Holy Popes

With today’s canonisation of Popes Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, the Church now recognises 80 out of 266 Popes as saints. Some think this is too many, and that Popes are being made saints too quickly or too automatically. Whatever the truth in that matter is, the history is interesting.


Of the first 58 Popes, from St. Peter to St. Silverius, almost none escaped canonisation, although the process as we know it today did not exist yet. In general, the Church simply recognised an existing cult for a deceased Pope, making him known as a saint. The only exceptions in this five-century period are Pope Liberius (352-366), Pope Anastasius II (496-498), Pope Boniface II (530-532) and Pope John II (532-535).

In the following five centuries there are fewer saints among the Popes, as the process became more formalised, but still quite a lot: 19. Their frequency does decrease sharply towards the end: not a single ninth century Pope was canonised, while the previous century still had four.

For the second millennium, after the Holy See became the sole authority in the area of canonisation, it is actually very possible, without making this post excessively long, to list all papal saints:

  • St. Leo IX (1049-1054)
  • St. Gregory VII (1073-1085)
  • St. Celestine V (1294)
  • St. Pius V (1566-1572)
  • St. Pius  X (1903-1914)
  • St. John XXIII (1958-1963)
  • St. John Paul II (1978-2005)

The number of three canonised saints among the 20th century Popes is striking. The last time the Church had so many papal saints so close together in time was in the eighth century. But is it excessively much? Compared to the first 500 years of the papacy: absolutely not. Nor is it much when we compare it to the total number of people canonised by the nine Popes since 1900: 1501. Less then two-tenths of a percent of these were Popes. In the end, it’s all relative.


Stats for February 2013

In the middle of the month we had the momentous announcement and we ended up with the actual vacant see of Rome. With 10,148 page views, I am happy to see that my thoughts about this historic period in the Church were read and appreciated by many. Readers from The Spectator in the UK found their way here (nice to see you here!), as did many others via blogs and social media. Fr. Roderick’s sharing my blog post about the Pope’s last general audience also caused a spike in the page views, so thanks very much for that!

Anyway, on to the top 10, which may be a bit different than expected.

1: Cardinal watch: Cardinal Arinze turns 80 251
2: Countdown to papal Twitter launch 145
3: Boodschap voor de Vastentijd 2013 102
4: The pope who resigned – St. Celestine V 98
5: ‘Bel Giorgio’ takes over the household 91
6: One cardinal stays at home – Indonesia’s Darmaatmadja not attending the conclave 89
7: Distancing – how not to disagree & Risky business – German bishops allow abortive drugs, but only when they’re not abortive 83
8: The final farewell 80
9: Obsession, but on whose part? 75
10: The bishop in the Eucharistic Prayer – a first step? 70

The pope who resigned – St. Celestine V

Pope Benedict XVI is visiting the Italian diocese of Sulmona-Valva today, where he will also visit the grave is his thirteenth-century predecessor, Pope Saint Celestine V, who was pope for less than four months in 1294. Short papacies are not unusual, but they tend to end because the pope in question passes on. Not so in the case of St. Celestine.

The conditions of his elections to the papacy was an unlikely story, and in fact the man himself was perhaps one of the most unlikely candidates to be put forward by the cardinals who had already been gathered in a conclave for more than two years. Political intrigue and manipulation lead to the election of a simple monk, a hermit who had left behind the care of a congregation of ascetic Benedictines had been inspired by him, and thus called themselves Celestines, and who was now pulled into the heart of the machinations of the king of Naples who would use him to regain power over the Sicilies.

In August of 1294, the 79-year-old hermit became Pope Celestine V, and he soon fell under full control of King Charles II of Naples. He was clearly overwhelmed and unable to do much as pope, not just because of his ‘honorable custody’ but also because he simply lacked the talent to get the work done.  He was a hermit, simple and pious, and acted so as pope: simplistically and naive, And the unique thing is that he realised that himself. So in December of the same year, Celestine V became the first and only pope to resign. He desired to return to the life of a hermit, but his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, would have none of it. Celestine did escape for a while but was soon caught when trying to escape to Greece. He spent the rest of his life in captivity until his death in 1296.

Politics and prayer don’t necessarily mix well, and Pope St. Celestine V was clearly a man called to the latter. His life removed from society made him ill-prepared for life in the chaotic hubbub of Rome and Naples, and it took some self-knowledge to realise that and consider the highly unusual step of resigning from the papacy. After all, the pope is the highest authority, so who does he offer his resignation to? Then again, he is also the servant of the servants of God, so it would be the other servants, the people of God, who would receive his resignation.

He was canonised in 1313 and lies in the cathedral of Aquila.