Hero Worship

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.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Commentary, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Hero Worship

  1. Michael says:

    When the Catholic Church beatifies Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ll believe that it cares about something other than keeping its own little tribe obedient. Until it does, who it declares a saint matters not at all.

  2. Liam says:

    Of this weekend’s crop, Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko was the standout from my perspective.

  3. Harry says:

    “Could he have done more”? Can the same question be asked of any saint? Of course, it can.

    But beings as he wasn’t elected pope until 1939, what “more” could/should he have done as pope? Written a stinging encyclical? Wow, that would have stopped Hitler in his tracks.

    I know this runs counter to the myth of the anti-communist who turned a blind eye to the fascists, but Pacelli both as Vatican secretary of state and as pope was no friend to the fascists, and tried mightily to warn the rest of the world what was about to happen, and what was happening.

    His efforts in this regard are no less than heroic.

    And as far as trying to label him some sort of pre-Vatican dinosaur, well, Vatican II wouldn’t have been possible without the enormous groundwork done on Pius’s watch. Vatican II did not happen in a historical vaccuum.

    Now as far as John Paul II, yeah, it is cool to pigeonhole him as some sort of “anti-reform counter-reformist,” but that’s not the whole truth, either. It will be decades before the rest of the world catches up to his stunning body of social teachings.

  4. tom Kolar says:

    You are right on. People forget that the footnotes of the Decrees on the Liturgy and the Church from the Second Vatican Council are peppered with references to Pius’s Encyclicals. If it were not for his encyclical, Divina Afflante Spiritu in 1943 on Scripture we would still be in the dark ages of Scriptural Fundamentalism. This work is considered the Magna Carta of Catholic Scripture Study.
    When the Dutch Bishops confronted the Nazis directly in a Pastoral Letter concerning the persecution of the Jews – Hitler reacted even more vehemently against the Dutch Jews and any Catholic Dutchman who had any Jewish blood. After spending a good deal of life in Germany, and having his life threatened by the Gestapo when he was Nuncio, I am sure he knew what would happen if he confronted Hitler directly. I am always perplexed when I hear people ask why he didn’t do more for the Jews, when he was unable to save the millions of Catholics who died at the hands of the Nazi’s. My grandmother’s whole family died in a Nazi Concentration camp in Poland.
    I think a lot of the revisionist Jewish History concerning Pius came about because of the conversion of the Chief Rabbi of Italy to Catholicism after the war. At the end of the war there was an outpouring of gratitude from world Jews -even Albert Einstein, who saw no need for organized religion – so much so that Golda Meir asked to give Pius’s eulogy at the United Nations.

    • Todd says:

      I can understand the anguish in a leader who believed that speaking for justice would have drastic consequences for innocents. Perhaps Pope Pius tempered his judgment there.

      Croatia may well have been another matter: an effectively Catholic government, though a puppet state of the Germans.

      And while Pius XII’s encyclicals on liturgy and Scripture were certainly welcome from the point of view of many, I ask: Do they reflect sanctity or personal accomplishment of intellect?

      • tom Kolar says:

        Hi Todd,
        As for Croatia being a “Catholic Government”, there have been many so called Catholic Governments that have done bad things throughout History. We were a “Christian Government” that allowed slavery. People do bad things.
        I grew up as a kid under Pius, and I was impressed by his personal holiness, as were most of us Catholics at the time. I don’t think his being named venerable is about his brilliance, but about his personal life we don’t know about, yet. As John Paul’s Social Teachings are not cause for Sainthood. I met Gianpaulo once one on one after he became Pope; and he used to come to my Uncle’s Home when he was in the States when he was bishop of Krakow – he was a very kind saintly man- there was something special about him. Saint? I don’t know. Saintly, yes.

  5. Jimmy Mac says:

    Harry says: “Pacelli both as Vatican secretary of state and as pope was no friend to the fascists, and tried mightily to warn the rest of the world what was about to happen, and what was happening.”

    Oh, really?

    Throughout the beginning part of WWII, Pius XII was consistently besieged with pleas for help on behalf of the Jews and was informed about the Holocaust.

    In the spring of 1940, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, asked the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione to intercede to keep Jews in Spain from being deported to Germany. He later made a similar request for Jews in Lithuania. The papacy did nothing.

    Within the church, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna told Pius XII about Jewish deportations in 1941. In 1942, the Slovakian charge d’affaires, a position under the supervision of the Pope, reported to Rome that Slovakian Jews were being systematically deported and sent to death camps.

    In October 1941, the Assistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican, Harold Tittman, asked the Pope to condemn the atrocities. The response came that the Holy See wanted to remain “neutral,” and that condemning the atrocities would have a negative influence on Catholics in German-held lands.

    In late August 1942, after more than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews had been killed, Ukrainian Metropolitan Andrej Septyckyj wrote a long letter to the Pope, referring to the German government as a regime of terror and corruption, more diabolical than that of the Bolsheviks. The Pope replied by quoting verses from Psalms and advising Septyckyj to “bear adversity with serene patience.”

    On September 18, 1942, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, wrote, “The massacres of the Jews reach frightening proportions and forms.” Yet, that same month when Myron Taylor, U.S. representative to the Vatican, warned the Pope that his silence was endangering his moral prestige, the Secretary of State responded on the Pope’s behalf that it was impossible to verify rumors about crimes committed against the Jews.

    Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, president of the Polish government-in-exile, appealed to the Pope in January 1943 to publicly denounce Nazi violence. Bishop Preysing of Berlin did the same, at least twice. Pius XII refused.

    Here is an extensive listing of statements made by Pius during the course of the war, many of which are subject to dispute as to their meaning:


    Somehow all of this doesn’t meet MY test of “tried mightily.”

    I simply cannot see where his actions, or lack thereof, are any example of “heroic virtue” declared on his behalf on December 19th that one can reasonably expect of a saint.

    • tom Kolar says:

      I am amazed that people looking back at a horrible situation sixty years ago would think the Bishop of Rome would have so much Power and Authority to stop the extermination of Jews and Poles and other people in Europe. Even Stalin joked at one time about the “divisions (re:armies) of the Pope”.
      If Pius confronted Hitler head on things would have been much worse as it had become in the Netherlands for Jews and Baptized Jews.
      Perhaps he could have been more forceful – we don’t have all the facts, and he certainly did not get a Superman Cape when he received the white cassock. He was a man all alone who could trust neither Roosevelt, Churchill ( the only person who bombed the Vatican)Hitler or Stalin.

    • David D. says:

      All you have demonstrated is your ability to copy and paste copyrighted material while also deleting the footnotes in that original material.


      • As the blog administrator, are you asking me to rectify this in any way? I can pull the comment, start a new post, and add references, links, and footnotes. I can leave it as is with your link.

      • David D. says:

        No, I am not asking the blog administrator to do anything.

      • Just a reminder, and I write this with affection for Jim, who I consider a friend. I have been an offender on this as well. We should all strive to credit specifics of others’ work. I know this site is hypersensitive to links in the comboxes. Usually I have to approve a comment with multiple links. I check this site a few times a day and I can approve such a post–though not always with lightning speed.

  6. John Donaghy says:

    Since my high school days I have lamented the failure of nerve by some church leaders in the face of the Holocaust. During college it was their failure of nerve in the Vietnam War. In the last few years it’s been their failure of nerve in the face of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here in Honduras it’s the failure of all the bishops except one – the one I serve in Santa Rosa – to call the coup a coup.
    Among the list of those noted this past Saturday for possible canonization and beatification, Jerzy Popiełuszko stands out because he was not afraid to be outspoken when faced with oppression. Sister Mary MacKillop and Sister Mary Ward also stand out, but they both had with the hierarchy. They had the nerve to be “uppity” women, serving the Lord.
    But what really struck me was the lack of anyone from Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Africa and Latin America do not lack martyrs – catechists, sisters, priests, and even bishops who preached the Gospel of Peace with justice and suffered.
    I wish Rome would take more account of these “Wtinesses to the Gospel” who were killed for “odium fidei,” a hatred for a faith that is not afraid to speak out for the dignity of all God’s people.

    • Harry says:

      John, the people who say Pius didn’t speak out are ignorant of that period of church history.

      He DID speak out. Often. Quite forcefully. More than that, he ACTED.

      Good grief, you aren’t presuming that the pope, any pope, had such powers of persuasion as to convince Hitler to call off the Holocaust?

      • John Donaghy says:

        No, I am suggesting, to paraphrase Mother Teresa that it’s more important to be faithful than to be successful.

        Fear of death – or martyrdom – has kept people from speaking forthrightly and thus in some way they collaborated in evil by failure to identify evil actions forthrightly.

        Pius XII did some things – I don’t deny it. In fact, I don’t mention Pius in my comment.

      • Harry says:

        Oh, i see, John. You were accusing some other “church leader” for being afraid to speak out. Certainly not pius.

      • John Donaghy says:

        I “lament” the failure of church leaders to speak out clearly in the face of injustice.
        I think Pope Pius was, at the very least, timid.
        What is more important for me is the timidity of some church leaders today and their alliance with political and economic elites in their countries and the failure of the institutional church to support people like Archbishop Romero who spoke out strongly for the poor from a Gospel perspective.
        Pius is history and he will be judged by history. But the church should acknowledge real leaders and saints – and martyrs.

      • Harry says:

        “I think Pope Pius was, at the very least, timid.”

        Then you have no idea what he actually said or did (most notably, the Christmas 1942 homily) during the war, nor of the world’s praise coming his way in very real time.

        Here’s a challenge: Find a single, credible, scholarly source who accused Pius of war time timidity while he was still alive.

        You know why there was none? Especially during and immediately after the war itself? Because the notion would have been laughable.

        Only in utter ignorance of that particularly era could this “Hitler’s Pope” lie against Pius exist and even thrive.

      • John Donaghy says:


        This is my last response to you.

        I read Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas message. I expected more from what you wrote.

        There is the one sentence that refers, I presume, to situation of the Jewish people:
        “Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”

        But he is much more explicit about Marxist Socialism. National Socialism may be critiqued, but not by name.

        What I expect is what Albert Camus said in a talk, “The Unbeliever and the Christian,” at a Dominican monastery in 1948:

        “What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest [person]. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on today.”

  7. Andy says:

    Until it does, who it declares a saint matters not at all.

    Well, the declaration of “venerable” and “beatified” are different, but the canonization of a saint is infallible teaching.

    So yeah, it actually does matter.

  8. Liam says:

    Just to clarify: the proposition that canonization (and in this sense only regarding the statement that X is in heaven, not that X possessed heroic virtue or that a miracle occurred) is infallible teaching is in the realm of preponderant theological opinion, but has not been the subject of dogmatic definition as such.

  9. Jimmy Mac says:

    A failure to rightfully attribute sources of material is wrong for 2 reasons:

    1. It implies something that is not true.
    2. It detracts from the material being presented.

    For both of these actions I apologize.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s