According to a title first used by Gregory the Great (590–604), the Bishop of Rome is the "Servant of the Servants of God." The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 265 of those servants as legitimate popes. Some were historical titans; others labored in obscurity. Some were saints, including more than two dozen martyrs; others were scandalous sinners. Some were reformers whose legacy in Catholic doctrine and practice is visible today; others were complicit in corruption. Some were men of genius, both intellectual and organizational; others were mediocrities. A few years back, a veteran Vatican bureaucrat remarked that "God has been very kind to us; we haven't had a wicked pope in 500 years." That wistful expression of gratitude suggests something of the papacy's staying power while hinting at its complex history.
The influence and magnetism of the modern papacy are, in fact, surprises. When Leo XIII was elected in 1878—the first pope in 1,100 years not to control substantial territory as an internationally recognized sovereign—many thought the papacy an impotent anachronism. Leo, however, created the modern papacy as an office of moral persuasion. John Paul II, elected precisely 100 years after Leo, turned the papal bully pulpit into something to be reckoned with in the world. John Paul was one of the key figures in the collapse of European communism; he also played a significant role in democratic transitions in Latin America and East Asia, while defending the universality of human rights and challenging the intolerant secularism of European high culture.
That many Catholics feel a deep personal connection to the pope is another relatively new, and in some respects surprising, phenomenon.
When the first American Catholic diocese, Baltimore, was erected in 1789, few Catholics in the nascent American republic felt a personal bond with Pius VI. Beset by anticlerical Italian revolutionaries determined to incorporate the Papal States into a unified Italy, Pius IX (1846–1878) was the first modern pontiff who attracted popular Catholic sympathy and support. (He was also the first pope to set foot on sovereign American soil. Having fled Rome and Garibaldi's legion in 1849, Pius visited the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," then berthed in Gaeta harbor. Capt. John Gwinn, USN, was court-martialed for allowing the pope aboard, in tacit violation of American neutrality in Italian politics.)
The millions of Catholic immigrants who came to America between the Civil War and World War I were certainly aware of Leo XIII (who defended trade unions), Pius X (who permitted children to receive holy communion), Benedict XV (who bankrupted the Vatican helping World War I refugees and POWs) and Pius XI (a fierce critic of Nazism and communism); yet these popes were hardly popular icons. Pius XII (1939–1958) was widely venerated, but he was a remote figure who seemed to inhabit a different plane; it was thought quite remarkable that such an ethereal personality used a telephone, a typewriter and an electric razor.
It was "Good Pope John"—now Blessed John XXIII—who sealed the bond of personal affection between the papacy and U.S. Catholics of every age and condition; when he died in June 1963 after a protracted struggle with stomach cancer, it seemed like a death in the family. The pontificate of his successor, Paul VI (1963–1978), was riddled by bitter controversies over worship, sexual morality and church governance; when Pope Paul died at Castel Gandolfo on Aug. 15, 1978, just about everyone was ready to turn a page. Paul's immediate successor, the charming John Paul I, might have been another John XXIII but died after 33 days on the job.
Over the next 26 years, his successor evolved from "John Paul Superstar" into the first universal pastor of the age of globalization; as NBC's Brian Williams said at the time, John Paul II's April 2005 funeral was "the human event of a generation." Tens of thousands of American Catholics have visited his tomb in the Vatican grottoes and sought his intercession since he made his final journey to what he called "the House of the Father."
Benedict XVI inherited from John Paul II a certain set of expectations about who popes are and what popes do. A less pyrotechnic personality than his predecessor, in whose pontificate he played a major intellectual role, Benedict has drawn far less media attention than John Paul (at least outside Italy). He very much matters, however, in both the public and personal senses of popes "mattering"; one just has to look closer and deeper to discern the imprint of the shoes of this fisherman.
The Grand Strategy of Benedict XVI
Modern popes deploy a distinctive form of power: the power of moral persuasion. Its effects are sometimes difficult to recognize.
Take John Paul II's epic pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. Cold-war historians now recognize June 2–10, 1979, as a moment on which the history of our times pivoted. By igniting a revolution of conscience that gave birth to the Solidarity movement, John Paul II accelerated the pace of events that eventually led to the demise of European communism and a radically redrawn map in Eastern Europe. There were other actors and forces at work, to be sure; but that John Paul played a central role in the communist crackup, no serious student of the period doubts today.
In 1979, however, the effects of the moral and spiritual revolution John Paul triggered were hard for some to discern. On June 5, 1979, The New York Times concluded an editorial in these terms: "As much as the visit of John Paul II must reinvigorate and reinspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the [Polish] nation or of Eastern Europe."
What accounts for this myopia? Granted, the Polish pope had not used the vocabulary normally associated with affairs of state: over nine days and 40-some addresses, John Paul II said not a word about politics, economics, the Polish communist regime or its masters in Moscow. Rather, he spoke of Poland's authentic history and deeply religious culture while summoning his people to a noble project: the restoration of their true identity. The message was received by those with ears to hear, and history changed as a result. (Including John Paul II's personal history, for the pope's success hardened the conviction in Moscow that something drastic had to be done about this meddlesome priest. The assassination attempt of May 13, 1981, followed in due course.)
Perhaps the deeper reason for missing the impact of John Paul II's "June 1979 moment" lies in the filters through which many people read history today. According to one such filter, religious and moral conviction is irrelevant to shaping the flow of contemporary history. They may give meaning to individual lives; but change history? Please. The world has outgrown that.
Or has it? The different personalities of John Paul II and Benedict XVI sometimes mask their shared (and unshakable) conviction that religious and moral ideas can redirect the course of human affairs. And that, in turn, suggests the possibility that Benedict XVI may have had his own "June 1979 moment"—a moment that was missed, or misunderstood, at the time.
That moment was the most controversial episode in Benedict XVI's pontificate: his Regensburg Lecture on faith and reason, delivered at his old German university on Sept. 12, 2006. By quoting a Byzantine emperor's sharp critique of Islam, Benedict XVI drew worldwide criticism. Others, however, including significant personalities in the complex worlds of Islam, took the pope's point about the dangers of faith detached from reason quite seriously. And over the ensuing 19 months, there have been potentially historic tectonic shifts going on, both within Islam and in the world of interreligious dialogue.
Benedict has received two open letters from Muslim leaders; the October 2007 letter, "An Open Word Between Us and You," proposed a new dialogue between Islam and the Vatican. That dialogue will now be conducted through a Catholic-Muslim Forum that will meet twice yearly, in Rome and in Amman, Jordan. The forum will address two issues that Benedict XVI has insisted be the focus of conversation: religious freedom, understood as a human right that everyone can grasp by reason, and the separation of religious and political authority in the modern state.
Perhaps even more important, given his influence in Sunni Islam, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Benedict XVI in November 2007. Subsequently, the king announced his own interfaith initiative, aimed at drawing representatives of the three monotheistic faiths into a new conversation, and negotiations between the Holy See and Saudi Arabia opened on building the first Catholic church in the kingdom. (A new Catholic church, also the first of its kind, recently opened in Doha, Qatar.) Abdullah's voice was noticeably absent from the chorus of critics who charged Benedict XVI with "aggression" for baptizing Magdi Allam, a prominent Italian journalist and convert from Islam, in St. Peter's Basilica on March 22. That all of this has happened after Regensburg is, at the very least, suggestive.
In addition to reshaping the dialogue between Catholicism and Islam, Benedict XVI has made significant changes in the Vatican's intellectual approach to these volatile issues. Catholic veterans of the interreligious dialogue who did not press issues like religious freedom and reciprocity between the faiths have been replaced by scholars who believe that facing the hard questions helps support those Muslim reformers who are trying to find an authentic Islamic path to civility, tolerance and pluralism. Thus Benedict XVI has quietly put his pontificate behind the forces of Islamic reform—and may have found a crucial ally with a Saudi king who is wrestling with Wahhabi extremism in his own domain.
The pope is thinking in centuries here: a reformed Islam capable of living with religious and political pluralism could be an ally in the struggle against what Benedict once called the "dictatorship of relativism." In any event, an Islam recognizing religious freedom and affirming the separation of religious and political authority would be good for Muslims who want to live in peace with their neighbors, and good for the rest of the world. The stakes couldn't be higher.
Benedict knows that, just as he knew exactly what he was doing at Regensburg. He won't see the fruits of his labors, as John Paul II saw the fruits of June 1979. He has, however, set in motion new dynamics in contemporary history, which is no small accomplishment.
The Master Teacher
Modern popes matter in spiritual microcosm as well as historical macrocosm. John Paul II touched, and changed, millions of lives. Go to an American seminary today and ask the seminarians who their priestly role model is. Or visit a parish marriage-preparation course and see how John Paul's "Theology of the Body" is reshaping the Catholic understanding of marriage, sexuality and family life. Graduate schools of theology are filled with students writing dissertations on the thought of John Paul II, whose intellectual impact on Catholicism will reverberate for centuries.
Benedict's personal influence on Catholics is perhaps less dramatic, but it is no less real to those who have seen or heard him personally. Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most learned men in the world; he is also a master teacher who can unpack complex Christian doctrines in an accessible way. That helps explain why he continues to draw enormous crowds to his Wednesday general audiences, some larger than those drawn by his predecessor. The tag line in some Roman circles is that "People came to see John Paul II; they come to hear Benedict XVI." That contrast is too sharply drawn, but Benedict's skills as a teacher have certainly touched a significant 21st-century yearning for solid religious food. His first two encyclicals, on love and hope, were consciously framed to speak to the fears of a deeply conflicted world by reminding the world of Christianity's basic message.
Benedict's catechetical skills with children are also striking. Six months after his election, he met thousands of Italian 8- and 9-year-olds who had just made their first communion. One of them asked how Jesus could be present in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist when "I can't see him!"
To which the pope replied, "No, we cannot see him; there are many things we do not see, but they exist and are essential … We do not see an electric current; yet we see that it exists. We can see that this microphone is working, and we see lights. We do not see the very deepest things, those that really sustain life and the world, but we can see and feel their effects … So it is with the Risen Lord: we do not see him with our eyes, but we see that wherever Jesus is, people change, they improve, there is a greater capacity for peace, for reconciliation …"
Another youngster asked why the church urged frequent confession. Benedict answered: "It's very helpful to confess with a certain regularity. It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same … Otherwise the dirt might not be seen, but it builds up. Something similar can be said about the soul, about me: if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I'm always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must work hard to improve …"
What the pope can say so winsomely to children, he will likely say to adults during his American pilgrimage: "Look again at the basics of Catholic faith and practice. They exist for a reason. They just may satisfy the hungers of the human heart. Give them a chance."
Popes matter in ways that challenge our conventional thinking about the way the world works. Popes no longer claim the power to bring penitent princes to their knees in the snow, as Gregory VII did with Henry IV; the modern papacy deploys a greater power, the power to propose and persuade, religiously and morally. Popes matter by changing lives and changing history.
Which, as it happens, was the only power Saint Peter had.