An interesting pair of popes progress down the lane of declared sanctity. One commentator somewhere remarked it was something of a balanced ticket. I didn’t get that. John Paul II from the beginning was a charismatic figure, inspiring people in our more mobile age to be, in fact, mobile, and go on pilgrimage to see him, only not to Rome necessarily. Pius XII is an interesting companion, the last of the N popes. N being whatever adjective you want to place: traditional, pre-conciliar, valid, monarchical, whatever.
As a lay person, I mostly see the pair as birds of a feather: talented guys who were nurtured in a culture of priesthood, who had their own mentors who slotted them into fortunate positions, and whose abilities carried them to the top of the ecclesiastical heap.
When I speak of “hero worship” in the title above, the nuance is intended to be somewhat above our regard for athletes and media stars, but definitely below saints who possess a more heroic witness for the faith.
John Paul has his advocates, tens of millions of them. He saved the Church from modernism, put bishops and theologians back on track, developed a theology, trotted the globe, ended Communism, and whatnot. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade. (Sprinkle, maybe.) But these were human accomplishments performed by a very gifted man. But were they saintly? Do they inspire imitation, or are they acts to which some respond with clapping and cheering?
Pope Pius is a more troubled choice. My stance is that he missed an opportunity to be truly heroic–to stand up against fascism before the juggernaut crushed millions. That he acted to save some is not reasonably questioned. He directed religious orders and others on the line at Castel Gandolfo and other places to take risks. Others in the chain of refugees were more endangered, exerted themselves physically, cleaned and prepared and hid and lied to the fascists. But as a pope, as one of the few universal religious leaders of the world, could he have done more? No matter how often the Catholic figure of saving 700,000 is touted, the question doesn’t go away: could he have done more?
In the supercharged church environment today, do we really need more saints who, while no doubt good people, are objects of cheerleading at the expense of church unity. I would certainly say the same about Pope John XXIII. A good guy with pastoral experience. Inspired to call a council. But a saint? He’s more of a hero, like John Paul II. He’s an object on which Catholic project their likes, beliefs, and philosophies.
Pius XII adds a certain novel twist. This pope is a sort of guilt-free card. He represents the best possible edge of mediocrity in the face of grave physical and moral danger. He shows we can skirt the cliff’s edge, but not be plunged into the rocks below. We can dissent in our hearts without risking life, limb, or property. That’s similar to a choice most of us might make: our conscience would prick at us to save some Jews. And maybe it would get to the point where we were genuinely fearful for our life as we helped a friend or two. But Pius XII was no Natalia Tulasiewicz. And in his position as pope, how could he be a teacher like her, a conscientious objector like Franz, or a simple priest like Maximilian Kolbe? If Pius XII is a saint, it was probably in spite of his being a pope, not because of it.
Granted, a figure like Mary McKillop inspires hero worship. Australians, dissidents, the sisters of her order all can cheer for a kindred Aussie, an excommunicant, and a founder. But the real sanctity of such a saint is to be found in the work she (or he) inspires. Saint Mary founded schools, orphanages, and homes for women. Many people have been in need of education, adoption, care in a time of grave need. We can be grateful to a person who was the cause of that. We can aspire to follow in that person’s footsteps.
A saint continues to do the work of God to the degree he or she can model and inspire saintly behavior in living believers. Saints should be oppotunities for conversation. We can read of them, ponder their life story, consider how we would have done in their shoes, and apply their spirit to concrete situations in our prayer or apostolate or our ordinary life.
The current age would seem to need saints more than ever to counterbalance the excesses of secular hero worship. Pius and John Paul are no doubt on an inevitable track to declared sainthood, but I can’t say–not at this time anyway–that their witness inspires me deeply. Give me Natalia or Franz or Maximilian.