Cranky in Life, Saintly in Death


John Paul frankly described Pius as “much loved, but also hated and slandered.” Why?

Because I was preoccupied with urgent matters during the waning days of August — saving my roses from powdery mildew, for example, and hunting down hard-to-find Greta Garbo movies — I was largely unaware of the hysteria over the impending beatification of Pope Pius IX until just a couple of days before last Sunday, when Pope John Paul II did the deed. And it took me a few days more to become exasperated with the media yap about it, and decide to write something

It should not have taken this long. As a Roman Catholic, I guess I really ought to take more interest in what goes on at Headquarters. But it seems John Paul is beatifying or canonizing somebody I’ve never heard of every other week, so the mind does tend to wander.

Pius IX, however, was not just another somebody. His pontificate, which spanned the middle years of the 19th century, was the longest of any of the 264 bishops of Rome on the official list. He presided over a Church profoundly divided about how to deal with the unstoppable onslaught of secularization and cultural modernity against every traditional European value and institution.

He came to his office in 1846 with a fresh readiness to listen to his deeply conflicted Church. But by the time he convened the First Vatican Council, 23 years later, he had largely fallen into line with the most fearful, pessimistic elements in the Church. The result was an autocratic papacy surrounded by a hive of Vatican bureaucrats whose idea of “dialogue” was issuing a decree. (The hive is still in place, though John XXIII, whom John Paul also beatified last Sunday, renewed the intimacy that should surely exist between the pope and people.) At the time of his death in 1878, he enjoyed a curiously mixed reputation: huge dislike by the Roman people and Catholic intellectuals, and enormous affection among Catholics at large, especially outside Italy.

Any man who headed a Church so enormous and complicated, for so many years, in an era of such radical change, is a fair target for scrutiny. We should all welcome that. On Sunday, John Paul frankly described Pius as “much loved, but also hated and slandered.” Why?

Reading back over the reports published in the mass media before Sunday and since, I have yet to find evidence that anybody bothered to find out why Pius was loved. My media colleagues have been quite busy, however, with relating why he was hated. They have proclaimed him an anti-Semite, citing horror stories and quoting anti-Jewish remarks — most of them recycled from other recent stories, none indicating the reporter has bothered to nail down the allegation to a rock-solid source. I didn’t go to journalism school, but it seems that if one is going to call a pope a Jew-hating swine in print, it’s probably a good idea to have the facts straight. Many reporters assigned to this story, it seems, thought otherwise.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say Pius did utter the anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him. Let’s say he was a rabid reactionary, tyrannical boss, the kind of guy who kicks lame dogs. What, exactly, would any of it have to do with what happened in Rome last Sunday?

To read the papers, you’d think John Paul II has some magical power to “make” saints. (The word “makes” appears again and again.) When beatifying or canonizing someone, the pope is not “making” anything. God, and only God, can make a saint. Canonization is the Church’s way of recognizing a thing God did, simply because He wanted to. Many people saw in Pius a powerful love for humanity, God and God’s people that even the best PR firm can’t manufacture. They saw a man whose disposition and attitude, difficult as they were, never snuffed out an inner radiance that he did not have kindled in himself. It was God’s gift. That it was offered, and that Pius said “yes,” were the events celebrated last Sunday.

If you think God could have chosen a more likable man to bestow sanctity on — I couldn’t agree more. So let’s blame Jesus. He got the Church off on this wrong foot (if it is wrong) by picking losers to be his first followers.

Peter? A liar and a traitor who nearly wrecked the early Church by being high and mighty about gentile converts — and a saint.

Paul? A grouchy genius, ready to fly off the handle at people who didn’t get it quickly enough to suit him — and a saint.

Frankly, I find it reassuring that so many cranky people have become saints. Maybe there’s hope for me. After all, sainthood is only a matter of saying “yes” to divine love so often you simply forget how to say anything else


Mays, John Bentley. “Cranky in Life, Saintly in Death.” National Post September 8, 2000.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


John Bentley Mays writes for the National Post.

Copyright © 2000 NationalPost

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