A Tale of Two Long-Serving Popes: John Paul II and Leo XIII

On March 16 (or a few days earlier depending on how you count leap years), Pope John Paul II passed Pope Leo XIII on the list of longest-serving popes. At 25 years, five months, John Paul has been on Peter's throne for longer than anyone else, save for Blessed Pius IX (31 years, seven months) and the Apostle himself.

The occasion is a good time to look back at Leo, for in this pontificate one can hear the echoes of Leo a century before.

The dates for Leo and John Paul are themselves suggestive. Leo was elected in 1878, in the aftermath of Vatican I, and faced hostility to the Church in Italy, France and Germany. John Paul was elected exactly 100 years later, in the aftermath of Vatican II, and faced a Europe in which the Church was persecuted along the length of the Iron Curtain.

The dominant political question of Leo's time was the “Roman question.” The 1870 reunification of the Italian state had been accomplished along anticlerical lines, and the Holy See was not prepared to recognize the legitimacy of the new republic. At the same time, the practical question about sovereignty over the former Papal States had to be worked out, as did the independence of the Holy See.

Yet facing all that, Leo did something notable. Early in his pontificate, in 1879, he wrote one of his most important encyclicals, devoting it to the renewal of philosophy according to the light of St. Thomas Aquinas (Aeterni Patris, 1879). This was not an abstract matter; Leo diagnosed that the “bitter strifes of these days” were the consequence not of wicked kings or ambitious revolutionaries but of “false conclusions concerning divine and human things that have originated in the schools of philosophy.”

Philosophical Popes

Leo was content to heap condemnations on the predations of the late 19th-century European powers, but he did not think that another, better congress of Vienna would be the solution to Europe's strife and the Church's difficulties. Leo saw that the crisis was philosophical in nature and needed the response of Christian philosophy.

Leo could not have imagined that a Thomistic philosopher would be exactly what the Church got as Pope a century later. The renewal called for in Aeterni Patris was an important factor in the academic formation of the young Karol Wojtyla, something testified to by his own 1998 encyclical on the role of philosophy, Fides et Ratio.

Leo grasped more than a century ago what would become a leitmotif of John Paul's pontificate, namely that it was in the realm of culture — of ideas, particularly ideas about the reality of God and the nature of man — that the most important political battles would be won. Leo predicted in 1891 that communism would be a cure worse than the disease. He would not have been surprised that the hammer and sickle would be defeated by workers marching under the banner of the cross.

There are other noteworthy strands of continuity. In 1892, in Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, Leo XIII celebrated the fourth centenary of Columbus' voyage as the mission of a man who, “not unmoved” by human ambitions, sought above all to “open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas.” Notwithstanding the temper of a more politically correct time, John Paul would celebrate the fifth centenary in exactly the same spirit — not primarily as an exploratory success or a political conquest but as an evangelical opportunity.

Leo would, in preparation for the Holy Year 1900, consecrate the whole world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus — a pious act that also had political overtones, insofar as devotion to the Sacred Heart was favored by those who rejected the secularizing ideologies in northern Europe, especially France. John Paul, in preparation for the Holy Year 2000, would entrust the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a pious act that was replete with anti-communist significance.

When Karol Wojtyla appeared on the central loggia of St. Peter's for the first time as Pope John Paul II, he immediately spoke of how a Pope from a “faraway country” shared with the large Italian crowd before him a desire “to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church.”

Strong Marian piety is not surprising in popes, but Leo XIII and John Paul II are exceptional. Both could be called Marian popes.

Leo XIII wrote some 11 encyclicals on the rosary and decided that October would be dedicated to the rosary. The Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 were the signal Marian event of the 19th century, and Leo was ardent in his devotion to Mary under that title, establishing the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes for the whole Church.

John Paul's Marian devotion is even more transparent, beginning with his motto, Totus Tuus. Only weeks after his election, he spoke of the rosary as his favorite prayer. Later he would declare that his 25th anniversary year (October 2002-2003) would be known as the Year of the Rosary. The Fatima apparitions were the signal Marian event of the 20th century, and John Paul extended the feast of Our Lady of Fatima to the universal Church.

Other similarities are many — both wrote an encyclical on the Eucharist in their 25th years, for example. As John Paul salutes Leo as he overtakes him on the longevity tables, a debt of gratitude is also in order.

Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register's Rome correspondent from 1999-2003. He writes from Kingston, Ontario.