Of Popes and Saints

This week, in Catholic news, two former popes will be declared saints, after (mostly) passing through the canonization process. I say “mostly” because Pope John XXIII is being hustled through with only a single miracle to his name, when he should rightly have two certified miracles in order to pass muster. Saints are great publicity for the Church–they remind common folks of how to behave, and they frame the Church in terms of goodness (in order to be sainted, or even Venerable, the candidate must live an exemplary life.)

These fishermen are part of the elaborate wall paintings in Clement VI's bedroom at the papal palace in Avignon.

These fishermen are part of the elaborate wall paintings in Clement VI’s bedroom at the papal palace in Avignon.

There is not always a big overlap between Popes and Saints, and some Popes were notoriously more secular than holy, including Pope Clement VI, who presides over the Church during the 1340’s, the period of my Dark Apostle books. I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say about Clement later on in my series, but for now, let me just note that he was famed for the parties he threw at the papal palace, with its star-strewn ceilings, and hunt scenes on the walls.

The term “Princes of the Church” refers to the Cardinals, the highest order of clerics beneath the Pope himself, but it seems most appropriate for the cardinals of the medieval period, who maintained palaces near the Pope at Avignon, and also back at home, who dressed and ate lavishly, had many servants and retainers, and often carried on like the nobility of any secular country. There were notable exceptions, and every so often, the College of Cardinals, in a desire to refute charges of decadence, would elect a pope more given to prayer and contemplation. They would then often be infuriated by that individual’s desire for strict reforms, and for generally setting an example of piety that they might be expected to imitate.

Clement VI’s immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XII, was one of these. John XXII before him had routed the Spiritual Franciscans, who notoriously lived in poverty and claimed that Christ and his disciples owned nothing at all–not the sort of lifestyle the Princes of the Church wished to be compared with. Benedict XII was a reformer who reconciled with the Spirituals, and tried to combat the growing excesses of monastic life (there’s an irony for you, the “excesses of monastic life”), but made little headway. The Cardinals likely elected the large-living Clement VI in great relief after Benedict XII’s passing in 1342.

Saints are meant to be examples for the ordinary believer, and intercessors with God, and the faithful are always excited to welcome new saints into the pantheon (er, if one can use that term 🙂 Will they have staying power and accrue devotees who seek their aid in need? Who knows. Interestingly, the retired pope Benedict XVI will also has been invited to attend the ceremony, for these two men-turned-saints whom he personally knew. I wonder if, under those circumstances, he will think of their saintly virtues, or remember their human moments–in recognition of the popes who were sometimes, all too human themselves.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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