While they live, all popes are styled “Holiness”. The mode of address is a sort of “official” holiness, tied to the office of the Bishop of Rome. It tells us very little about the character of the man who holds the office.
In fact, relatively few of the men who kept the style while they lived have been raised to the honour of the altars after they died.
Recent Church history, however, has seen something of a glut of papal canonisations – that’s the name for the official juridical act by which the Church infallibly proclaims that a person is a saint in heaven, and may be called upon to intercede for the intentions of those who pray to them – including, most recently, St John XXIII and St John Paul II.
One other 20th-century pope, Pius X, was canonised in 1954. Another 20th-century pope, Paul VI, is scheduled for canonisation on October 14. Blessed Paul VI is controversial in his own right, and known best for his encyclical letter Humanae vitae, on the regulation of birth, and for his reform of the liturgy used in most Catholic churches throughout the world.
It’s interesting to note that Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control did less than people often realise, while the liturgical reforms – widely believed to have been a mere translation of the prayers of the Roman Missal and rearrangement of the parts of the Mass – were actually much more sweeping.
When it came to Church teaching on birth control, Paul VI essentially answered one outstanding question: are chemical means of regulating women’s fertility consistent with the natural moral order as authoritatively understood by the Catholic Church? The answer was: “No, not if they are employed with the purpose of frustrating one of the ends of the sex act.”
Only, it took several thousand words for Paul VI to articulate and explain his answer, which generated enormous controversy and continues to affect the life of the Church to the present day.
Paul VI’s liturgical reform was far more sweeping than is often realised. However one feels about the reform, the experts Paul VI appointed to revise the Roman Rite exceeded their mandate. The officials of the “Consilium” altered the structure of the Mass and rewrote many prayers of ancient standing. They even wrote some entirely new ones, and introduced a complex system of “options” regarding the set prayers and gestures to use during the celebration of Mass. They also radically altered the liturgical calendar.
All those changes were upsetting to a great many people, but the most controversial part of the reform was the suppression of the old liturgy: after 1969, it was not merely licit, but mandatory to use the new liturgical books for the celebration of Mass.
Even if Paul VI hadn’t done those things, his pontificate would have been a difficult one. He succeeded St John XXIII in 1963, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council. Papal successions are never perfectly orderly affairs, but an ecumenical council is a particularly fraught occasion in which to hold a conclave.
At bottom, though, popes get to heaven by the grace of God – just like everyone else – and are elevated to the altars when they have lived lives of exemplary holiness. But it is significant that, with the exception of the early centuries of the Church, few popes have been declared saints. It may be precisely because of the prominence of their position in the Church: however great their personal virtues, they could only be declared saints after close scrutiny of their conduct in office.
Put simply: the bar has traditionally been much higher than it appears to be for the popes of the 20th century. The crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up in which the Church is currently embroiled – one in which Pope St John Paul II’s record of leadership cannot be allowed to escape careful scrutiny or be spared the most rigorous criticism – offers ample illustration of the prudence of earlier practice.
The Church tells me that Pope John Paul II is a saint in heaven. I believe her, and I give thanks to God for the gift of his no-doubt powerful intercession. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect it will not prove to have been because of his leadership in these regards, but in spite of them, that Providence has seen fit to honour him so.
With Paul VI, the situation is similar. If Pope Paul VI did some things badly, it is necessary in justice to recognise that things might have been handled worse by someone else. Charity recommends that we assume he did the best he could. By all accounts, he was a man of deep devotion and impeccable personal piety: a true lover of the Church, who desired only to serve the twin causes of peace on earth and the upbuilding of God’s kingdom.
For most popes, through most of history, personal holiness hasn’t been quite enough. Given the turmoil in the 21st-century Church perhaps we shall see a shift back to the older view.