes has eroded. Just as it was in the beginning, when election as pope was an invitation to martyrdom.

Matthew Heidenreich, one of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Perpetual Pilgrims, walks in prayer along the headwaters of the Mississippi River at the May 19 start of the Marian Route. Heidenreich and 23 other young adults will be praying on behalf of Catholics across the country on the two-month journey to Indianapolis.

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