On Easter Sunday this year, two names were added to the Catholic list of canonized saints, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Two men who had held the position of Pope, Benedict XVI and Francis, performed the ritual of canonization.
Benedict resigned in 2013. He was the first pope to resign since the 15th century. As far as can be ascertained, only five popes have resigned in the church’s history. So far there have been 266 popes, 85 of whom have been canonized.
The pope is the bishop of Rome, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church (over 1.2 billion people), and the head of the Vatican city state. When he visits another country, he is recognized as head of state under international law. He has ambassadors all over the world, except in a few Muslim and communist countries. The current apostolic nuncio to America is Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who holds the rank of ambassador and resides in Washington, D.C.
The role of pope as secular ruler began after the Roman emperor moved his palace to Constantinople and divided the empire between East and West. By the mid-fifth century, Rome was practically leaderless as barbaric tribes began attacking the city.
The bishop of Rome at the time, Leo I, stepped into the leadership role and went out to meet the enemy and dissuade him from destroying Rome. A few years later, Leo persuaded the Vandals to at least sack Rome peacefully. Thus the pope acquired a political role.
Popes gradually acquired more power and land and by the mid-eighth century, the papal states encompassed most of what is now Italy. The pope had his own army. With the unification of Italy in 1860, the papal states were reduced to one square mile, the smallest country in the world. The pope has full and absolute executive, legislative and judicial power over it.
Every time a pope dies, the cardinals — bishops of important dioceses from throughout the world who have been appointed as advisers — must elect a new one. For hundreds of years, this process has produced an unbroken line of popes and a peaceful transition of power from one pontiff to the next.
It has not always been smooth, however. While Rome has historically been the residence of the pope, his residence was moved to Avignon in France in 1308 at the behest of the French king, and the papacy was essentially controlled by the French for almost 70 years.
Conflict began in 1378 with the death of Avignon Pope Benedict XIII. The citizens of Rome rioted in the street, demanding that a Roman be chosen as the next pope. Since there were no Roman candidates, however, the cardinals chose the archbishop of Bari from Naples, who took the name Pope Urban VI.
The cardinals soon became unhappy with their choice. They had expected him to be pliant. He was not. He forbade the cardinals to accept annuities from rulers and condemned the luxury of their lives and retinues. He would not move to Avignon, thus alienating the French king.
The cardinals met again and elected a new pope, Clement VII. He set up his papacy in Avignon, but Urban VI and his supporters refused to acknowledge him as the legitimate pope. Some people supported Urban VI in Rome as the legitimate pope while others supported Clement VII as the legitimate pope.
In 1409, some church leaders hoped to resolve the conflict by holding a church council in Pisa. Those in attendance elected a third pope, Alexander V, who was supposed to replace the other two. The dispute resulted in there eventually being three men who all claimed to be pope!
In 1414, the conflict was finally resolved at the Council of Constance. They forced the others to resign and elected a new pope, Martin V, whom everyone acknowledged as legitimate and who lived in Rome. Today, the Catholic church recognizes only the original Roman line that started with Urban VI. It declared the others antipopes.
In 1978, there were three men who held the papacy in one year. Pope Paul VI died on Aug. 6, and was followed on Aug. 26 by John Paul I. On Sept. 28, he died in his sleep of a heart attack. The College of Cardinals elected John Paul II to the chair of Peter on Oct. 16.
Canonization calls for investigation into the lives and writings of the candidate. Those being canonized must have lived an exemplary life worthy of emulation. Such indeed has been the case with the two new pope saints.
Dr. Elizabeth McNamer is assistant professor and Zerek chair, religious thought, at Rocky Mountain College.
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