Popes I’ve Known

 August 23, 2022

Let me begin by saying, no, I’ve yet to meet any pope. However, as a life-long Catholic and one in ministry in the church throughout my adult life, I am acquainted with the popes of my generation, as well as previous generations. As a Catholic, I’m aware that popes, even though they live far away in Rome, or in other centuries, have a significant impact on the Catholic church, and, hence, on me. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to stick with the three popes I’ve known throughout my years of service: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

Pope John Paul II

I was newly graduated from college and working as a secretary/receptionist for St. John Student Parish that served Michigan State University when I heard the news. We have a Pope! And, he wasn’t Italian. He was Polish! I was excited that a long-standing tradition had been broken and proud of my Polish heritage. Certainly, this monumental event foretold great possibilities for the Catholic church. And it did.

John Paul II had a long papacy. Serving almost 27 years, he was the second longest serving pope, second only to Pius IX. He traveled extensively throughout those years, being greeted like a rock star on many occasions. Wherever he went, he kissed the ground of that country.

His theology was conservative, inspired by his years in the Polish church and sufferings under first German occupation, then Russian occupation. He worked to promote the dignity of human life and non-violent reform.

While a charismatic figure, loved by many, others disliked his conservative approach to Church dynamic, particularly issues around women in leadership in the church and his traditional approach to church teaching on personal and sexual morality. John Paul’s Theology of the Body which encompasses his theology on sexual matters, including marriage and contraception, has been both praised and criticized. As some liberals were known to say, “where most walk on the land and kiss the women, Pope John Paul walked on the women and kissed the soil.”

For me, though, I remember him most for the remarkable gift of forgiveness of the man who attempted to assassinate him. John Paul taught by his example.

Pope Benedict XVI

When Pope Benedict was proclaimed pope, I had some reservations. Prior to this I had known him as Cardinal Ratzinger, in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), or “RAT”zinger as my social justice friends would say, emphasis on rat. He was known as a hard-liner who condemned liberation theology and suppressed liberal theologians.

But I was determined to give him a chance and was pleasantly surprised to find that Pope Benedict was not like Cardinal Ratzinger. While still primarily a theologian, as pope, he took a more pastoral stance than he had as defender of the faith. Yes, he still defended the faith, but without charges of heresy or excommunications. He did not have the charisma of John Paul II, yet he was a good pope. When he realized he could no longer serve to the extent that his duties required because of his age, he gracefully stepped down and thereby set an important precedent.

Pope Francis

Enter today and our current pope. When I heard that a bishop from a Latin American country had been chosen, I was quietly excited. I’m older now and don’t get excited as easily as I did in my twenties. I know that change happens slowly in the Catholic Church, if at all, and have come to accept that. Still, here was a pope of my own mindset. A pope from a Latin American country. A pope who stood with the poor as the choice of the name Francis indicated. This was a pope I could get behind.

I continue to appreciate Pope Francis and his pastoral approach. Where Pope Benedict was a theologian, Francis is a pope of the people, something I personally prefer. And what even more, he has quietly gone about making changes in the Vatican, recruiting more women to positions of authority and remaking the curia and other offices of the church. Francis is the one who is cleaning out the swamp by his changes.

In the face of this, Francis is facing growing opposition from the hierarchy in the United States and those who are ultra-conservative. To me, he truly is a rock star.

I recently read the book, Pilgrimage: In Search of the Real Pope Francis, by Mark Shriver, and loved it. Shriver shares his own journey as he sought to know Pope Francis through meeting people that the pope knew and visiting the places where Pope Francis grew up and served. My respect for this pope and his concern for the least among has grown through getting to know him better.

The Three Popes I’ve Known

All three have faced criticism for their handling of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. All have failed in their handling of this crisis. But then, given all of the issues they needed to address, all three probably asked themselves, where do I put my limited time and energy? I know I’ve had to confront this question repeatedly while leading a Catholic parish without a full-time priest pastor. Everybody had their own idea where I should put my attention. I prayed and did the best I could. For a pope, the pressure in this regard must be a hundred-fold greater. I imagine they did their best.

No one is infallible, not even a pope. They only speak infallibly when speaking ex cathedra on church teaching. When speaking infallibly they use a specific language to let the faithful know that is what they are doing. Like all of us, they are fallible and yet entrusted to a great responsibility. They do the best that they can, under the guidance of God’s spirit.

I don’t believe anyone in 1978 realized the extent of the abuse that was just beginning to emerge or the impact it would have on the Church. I know I didn’t. Had he known then what we know now, I suspect John Paul II would have made this a higher priority.

I find myself asking, “what did the popes know and when did they know it?”  Then I question, were there exculpatory reasons to handle this crisis the way they did? In the present day where anyone who is accused is presumed guilty, popes can’t rush to make judgments. They need to weigh many sides, be aware of how this impacts the whole church. In the end, like me, I suspect they pray and do the best they can.

Current Situation

When I hear all of the negative remarks and controversy over Pope Francis in the American Catholic church, particularly by bishops, I’m shocked, though maybe I shouldn’t be given the state of our nation. How can these “traditionalists” and conservatives be so disrespectful of the office of the pope? This is a tradition that goes back to Peter. There are ways to disagree without attacking the person.

I didn’t agree one hundred percent with any of the three popes (shoot I don’t agree with myself one hundred percent of the times as I’m often in error and change my mind), but I respect the men and I respect the office. All three are good men, seeking to serve God and church using their own unique gifts. This has not always been the case as there have been self-serving popes in our past. Fortunately, the number of good popes far outnumber the bad ones.

The Catholic church has been fortunate to be led by such servants of God throughout the past forty-five years. I look forward to seeing what the next forty-five will bring.


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