Anyone who is looking for a short, succinct survey of the men who occupied the papacy during the 20th century, the tasks and challenges they faced and the ways they responded to them, might like to read Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity by Russell Shaw (Ignatius Press). In a mere 150 pages, the author manages to encapsulate the complexities of the world the Popes faced and to highlighter their major writings/encyclicals. This is no small achievement for what is an introduction to a vast topic. The author himself describes it a “small book but ambitious in scope.”
Shaw, a US writer, journalist and a one-time communication consultant to the Vatican, provides brief biographies of these eight men: St Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, St John XXIII, St Paul VI, John Paul I and St John Paul II. That four of them have been canonised tells its own story of their sanctity and heroic endeavours. Pius XII might yet be among their number when the slurs on his attitude and behavio have been finally dispelled. On this subject, Shaw writes, “The image of Pius as “Hitler’s Pope” is fantasy” and quotes historian Michael Burleigh, who has written that Pius was “a target of Communist-inspired denigration.”
Pope St Pius X, who combatted what he described as Modernism, continued to teach weekly catechism classes at the Vatican when he was pope. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has described his predecessor’s response to these Modernists, led by Fathers Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell, as “over-zealous” but nonetheless “necessary”. He could hardly eradicate what has become a perennial problem. Pius X was the first 20th century pope to have to decide on the Church’s relationship to the modern world; all his successors have grappled with the same question in different ways.
In particular, St John XXIII, in calling the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, tried to change the Church’s somewhat fortress-like character, which had reached its heights under Pius XII, and to make her teachings more accessible to the world; “aggiornamento” was the word he used. Shaw devotes a separate chapter to the Council itself, its major teachings and the controversies and confusion that followed. His successor, St Paul VI, best known for his encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968, is shown “by time and events” to have been “vindicated” in its teaching.
We learn that Pius XI had “an explosive temper”. When a cardinal once told him that it was his duty to offer him advice, the Pope responded curtly, “Yes, when you’re asked for it.” He faced the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany, established Vatican City in the Lateran Accords of 1929 and arranged the controversial Concordat with Nazi Germany in 1933. Historian Eamon Duffy is quoted: “Always a strong man and an energetic pope, in the last years of his pontificate he rose to greatness. The pope of eighteen concordats ceased to be a diplomat, and achieved the stature of a prophet.”
Shaw includes two personal anecdotes in this vivid survey: he had a strange premonitory dream of the Pope’s death on the very night that John Paul I suffered a massive heart attack and died in his sleep; and he was present in St Peter’s Square in February 2005, as John Paul II appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s and, already very ill, struggled to recite the Angelus; he died shortly afterwards. Shaw considers his four most noteworthy encyclicals to have been Centesimus Annus (1991), Veritatis Splendor (1993), Evangelium Vitae (1995) and Fides et Ratio (1998).
In the Afterword to this stimulating introduction, the author quotes Lord Macaulay’s tribute to the Church of 1840: “No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon…The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs.” It is this historical sweep which gives the subject its enduring fascination. Shaw has skilfully shown how each pope he considers (perhaps with the exception of John Paul I whose governance was so short-lived) brought his own experience, character and strengths to the office.
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